In the heat of battle, with his campaign crumbling, Howard Dean lashed out at John Kerry. First, he called the leader in the Democratic presidential race a “Republican.” Then he said, “When Senator Kerry’s record is examined by the public at a more leisurely time…he’s going to turn out to be just like George Bush.”
Just like George Bush? It is true that Kerry, another Yalie and Skull and Bones alum, has voted in favor of NAFTA and other corporate-friendly trade pacts, that he once raised questions about affirmative action (while still supporting it), that he has, like almost every Democratic senator, accepted contributions from special-interest lobbyists (while being one of the few to eschew political action committee donations), that he voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq. But this hardly makes him Bush lite. There is, as evidence, his nineteen-year Senate record, during which he has voted consistently in favor of abortion rights and environmental policies, opposed Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, led the effort against drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, pushed for higher fuel economy standards, advocated boosting the minimum wage and pressed for global warming remedies. But what distinguishes Kerry’s career are key moments when he displayed guts and took tough actions that few colleagues would imitate. One rap on Kerry is that he is overly cautious and conventional. He’s no firebrand on the stump, nor does he come across as the most passionate and exciting force for change. But his history in Washington includes episodes in which he demonstrated a willingness to confront hard issues, to challenge power, to pursue values rather than political advantage, to take risks for the public interest.
Kerry arrived in the Senate in 1985. This Vietnam War hero turned antiwar leader had been lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. But he entered the body more as the prosecutor he had been in the late 1970s after graduating from Boston College law school. In early 1986 Kerry’s office was contacted by a Vietnam vet who alleged that the support network for the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras (who were fighting against the socialist Sandinistas in power) was linked to drug traffickers. Kerry doubted that the Reagan Administration, obsessed with supporting the contras, would investigate such charges. He pushed for a Senate inquiry and a year later, as chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee, obtained approval to conduct a probe.
It was not an easy ride. Reagan Justice Department officials sought to discredit and stymie his investigation. Republicans dismissed it. One anti-Kerry effort used falsified affidavits to make it seem his staff had bribed witnesses. The Democratic staff of the Senate Iran/contra committee–which showed little interest in the contra drug connection–often refused to cooperate. “They were fighting us tooth and nail,” recalls Jack Blum, one of Kerry’s investigators. “We had the White House and the CIA against us on one side and our colleagues in the Senate on the other. But Kerry told us, ‘Keep going.’ He didn’t let this stuff faze him.”
Kerry’s inquiry widened to look at Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas, Honduras and Panama. In 1989 he released a report that slammed the Reagan Administration for neglecting or undermining anti-drug efforts in order to pursue other foreign policy objectives. It noted that the government in the 1970s and ’80s had “turned a blind eye” to the corruption and drug dealing of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had done various favors for Washington (including assisting the contras). The report concluded 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, it added, US government agencies–meaning the CIA and the State Department–had known this.