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Saturday, July 31, 2004

Bret Stephens on Kerry and his past

JPost: This column will have gone to press by the time Senator John Kerry accepts the nomination Thursday night. But at least this much can be confidently predicted:

  • Kerry will not remind voters of his participation in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
  • He will say nothing about his 1971 congressional testimony that US soldiers in Vietnam had committed atrocities "in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."
  • He will not dwell on his years of service as Michael Dukakis's lieutenant governor in Massachusetts.
  • He will elide any reference to his 1991 vote against the first Gulf War.
  • He will not lay stress on his vote for the Patriot Act, nor on his vote for making war on Iraq, nor on the one against the $87 billion in reconstruction aid.

What is almost certain is that Kerry will dwell – allusively, literally, and metaphorically – on his heroic service record in Vietnam. This is to emphasize that he's a fighter, a leader, a faithful comrade, a man who can sail the ship of state as well and as bravely as he navigated his swift boat in the Mekong river delta. And when he's done with the speech, it will be the "band of brothers," not Michael Moore, who will join him on stage.

It would, of course, be churlish to fault Kerry for touting his war record. True, in February 1992, he gave an impassioned speech in the well of the Senate (apropos the controversy over then-candidate Bill Clinton's non-service in Vietnam) arguing that

"we do not need to divide America over who served and how."

But set that aside. Kerry, as his wife put it, "earned his medals the old-fashioned way," and he's entitled to put them to whichever use suits him best.

The real question, however, is whether – and then to what extent – Kerry should be entitled to make selective use of his past. In George W. Bush's case, the past is not a problem: Aside from his tenures as governor and president, he has none to run on. But Kerry does have a past, rich in incident and ambiguous in meaning. He can honorably choose to distance himself from it; to ask voters to judge him entirely on his ideas for the future. That's what Clinton did in 1992. Or he can say, "this is where I'm from; this is all that I have done; this, then, is who I am."

. . . . Kerry does something else. For him, the past is not a seamless, indivisible, single thing, but a menu of alternative identities from which he chooses one thing one day, another thing the next. These identities are available to him because he's been, or assumed, each of them before: the war hero, the anti-war hero. The moderate, the liberal. The foreign policy hawk, the foreign policy dove. The Catholic, the secularist – even, it turns out, the Jew.

The point of all this is not actually to bamboozle the American voter into believing Kerry is something he's not. It's more subtle. Kerry is asking voters to join him in a very particular kind of lie. When he dons one identity – say, the politically moderate war hero – something in his expression seems to say to whichever constituency must presently be ignored: You know, this is not the real me. If I tack Leftward now, it's because these are the primaries; if I tack center-ward later, it's because this is the election. The effectiveness of the lie consists in its flattery: Everyone gets a special wink; everyone is in on the secret of who Kerry really is, even if that means different things to different people.

Up to a point, you might say it's no big deal. Of course politicians need to be all things to all people. Of course politicians have to tack this way and that. Of course they emphasize the strong points in their resume, not the weak ones. Of course voters understand the games politicians play. To no small extent, the measure of political fitness has become the deftness with which a candidate can package and repackage himself to suit the occasion.

. . . . As a matter of policy-making, the proper role of an executive is not to weigh issues or package them, but to decide them. Politics may be the art of keeping alternatives open, but policy-making ultimately involves shutting alternatives down. We will do this, and therefore not that. And "this" will have consequences, as will "not that," and those consequences are irrevocable.

The peril of candidates like Kerry lies in their deep reluctance, born of old habit, to postpone decisions, and therefore consequences, for as long as they can. But this has consequences of its own.


If you're interested in reading current opinions of VietNam vets, I found this one by Jeremiah Leigh at AirbornePress.com

C-SPAN is a good resource for information on the presidential candidates.

I also found at C-SPAN that you can ONLINE! No excuses.