Manchester, New Hampshire
John Kerry kept a bodyguard beside him at his town meeting in Somersworth, a working-class hamlet near the Maine border, two days before the primary. At least it appeared he had: The granite-jawed, gimlet-eyed face beneath the VFW hat festooned with unit badges looked ready in an instant to swing a mean left hook. But Kerry’s shadow man had only one arm and no legs. It was Max Cleland, former senator from Georgia, triply maimed by combat wounds in Vietnam. From his wheelchair at Kerry’s side throughout the ninety-minute question-and-answer session, Cleland maintained the unblinking gaze of a combat soldier on night watch–a silent dare to any antagonist.
Other Vietnam-era vets have run for President–John McCain in 2000, Wesley Clark this year. And every Democratic candidate shouts out that the Bush Administration has abandoned veterans even in the midst of war, from cutbacks in medical eligibility to loss of overtime pay.
Somehow Kerry’s candidacy and his veterans operation are different. Written off only a few weeks ago as heir to Gore’s Herman Munster stiffness, Kerry has–at least in two states–aroused a hidden constituency of people who see him as a loyal comrade who honors with stubborn memory the horrors they lived, in Southeast Asia and back home. Far more than Clark, Kerry–despite his elite family background–reflects the psychic rip still felt by many vets: the bonds forged by military service combined with a still-unhealed sense of betrayal by bad leadership in a bad cause. He is both the decorated battle veteran and the leader of veterans who threw their decorations back on the steps of the Capitol.
Kerry seems singularly committed to portraying himself not as a solitary hero but as part of a cohort. Everywhere he goes his advance party includes a phalanx of Vietnam vets: sometimes his friend Cleland; sometimes the graying, still passionately loyal crew of his Mekong Delta fast-attack boat; and nearly always since Iowa, the former Green Beret Kerry rescued thirty-five years ago who brought himself to the campaign days before the Iowa caucus.
“In 1971 John Kerry was saying the things I wanted so badly to say,” says Bill Doyle, now retired after a career as a Boston public high school teacher but thirty-three years ago newly returned from two years in the Army. In 1982 Doyle volunteered in Kerry’s first run for lieutenant governor, and this year, as a veterans outreach staffer, he is helping turn other Vietnam vets out for Kerry’s presidential campaign.