The Trial of John Kerry
By: William Rivers Pitt - 12/10/03
One of these days, this will be a textbook case for political science professors to use as a teaching tool.
Here is a Democratic candidate for the Oval Office in a year when the liberal base of the party is almost completely unified in its disgust for the sitting Republican President. The candidate, a Senator, has a 20-year liberal voting record to admire: He is peerless on the environment, a staunch defender of a woman’s right to choose, completely reliable across the whole spectrum of gay rights issues, totally solid on education, an advocate for campaign finance reform and health care reform, and will fight to the death to keep Social Security fully funded and reliable. It is the liberal base of the party that turns out to vote in the primaries, so the candidate’s record gives him an immediate advantage.
Add to the scenario a campaign season dominated by foreign policy issues. The candidate is a Vietnam veteran who wears Purple Hearts next to a Bronze and Silver Star, giving him a ‘real deal’ quality compared to the sitting President, who used family influence to avoid that conflict. The candidate served for several years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, affording him the justifiable claim that he is a seasoned professional when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world.
This experience is tempered by wisdom and hard knowledge; the disgust and horror experienced by the candidate during Vietnam had an almost mythic quality, and led him to become a prominent voice against the war upon his return home, so much so that he earned a spot on Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List.” His service in combat, coupled with his principled stand against the Vietnam war and his time on the Foreign Relations Committee, has forged a whole man. This serves him well in the primaries with fence-sitters, and with people who might think Democrats are “soft on national defense.”
This is the point at which the professor will lean against his podium and ask his class to theorize on how well such a candidate would do in a crowded field in the run-up to the primaries. Would he run away with the nomination? Dominate the conversation? Be way ahead in many states and tightly competitive in others? Of course that candidate will win, the class will respond. The professor, with a puckish grin, will instruct the class to turn to page 214 of their textbooks, and read the history of John Kerry’s Presidential run in the fall and winter of 2003.
John Kerry’s liberal record in the Senate is remarkable in its depth and consistency. His public stand against the Vietnam war, augmented by his status as a decorated veteran of that conflict, made history. His attacks on the Reagan administration, his fight to expose the Iran-Contra/BCCI scandal, are among the main reasons the public became schooled on those travesties. His time on the Foreign Relations Committee places him head and shoulders above the other Democratic candidates in terms of real-world foreign policy experience.
Yet today, John Kerry teeters on the edge of total irrelevancy in the race for the White House. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean holds a double-digit lead over Kerry in New Hampshire, and is leading or surging elsewhere. Kerry’s campaign suffered a blowout several weeks ago when he fired his campaign manager, an act that led to the resignations of several other prominent staffers. While this may have ultimately been a healthy bloodletting, it caused the national press to write stories about “The Ailing Kerry Campaign,” obscuring any and all policy discussions that would have served his run.
On Monday night, the Associated Press reported the huge news that Al Gore had decided to publicly endorse Howard Dean. Was Gore’s endorsement a repudiation of the DLC? Is he publicly distancing himself from the powerful Clinton-controlled wing of the party? Or does Gore just think Howard Dean is the best man for the job? Slice those issues whichever way you please, but at the end of the day it was yet another brick in the ever-growing wall standing between Kerry and the nomination.
How did this happen? Kerry has all the components of a flat-out frontrunner. When did the wheels come off?
Ask virtually anyone who accounts themselves a member of that liberal Democratic base, and they’ll answer in a heartbeat. The wheels came off on October 11, 2002, the day John Kerry voted ‘Yes’ on George W. Bush’s Iraq War Resolution. The occupation of Iraq, the mounting American casualties, the skyrocketing cost of the conflict, and the still-missing weapons of mass destruction have become a significant liability to Bush. Amazingly enough, however, the Iraq situation has been far more damaging to Kerry than to Bush.
The same liberal base that flocks to the polls during the primaries took to the streets in vast, unprecedented numbers last fall and winter to oppose the push towards war in Iraq. Any politician who voted for the resolution was of no account to these people, worse than useless, an enabler of Bush’s extremist agenda, and not at all to be trusted. Dean’s passionate yet nuanced positions against the war drew legions of fiery supporters to his campaign, despite the fact that he is far less liberal than Kerry. The fact that Kerry had served in Vietnam, and then become an anti-war activist, was an added twist of the knife for those working against the invasion of Iraq, a betrayal of his own history and his people. For Kerry, keeper of that extraordinary liberal record, this one vote amounted to a couple of torpedoes below the water line of his campaign. He has been sinking, sinking, sinking ever since.
