Eyes always on the prize

John F. Kerry
July 23, 2004

Susan Carruthers thinks the middle name of JFK the second is Flexibility.

For many Americans, bearing the initials JFK might be an encumbrance: a measure by which any ordinary life would fall short. But for John Forbes Kerry, the mantle was embraced early as a destiny: a mark of the bearer's providential claim to the presidency. According to the authors of this biography, unerring ambition constitutes Kerry's single consistent characteristic. From infancy to adolescence, from patrol-boat commander in Vietnam to long-term Massachusetts Senator, he has fashioned an entire life with the occupancy of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in mind. Now, as George Bush's stock plummets, and crowds queue to jeer the President at sold-out screenings of Fahrenheit 9/11 , Kerry's aspiration edges closer to achievement.

But who is the presidential pretender? On what platform does his challenge rest? For The Boston Globe team, whose extended profiles from June 2003 form the basis of this full-length portrait, the answer - like their quarry - is blowing in the wind. Everything about Kerry's past and principles that seems solid melts into air on inspection. For every stand taken, there is a slip. A hasty reinvention or a semantic sleight of hand allows Kerry to slither away as expediency later dictates. Nothing is quite as it seems.

It never was, apparently. The scene duly opens on the original "creation myth": how the Jewish Kohns of Austria became the Catholic Kerrys of Vienna, and thence of Boston. In family lore, the name change appears as serendipitous happenstance: a pin stabbed blindly into an atlas. For The Boston Globe reporters, this vignette forms an exemplary instance of twin tendencies towards opportunism and dissimulation. Sure, the Kohns sought to avoid anti-Semitic persecution in inhospitable Austro-Hungary. But by implication they were also canny discarders of awkward aspects of their heritage. This gift for reinvention enabled Frederick Kerry ( Fritz Kohn) to accumulate no fewer than three fortunes as a new immigrant in America.

But, shrewder at making money than keeping it, he took his own life in 1921 amid the gilded surroundings of Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel, where his grandson's political triumphs would later be fêted.

With this, the stage is set, the leitmotif established. Chameleonism is a survival strategy, but it is also a game with high stakes. As an expensively educated schoolboy, doyen of a string of debating societies, Kerry could argue both sides of both sides, seemingly with equal ease and conviction. In fact, young John could do most things with enviable accomplishment.

In his late teens, he dated Jackie Kennedy's half-sister. A high-flier in every sense, he proved a skilful sportsman, stuntman and amateur pilot. At Yale University, where he may have encountered George W. Bush (but claims not to recall), both belonged to the elite Skull and Bones society, whose initiates included Richard Pershing (grandson of the First World War general) and Harvey Bundy (nephew of McGeorge and William). The "Bonesmen" of Kerry's cohort agreed that war makes men. Whatever scruples they harboured about the wisdom of America's war in Vietnam, they enlisted nonetheless. Several of Kerry's intimate friends did not return. Bush and Bill Clinton, by contrast, never set off or headed hastily in the opposite direction.

Vietnam is the best-known chapter in Kerry's history. The war story might appear harder to fit into a pattern of subsequent disavowal and denial. Yet even here Kerry's biographers trace recurrent themes. "I wanted to be there and be part of it, make my contribution, have a sense of what it was all about," Kerry later claimed. Seeking to reprise JFK's military record in the Second World War, he served as gung-ho commander of a navy swift boat.

It remains unclear, the biographers insist, quite how close he came to losing his life. It is a matter of record, however, that he took lives - and that he subsequently became an impassioned critic of the freedom with which fire was unleashed on Vietnamese civilians, and of the absolution US servicemen enjoyed from prosecution for war crimes.

According to a current Kerry slogan, "Patriotism is not blind." In Vietnam, he saw a good deal he thought dishonoured his country. As an angry veteran, he determined that patriotism not be mute either. Three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star lent Kerry authority to speak out on the atrocities. His record of service enabled him to organise the Vietnam Veterans against the War without jeopardising his patriotic credentials.

Leadership of VVAW catapulted him into national media attention. On April 22, 1971, the -year-old Kerry delivered the "most famous speech of his life" to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Cataloguing a list of atrocities - US soldiers had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power" - Kerry demanded of the Nixon administration: "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?"

