Politics & Policy

Kerry, Kerry, Quite Contrary

The lifelong contortions of the Democratic nominee.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the May 31, 2004, issue of National Review.

A Massachusetts state representative named William Reinstein approached John Kerry at a political event in early 1996 and introduced himself with the fictional name “Butchy Cataldo,” just to test Kerry. The senator merrily slapped “Butchy” on the back and told him how good it was to see him again. The story was quickly passed around in Massachusetts political circles as a sign of Kerry’s embarrassing lack of a common touch.

This incident is recounted in the new Boston Globe biography of John Kerry (John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best). Together with Douglas Brinkley’s book, Tour of Duty, it provides a ready guide to the Democratic nominee, who is the kind of guy who would feign delight in being reunited with his good friend Butchy Cataldo.

Kerry has many virtues. He has physical courage, whether on his swift boat in Vietnam or in one of his outdoor activities. He is prodigiously talented. The excerpts from his Vietnam journals in Douglas Brinkley’s book are impressively written. He wanted to write an autobiographical novel about Vietnam–it might not have been a terrible one. He is fiercely competitive and doesn’t lose easily. These qualities will be on display during the campaign this year. So will his foibles.

Character tends to be enduring. If you were familiar with Bill Clinton’s first two years as Arkansas governor, you had a pretty good idea of how his first couple of years as president would play out. So too with Kerry there are themes that have been apparent right from the beginning: the air of phoniness, and the exaggerations and minutely fine-tuned positions that come with it; the blatant-to-the-point-of-rank ambition; the wealthy wives funding his political career; the exploitation of his Vietnam service and his demagogic indignation at any questioning of his activities during or after the war; his belief that nearly any U.S. intervention is mistaken and driven by “pride.”

Kerry has Al Gore’s aloofness and his talent. Like Gore, it’s possible to imagine Kerry a professor somewhere. Unlike Gore, Kerry has always unabashedly wanted to run for office. Gore had to force himself to be a campaigner. Kerry has been doing it more or less–debating, speechifying, etc.–since prep school. The awkwardness (some might say weirdness) of Gore seemed to come from the tension between what he truly desired, i.e., being off somewhere writing books on global warming, and the political career he foisted on himself. Kerry has no such tension. But there’s the same sense of him trying too hard, of compensating for something missing.

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