It was not supposed to be this way–at least, that’s what Democrats thought. John Kerry was not supposed to be heading into the final stretch of the election defending himself from the charge always thrown at Democrats by Republicans: you’re a wimp and not serious about national security.
George McGovern, a WWII pilot, was derided as a defeatist peacenik by the Nixon goons. Walter Mondale was portrayed as not sufficiently concerned about the Soviet threat by the Reagan Team. Michael Dukakis was mocked by the first Bush squad–especially after Dukakis took a tank ride wearing a helmet that made him look like Mickey Mouse. Bill Clinton was blasted for having been a draft-dodger and an antiwar Soviet symp.
Kerry, the Democrats said, would be invulnerable to this same-old attack. He was a Vietnam war hero who had earned medals for his combat actions. And on top of that, he had come home and courageously opposed a war now widely regarded as a colossal mistake. Yet the Bush campaign and its allies still have managed to define Kerry (for many voters) as a weakling, as a flip-flopper, as a spineless, finger-in-the-wind pol who has voted against military spending and who lacks the fortitude and decisiveness to be commander-in-chief and protect America from its enemies.
The election is far from over, but polls show many more voters believe Bush is strong than those who say the same about Kerry. In these polls, Kerry has a big edge when voters are asked whether the candidates are intelligent, but according to the same surveys, voters think that Bush is better able to manage both the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism. Bush, who used family connections to avoid the draft and then failed to live up to all his National Guard obligations, has positioned himself as the candidate of strength. And Kerry, like many past Democratic candidates, has been placed on the defensive. The Swift Vets hurled unsubstantiated charges at him regarding his Vietnam service and succeeded in raising questions. The Bush campaign and its surrogates have ridiculed Kerry and succeeded in raising questions about his leadership ability.
This was not what Democrats anticipated. A powerful reminder of that is George Butler’s new film, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which is based on Douglas Brinkley’s book, Tour of Duty, and chronicles Kerry’s Vietnam experience. Butler, who has known Kerry for 40 years, helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reputation with the 1977 documentary, Pumping Iron. He won’t have any such luck with his latest film. It is being released in a highly politicized environment after much debate about Kerry’s Vietnam record has already occurred and after Kerry has taken much incoming.
The film, put together before the Swift Vets created a phony brouhaha, does not respond directly to the evidence-free allegations tossed at Kerry by this GOP-financed band of anti-Kerry vets. And the documentary does lean toward hagiography. But it does convincingly portray Kerry as a decisive, daring, thoughtful, and soulful man. It covers his time as a medal-winning war hero. (“Every day John Kerry made decisions that saved the lives of the crew of that boat,” one of his Swift boat crewmates say. “I would not have had all these extra days. I would be on a wall somewhere.”) It shows that he has contemplated deeply the horror of war and the responsibilities of leadership. In one scene, he poignantly wonders about an unidentified Vietnamese man who lies dead–with no honor, no glory–as Kerry and his comrades inspect a set of buildings where a battle had occurred.
But Butler, unlike the planners of the Democratic convention, has devoted more time to Kerry’s antiwar activism than his combat derring-do. He follows him through the Winter Soldiers conference (where former GIs told of atrocities they had conducted or witnessed), through his involvement with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, through the group’s protest in Washington (when veterans threw their medals, ribbons and citations on to the steps of the US Capitol), through his now-famous testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
When you’re done reading this article,visit David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on Kerry’s plan for the debates, Bush’s embrace of High School Politics 101, the supposedly aborted Bush plan to secretly muck about in the coming Iraqi elections, Bush’s (false!) claim that the Taliban no longer exists, and a field report on an less-than-encouraging Democratic response to a GOP effort to suppress the vote.
Repeatedly Butler showcases Kerry as intelligent, articulate, deliberative, and pensive. When he participates in the medal-returning ceremony, Kerry does not launch into an angry speech, as did many of his comrades. Instead, he quietly says, according to witnesses, “I don’t do this to oppose anyone. I am only doing this to help my country wake up.” He then sits on the Mall, apart from the protesting vets, alone with his wife. (Butler does not address the pre-Swift Vet criticism that Kerry had given inaccurate accounts of this episode.) Butler presents Kerry addressing a large crowd of antiwar demonstrators. His words eerily carry a current ring to them:
“This is not the struggle of one day or one month or one year or of one war. It’s a struggle and an effort and a sacrifice and a contribution which we make for the rest of our lives. Though men of small mind and less character may project themselves on to their fellow citizens and suggest that an America that admits its mistakes will turn into a craven, hollow place, we will continue this struggle because this country is bigger than they are and it is bigger than any of us here.”
And toward the end of the film, Butler introduces a soundbite from a Kerry interview in which Kerry observes that Vietnam was “a moment this country confronted and didn’t confront a lot of things. We haven’t finished that confrontation. We haven’t learned those lessons yet.” In Butler’s account, Kerry is not only intelligent but prescient.
Butler’s Kerry could be the conscience of America. He did his duty. Then he returned home to do a different and perhaps more important sort of duty, noting always that dissent and questioning were integral to that never-ending mission of insuring that America lives up to its promise. Imagine a documentary that tracked George W. Bush in 1972, when he went months without showing up for his National Guard training.
The film shows Kerry as a man of substance. But Kerry–facing constant attack from the Bush crew–has not yet persuaded enough of the electorate that this is an accurate depiction. Maybe being in the Senate for so long is not good for one’s soul. Perhaps Kerry tripped himself up by pondering too much the intricacies and the politics of the war in Iraq. Still, it has been a while since a presidential nominee had such a great back story. Kerry needs to show voters a current version of the man that appears in Going Upriver. With so much enemy fire coming from a foe that does not hesitate to lob mischaracterizations and false accusations at him, Kerry may find it hard, perhaps even impossible, to connect the Kerry of today to the Kerry of Butler’s film. But unless he can convey the qualities Butler captured–dedication to principle, leadership, the ability to inspire–Kerry will find himself (along with his party and the millions who support him) up the river and without a paddle.
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For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.