Halfway through Tim Russert’s hourlong interview with Demo- cratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry on April 18, there was an exchange that revealed in microcosm some of the fundamental unspoken rules of American politics in our day. Russert played a clip from Kerry’s 1971 appearance on Meet the Press following his testimony as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A long-haired Kerry, in uniform, was seen saying that he stood by the essence of his testimony, in which he had said that veterans had admitted they had “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power.” He added that under the Geneva Conventions such acts were war crimes.
Russert did not play the tape to congratulate Kerry for his truth-telling. On the contrary, he was clearly calling him on the carpet. He even suggested that “a lot” of Kerry’s allegations had been discredited. In fact, every word that Kerry spoke then has been shown to be true in an abundance of testimony. Even now, new revelations pour out. For example, the Toledo Blade just won the Pulitzer Prize for unearthing the story of an army company that went on a seven-month rampage in Vietnam, routinely killing peasants, burning villages, cutting off the ears of corpses. Troops in the field can hardly engage in such conduct over a period of months without the knowledge and at least tacit approval of higher authority.
Kerry answered warily. He began by trying to make light of the clip. “Where did all that dark hair go?–that’s a big question for me,” he joked. He went on to say that although some of his language had been “excessive,” he was still proud of the stand he had taken. His predicament is worth pondering. The powers that be, with the approval of mainstream opinion, had sent him into a misbegotten war whose awful reality they covered up. When he helped uncover it, it was not they but he who was punished. In short, by sending young men into an atrocious, mistaken war, they created a truth so distasteful to the public that its disclosure, by discrediting the discloser, keeps them in power. Was Kerry “flip-flopping”–the Bush Administration’s main campaign charge against him? Was he all-too-characteristically trying to back off from a position he had once taken while at the same time embracing it? And didn’t this performance echo his complicated and equivocal stance on the Iraq war, in which he has said that his vote in the Senate to authorize the President to use armed force against Iraq was “not a vote to go to war” and that in 2003 he voted “for” the $87 billion supplemental authorization for the war “before” he voted “against it” (a statement the Republicans are making political hay with in a current TV ad)?
Kerry’s equivocations are indeed related. For if as a soldier in Vietnam in 1968 and ’69 he was brought face to face with one reality–the human reality of the war–then as a presidential candidate in 2004 he has been driven up against another–the political reality that no antiwar candidate of modern times has ever made it into the White House. One might think that Kerry’s good sense and bravery in opposing the Vietnam War three decades ago might stand him in good stead today. (How many Americans now think getting into Vietnam was a good idea?) But as the Russert interview shows, just the opposite is the case. It is Kerry’s bravery as a soldier fighting the mistaken war, not his bravery as a veteran opposing it, that helps him in his bid for the presidency.