There are but a few weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Time has grown short. In an effort to galvanize the message Kerry wants to deliver in the time remaining, he convened a powerful roster of journalists and columnists in the New York City apartment of Al Franken last Thursday. The gathering could not properly be called a meeting or a luncheon. It was a trial. The journalists served as prosecuting attorneys, jury and judge. The crowd I joined in Franken’s living room was comprised of:
Al Franken and his wife Franni;
Rick Hertzberg, senior editor for the New Yorker;
David Remnick, editor for the New Yorker;
Jim Kelly, managing editor for Time Magazine;
Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent for Newsweek;
Jeff Greenfield, senior correspondent and analyst for CNN;
Frank Rich, columnist for the New York Times;
Eric Alterman, author and columnist for MSNBC and the Nation;
Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist/author of ‘Maus’;
Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post;
Fred Kaplan, columnist for Slate;
Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate and author;
Jonathan Alter, senior editor and columnist for Newsweek;
Philip Gourevitch, columnist for the New Yorker;
Calvin Trillin, freelance writer and author;
Edward Jay Epstein, investigative reporter and author;
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who needs no introduction.
We sat in a circle around Kerry and grilled him for two long hours. In an age of retail politicians who avoid substance the way vampires avoid sunlight, in an age when the sitting President flounders like a gaffed fish whenever he must speak to reporters without a script, Kerry’s decision to open himself to the slings and arrows of this group was bold and impressive. He was fresh from two remarkable speeches – one lambasting the PATRIOT Act, another outlining his foreign policy ideals while eviscerating the Bush record – and had his game face on. He needed it, because Eric Alterman lit into him immediately on the all-important issue of his vote for the Iraq War Resolution. The prosecution had begun.
“Senator,” said Alterman, “I think you may be the most qualified candidate in the race, and perhaps also the one who best represents my own values. But there was one overriding issue facing this nation during the past four years, and Howard Dean was there when it counted, and you weren’t. A lot of people feel that moment entitles him to their vote, even if you have a more progressive record and would be a stronger candidate in November. How are you going to win back those people who you lost with your vote for this awful war?”
There it was. Your record is the best, Mr. Kerry. But you voted for the war, Mr. Kerry. Howard Dean was right, Mr. Kerry, and you were not. Your campaign has been wounded, perhaps mortally, because of this. Explain yourself, and while you’re at it, explain how you are going to win back enough Dean voters to keep you from becoming a footnote in this race.
For over a year now, Kerry has struggled to respond to that question. His answers have seemed vague, overly nuanced and evasive. On Thursday, seated before the sharpest knives in the journalistic drawer and facing the unconcealed outrage of Alterman, the Senator from Massachusetts explained why he did what he did. The comments below reflect Kerry’s answers over the course of a long conversation and debate on the matter.
“This was the hardest vote I have ever had to cast in my entire career,” Kerry said. “I voted for the resolution to get the inspectors in there, period. Remember, for seven and a half years we were destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In fact, we found more stuff there than we thought we would. After that came those four years when there was no intelligence available about what was happening over there. I believed we needed to get the weapons inspectors back in. I believed Bush needed this resolution in order to get the U.N. to put the inspectors back in there. The only way to get the inspectors back in was to present Bush with the ability to threaten force legitimately. That’s what I voted for.”
“The way Powell, Eagleberger, Scowcroft, and the others were talking at the time,” continued Kerry, “I felt confident that Bush would work with the international community. I took the President at his word. We were told that any course would lead through the United Nations, and that war would be an absolute last resort. Many people I am close with, both Democrats and Republicans, who are also close to Bush told me unequivocally that no decisions had been made about the course of action. Bush hadn’t yet been hijacked by Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney and that whole crew. Did I think Bush was going to charge unilaterally into war? No. Did I think he would make such an incredible mess of the situation? No. Am I angry about it? You’re God damned right I am. I chose to believe the President of the United States. That was a terrible mistake.”
History defends this explanation. The Bush administration brought Resolution 1441 to the United Nations in early November of 2002 regarding Iraq, less than a month after the Senate vote. The words “weapons inspectors” were prominent in the resolution, and were almost certainly the reason the resolution was approved unanimously by the Security Council. Hindsight reveals that Bush’s people likely believed the Hussein regime would reject the resolution because of those inspectors. When Iraq opened itself to the inspectors, accepting the terms of 1441 completely, the administration was caught flat-footed, and immediately began denigrating the inspectors while simultaneously piling combat troops up on the Iraq border. The promises made to Kerry and the Senate that the administration would work with the U.N., would give the inspectors time to complete their work, that war would be an action of last resort, were broken.
