THIRTY YEARS AGO this week, John Forbes Kerry traveled to Capitol Hill to testify against the Vietnam War under the auspices of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). It was then that the former Navy officer posed this oft-quoted question to Congress: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
The anniversary of Kerry’s dramatic testimony raises another question: can a Vietnam veteran be elected president? The query hangs over Senator Kerry as he puts the very beginning touches on a 2004 presidential run. Although his office is officially focused on his Senate re-election campaign next year, Kerry is unofficially gearing up for a potential 2004 run. He’s already hit Tinseltown to line up the Hollywood heavy hitters. Earlier this month, he showed up at the Bel Air home of Lawrence Bender, producer of such films as Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting, and The Mexican, for a fundraising soirée. He’s also visited Jefferson-Jackson Day events in Georgia and Colorado, and in June he’ll address Washington State’s largest gathering of Democrats. If Kerry runs and wins, he’ll be doing what no other Vietnam veteran has been able to do.
The 2000 presidential campaign saw a Vietnam veteran, Al Gore, lose to a man who evaded combat by joining the Texas Air National Guard; Bush was assigned to train in Alabama but never showed up for duty, as the Globe reported last October. Gore not only refused to make Bush’s de facto AWOL status an issue in the campaign, but also played down his own status as a veteran. The public’s continuing ambivalence about the war — which divided the country and saw tens of thousands of men make the same sort of decision Bush did in order to avoid combat — made it difficult, if not impossible, to make much of Bush’s actions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And since Gore himself served in a non-combat role as an Army journalist, the vice-president seemed loath to play up his service. In his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention, Gore said: “I was an Army reporter in Vietnam. When I was there I didn’t do the most or run the gravest danger, but I was proud to wear my country’s uniform.” Because neither man saw combat, both the public and the candidates themselves seemed to view their wartime actions as morally equivalent.
Almost every man elected president since 1968 has had to deal with Vietnam in some way or another. In 1968, Vietnam was the campaign’s central issue. Lyndon Baines Johnson refused to run for re-election; Richard Nixon won the White House with his “secret plan” to end the war. In 1976, Jimmy Carter made points with the electorate by promising pardons for those who fled the US to evade the draft. In 1980, Ronald Reagan leveraged post-Vietnam and hostage-crisis malaise to a landslide victory over Carter. In 1988 George Bush selected Dan Quayle, first among the Republican chicken hawks, as his running mate — a move that almost capsized his presidential contest against Michael Dukakis. Bill Clinton had to fend off attacks for having essentially dodged the draft, but in the 1992 Democratic primary he easily defeated Senator Robert Kerrey of Nebraska, a Navy veteran who had been awarded the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military honor.
But among all of these presidential candidates — as well as those likely to run in the foreseeable future — only Kerry can place on his résumé both heroic service in America’s most controversial war and high-profile public protest against it. In many ways, Kerry is the perfect candidate for a public still coming to terms with the 30-year-old war. Should Kerry run, he’d do so amid a shifting cultural climate that’s grown far more sympathetic to veterans. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 masterpiece Saving Private Ryan sparked a wave of renewed interest not just in World War II but in veterans of all America’s wars. The same can be said for Tom Brokaw’s runaway bestseller about World War II veterans, The Greatest Generation. Time will tell whether Touchstone Pictures’ Pearl Harbor, a May-release film starring Ben Affleck about the Japanese bombing raid that plunged the US into World War II, will do the same.
Kerry also has something else working in his favor. If he runs in 2004, it would be in the wake of Arizona senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. McCain, who spent six hellish years in the North Vietnamese prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton, was ultimately unsuccessful, but he broke ground simply by being able to talk about his background as a veteran. That was in stark contrast to Nebraska senator Kerrey’s 1992 campaign, which played up his service on the stump but not in his television advertising. It contrasts even more starkly with Kerrey’s first run as governor of Nebraska. Kerrey recalls that one of the first things the press wanted to know was whether he suffered “flashbacks” from his time in Vietnam. The changing social climate toward veterans “will help him much more than it helped me in ’91 and ’92,” says Kerrey, who now serves as president of the New School University in Manhattan. “We’ve learned a lot, if you ask me.”
THE MEDIA’S treatment of John Kerry was forged into a template with a 1985 Washington Post profile of the newly elected senator titled “The Vietnam War Hero, the Protester, the Senator.” The Boston Globe’s Charles Sennott retold the tale during Kerry’s hard-fought 1996 campaign against former governor William Weld, in a richly detailed 4400-word profile rife with description of the “lush green palms and mangroves” of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. And Kerry was featured in An Unfinished Symphony, a 2001 documentary that played at the New England Film & Video Festival last month. The film perpetuates the leftist narrative of US involvement in Vietnam: that of the American soldier, trained by his country to be a killer, who returns home from the war to protest it.
As detailed as these stories were, few have had the opportunity to delve into the nuances of Kerry’s feelings about that time, which have changed along with public perceptions of the war. With the 30th anniversary of his testimony before Congress approaching, the Phoenix asked him to talk about his wartime experiences and how he feels about them now. He agreed.
Early Patriots’ Day morning, Kerry and two aides greeted me in front of his Louisburg Square home. Kerry wore a brown leather bomber jacket festooned with patches designating the Navy units with which he served in Vietnam. (The jacket serves as his regular casual wear; he changed into a navy-blue blazer in time for a veterans’ event later that day.) We set out in a Chrysler mini-van for Hopkinton, the start of the Boston Marathon, where Kerry was to fire the starters’ pistol for the wheelchair race.