By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When he was in his 20s, John Kerry was one of the ballsiest guys around. As a naval officer in the Vietnam War, where he saw heavy combat on a regular basis on the wild and woolly waterways of the Mekong Delta, he was bold, even reckless.
Kerry had severe misgivings about the wisdom of U.S. policy in Vietnam but not only joined the Navy but transferred off the relative safety of being a junior officer on a frigate guarding an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam to become skipper of a small patrol craft called a Swift boat. This was the Brown Water Navy, and though Kerry spent little more than a year in it, it has in large measure defined his life.
During less than five months as skipper of first one, then when that was shot up, another Swift boat, Kerry gained a reputation as a particularly bold special operator, earning one of the nation’s highest medals for valor, the Silver Star, in the process, along with a Bronze Star for reversing course to save a Green Beret under heavy enemy fire and three awards of the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
According to Navy doctrine, Kerry was not merely a bold officer, he was an arguably reckless officer.
During the engagement in which he won the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for bravery in combat, he placed himself and his crew at grave risk by turning and charging enemy fire from the shore, beaching his Swift boat and leaping ashore from its prow to chase down a Viet Cong soldier armed with a grenade launcher and an AK-47 assault rifle. Kerry shot the man dead with his pistol.
As a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry was again bold, even reckless. But as a senator, Kerry has frequently been viewed as a cautious figure, even to a fault. The caution began when he entered politics. Although a major anti-war star, Kerry at the start of the first Congressional race did not support George McGovern, the peace candidate, for the Democratic presidential nomination. He supported Edmund Muskie, the Maine Senator.
As organizer and spokesman for VVAW, Kerry became for a time the most famous anti-war leader around, galvanizing much of the country in 1971 as he and other vets tossed away ribbons and medals, the former champion debater asking assembled senators, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
It earned Kerry a prominent spot on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” and upped the ante substantially on a 20-something life. “What he did because he was a war hero added what none of the rest of us could,” says Tom Hayden, “and made him a target for all kinds of resentments.”
Indeed, in the Senate, though he very much has the pedigree of an insider, and has functioned as an insider in terms of the legislative logrolling by which much of the hidden work of the Senate gets done, Kerry has often seemed an outsider, indulging in literary quotations as he did in his 20s with his voluminous and well-written war diaries.
It’s hard to point to many legislative accomplishments, though Kerry has championed higher car-fuel-efficiency standards, helped block oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness and has been an active Earth summiteer on global warming. He played his most critical role through skillful leadership of a Senate committee on the fate of Vietnam War POWs and MIAs, disposing of the Rambo myth of the Communist country holding many American POWs. That led to the normalization of relations with Vietnam.
Kerry flashed his Vietnam-era boldness not as a legislator but as an investigating senator, bringing out some of the seamy underside of official America. He did much to expose the Iran/Contra scandal, the web of U.S. links with deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and the corrupt nexus of arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, and international influence peddling around the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. In the latter he exposed the front-man role of former Secretary of State Clark Clifford, Washington super-lobbyist and Democratic icon.
Despite intense pressure, Kerry didn’t back down and Clifford ended his career in disgrace. Perhaps burned by the experience, Kerry’s investigative boldness came to an end, leaving critics to point to his paucity of bills.
Lawrence O’Donnell, a friend of Kerry’s from his days as top aide to the late Senate powerhouse Daniel Patrick Moynihan, says that Kerry has helped pass many bills that don’t bear his name. “It’s almost impossible to explain how the Senate works,” says O’Donnell, a producer of The West Wing, whose short-lived NBC series Mister Sterling had Kerry’s L.A.-based daughter Alexandra in a small role as a Senate aide. “John has also focused tremendously on foreign policy,” he points out, “where senators accomplish things more by influencing executive policy rather than names on bills. Then there is the Teddy [Kennedy] factor, being in the shadow of a legislative demon from your state, most famous Dem of all.”