Kerry completed his answer by leaning in close to Alterman, eyes blazing, and said, “Eric, if you truly believe that if I had been President, we would be at war in Iraq right now, then you shouldn’t vote for me.”
Pointing out Bush’s mistakes is relatively simple, but what of solutions to the Iraq mess? Kerry was questioned at length on this, and gave the same answers delivered during his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on December 3: “Our best option for success is to go back to the United Nations and leave no doubt that we are prepared to put the United Nations in charge of the reconstruction and governance-building processes. I believe the prospects for success on the ground will be far greater if Ambassador Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority are replaced by a UN Special Representative for Iraq.”
“I understand that the United Nations is reluctant to return to Iraq,” continued Kerry in his CFR speech, “for good reason. But I believe if the UN role is absolutely clear and substantively real, the Secretary General and members of the Security Council will support this course of action. But one thing is beyond doubt: We will continue to have difficulty persuading other countries, particularly those with meaningful military capabilities, to contribute troops and funds for reconstruction unless and until we vest real responsibility in the hands of the United Nations and the international community.”
Alterman, for one, was sold. In his MSNBC blog report on the meeting, he wrote, “It was all on the record and yet, it was remarkably open, honest and unscripted. Let’s be blunt. Kerry was terrific. Once again, he demonstrated a thoughtfulness, knowledge base and value system that gives him everything, in my not-so-humble-opinion, he could need to be not just a good, but a great president.”
The most revealing moment of the entire event came as it was breaking up. Kerry was slowly working towards the door when he was collared by Art Spiegelman. Though Kerry towered over him, Spiegelman appeared to grow with the intensity of his passion. “Senator,” he said, “the best thing you could do is to is to just come out and say that you were wrong to trust Bush. Say that you though he would keep his promises, but that you gave him more credit than he deserved. Say that you’re sorry, and then turn the debate towards what is best for the country in 2004.”
Kerry nodded, bowed his head, and said, “You’re right. I was wrong to trust him. I’m sorry I did.” And then he was gone.
In the end, that is perhaps the greatest obstacle for Kerry to overcome. Liberal base voters never trusted George W. Bush from the beginning, and believed in their hearts that he was approaching the Iraq situation with bad intentions. The fact that Kerry trusted him, and trusted him enough to ignore Senator Robert Byrd’s dire warnings of constitutional abrogation of Congressional responsibilities which was inherent in the resolution, makes it hard for those voters to trust Kerry.
Yet for a Senator like Kerry – who believes in bipartisanship, who chose to honor the office of the Presidency by practicing that bipartisanship, who trusted a number of publicly-made administration promises, who thought getting weapons inspectors into Iraq required the threat of force – the choices presented in this vote were far more complex than those being made down on the street by the protesters. It can be argued that the best thing to happen to Howard Dean in his campaign was the fact that he was not a Congressman, and was not obligated to vote on the resolution when the chips were down.
None of this solves the immediate problem for Kerry. The nomination of Howard Dean takes on more and more each day an aura of inevitability. Kerry is still trailing Dean in key primary states, and Al Gore isn’t going to take back his endorsement. In order to regain any momentum and take the nomination, he will have to convince Dean supporters, more than anyone else, to switch to his camp. Dean’s stand on the war is not the central reason for the support he has gained, but it was what drew the attention of so many would-be Kerry people. That attention, with time, became support. With all the time that has passed, and with Dean’s campaign picking up such momentum, engineering a wholesale switch seems highly unlikely.
The punditocracy spent a good portion of their TV time on Tuesdsay declaring Kerry’s candidacy all but dead, while anointing Dean as the sure-fire eventual nominee. This may prove to be true, but not one primary vote has been cast yet. January becomes the proving ground. In the interim, you’ll find John Kerry on the campaign trail. His performance in Franken’s living room last Thursday, the tenor of his recent speeches, and his gladiator memories of his 1996 Senate race against William Weld, all indicate one simple thing. If John Kerry is going down, he is going down swinging.
William Rivers Pitt is a teacher from Boston, MA. He is a New York Times and international best-selling author of three books - "War On Iraq," available from Context Books, "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available from Pluto Press, and "Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism," available from Context Books. William is a contributing writer for Liberal Slant. He is on the writing staff at www.truthout.com where this article was also published at: http://www.truthout.org/docs_03/121003A.shtml on December 10th. You can E-mail William at: [email protected]
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