Defining John Kerry
In the Senate Kerry made his bones as a prosecutor rather than a legislator. In the spring of 1986, he assigned staffers to investigate whether the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were involved in drug trafficking and gunrunning. Kerry's inquiry stumbled into Oliver North's still-secret contra support network, and for several years Kerry pursued the cocaine-contra angle. It was a lonely endeavor. The investigators of the House-Senate Iran/contra committee were steering clear of the contra-drugs business. "Kerry took crap from everybody," recalls Jack Blum, who ran the investigation. "The White House was telling the press our witnesses were full of shit, the story was crazy. There were Democrats in the Senate--like Sam Nunn--looking at us like we were nuts. And he kept going. Did he enjoy it? No. He was frustrated that so much of our work was written off by the Senate and much of the press."
After three years of digging--and several hearings that discomfited the CIA--Kerry produced a report that declared, "It is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking...and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers." And, the report indicated, the CIA had been aware of this. Kerry's findings provoked little reaction in the media and official Washington. Almost a decade later, the CIA inspector general would release a study confirming these conclusions. The contra probe led Kerry into other muckpits. He discovered that the US government had long sat on information regarding the crimes of Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up dictator of Panama. The Noriega investigation drew Kerry to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a $23 billion institution used by money launderers, arms merchants, drug dealers, terrorists and spy services, including the CIA. Good work, Democratic senators sarcastically told him, investigating a bank that maintained relationships with prominent Democrats including Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young and Clark Clifford. The first President Bush openly attacked Kerry, who publicly accused the White House of trying to dig up dirt on him. In 1992 his subcommittee issued a report that assailed the CIA, the Justice Department and US banking regulators for having "failed to recognize and contain the international bank fraud of BCCI."
By then, Kerry was on to his next excavation: an inquiry into Vietnam POWs and MIAs. For years, self-styled POW advocates and relatives of the 2,200 unaccounted-for veterans had kept alive the notion that Americans remained in captivity in Southeast Asia. That idea had become an obstacle to normalizing US-Vietnam relations. With this probe, Kerry aimed to bring a close to the war. He visited Vietnam. His committee forced the declassification of massive amounts of government records. Its final report, issued in 1993, found, "There is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." This carefully crafted conclusion would not put to rest speculation and conspiracy theories. But Kerry's work on this front--conducted hand in hand with John McCain--eased the way toward establishing relations between the two nations.
"Each investigation--it's all about Vietnam," says a former aide. "You have to expose government lies so you can restore trust in government, to keep the Establishment--John Kerry's Establishment--honest."
Over the years, Kerry has guardedly discussed his Vietnam service. "I feel as if I've been living it for a long time," he says. "I just would like not to. It's not where my life is." Yet friends and advisers note that Vietnam is a piece of his past and psyche never too distant. "John has a restless quality," remarks a friend of thirty years. "That may be his nature, but a lot is tied to the war. At times, he puts himself out of the situation he's in. He is a little plagued. That's not crazy. To take what happened and think about it is not stupid." Kerry's political lieutenants seem happy with the prospect of placing his war record front and center in a presidential campaign. "The war thing is an effective piece of protection for a Democrat," says one adviser. "He had it both ways on the war."
When Kerry talks about the war these days, he looks to smooth the rough edges that linger from that time. He no longer feels that the architects of the war deserve to be tagged "war criminals"--a phrase he once hurled at them. In a recent interview, he said, "I believe very deeply it was a noble effort to begin with.... But we misjudged history. We misjudged our own country. We misjudged our strategy. And we fell into a dark place." In his view, the war was a well-intentioned venture that went awry, and "the faults in Vietnam were those of the war, not the warriors." That is, the guilt is collective, not individual. In 1971 Kerry acknowledged his participation in the war's brutality, bitterly noting, "I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers." Thirty years later, the harshness is gone. He says he has no interest in casting blame. He does not pronounce judgments that divide or alienate.