If these are his most celebrated words, the meaning of his most famous gesture remains murkier. The day after the speech, Kerry, along with other veterans, threw away his medals in a symbolic gesture on Capitol Hill - or so it seemed. In fact, while the ribbons he disposed of were his own, the medals, he later asserted, were someone else's. Even at this early date, The Boston Globe journalists suggest, the ambitious politico had one eye on the cameras and the other on preserving "plausible deniability", should such defiance later become a liability. Unlike more radical vets, Kerry distanced himself from assaults on "the system". He did not want to dismantle it, he wanted to assume its leadership. To that end, his record as both war hero and antiwar protester has formed a strong but flexible suit.

After a failed bid for a congressional seat at 28, Kerry spent ten years racking up useful experience and a network of influential connections in the Boston District Attorney's office. After a stint as Lieutenant Governor, he set his sights on the Senate in 1984, and became a Senator at the age of 41. But for The Boston Globe , the Massachusetts representative seems to owe rather too much to misrepresentation. In a constituency where Irish-American roots undoubtedly count, Kerry never corrects the obvious ancestral assumption his name generates. In blue-collar Boston, his patrician air accentuates his natural aloofness, yet the assumption that Kerry is buoyed by a family fortune is also chimerical. His personal wealth derives less from patrimony than matrimony. Divorced from the aristocratic Julia Thorne, Kerry is now married to the widowed heiress of the Heinz ("57 varieties") fortune.

As legislator, Kerry has tried (or so his critics state) to "create a record so broad it becomes one big Rorschach ink blot in the minds of the electorate". But the book itself also emerges as disingenuously blotchy.

Like its subject, the biography is both a product of and productive of a crisis in American liberalism. The authors' own insinuations reveal rather more about the source of Kerry's evasions than their delvings into his character. Their most strident criticism is inconsistency: their man's maddening refusal to take a stand. Without enunciating an explicit position themselves, the authors nevertheless imply disapprobation for many of the progressive views Kerry has espoused. They strongly suggest that a man who opposed the MX missile, decried the invasion of Grenada, visited Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua to unearth Ronald Reagan's illicit funding of the Contras and urged a diplomatic solution after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, is not someone to whom Americans can safely entrust their security.

Kerry concurs. However, he now maintains that his advocacy of sanctions in 1991 was meant not to stymie war but afford "leverage" over Saddam. And over the current occupation of Iraq, he has flailingly tried to distance himself from Bush's unilateralism while insisting that the US troops there are unquestioningly supported. The hawkish Boston Globe reporters signal that Americans cannot trust such a mercurial candidate, who can give the impressions of being both hawk and dove.

Both biography and candidate, then, exemplify a collapse of liberal self-confidence: a phenomenon more deep-seated than one man's paucity of principle or weakness of will (whichever is productive of Kerry's flip-flops). As the "vital centre" of US politics has shifted right, the ground for a sustained liberal assault on welfare shrinkage and military escalation has turned to quicksand. Far from challenging the Republican recipe for global hegemony and homeland defence, Democrats are so keen to prove their fitness for government that they promise not to downsize American ambition but rather to dispatch more US troops overseas and leave them there longer. At a time when many Americans are beginning to ask the very same question the young Kerry put to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, Kerry the Democratic contender looks set to sacrifice more lives "for a mistake" than his Republican rival, Bush. As Kerry taunted Bush on the campaign trail: "If George Bush wants to make this election about national security, I have three words for him he'll understand: Bring... it... onI."

So Kerry does occupy a position - however shiftily. The degree to which he was pushed into it - in part by the kind of probing of his "defence deficit" pursued by The Boston Globe team - remains moot and his private preferences, as ever, are evanescent. But if his pugnacious posture causes alarm, the issue is ultimately less Kerry's vacillation than the existence of a US political milieu in which it seems impossible for a presidential hopeful to espouse a more progressive politics than the incumbent and still be deemed electable by liberals and conservatives alike.

It used to be said that Americans vote on the basis of which presidential contender they would sooner buy a beer for. Tellingly, Kerry projects himself as "a good person to be in a foxhole with". Whether fearful American voters, believing themselves to be beleaguered, will wish to bunker down with Kerry or buy another round for Bush remains highly uncertain.

Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.

John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters who Know Him Best

Author - Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton
Publisher - PublicAffairs
Pages - 448
Price - £11.99
ISBN - 1 58648 3 4

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