It’s a disappointment when a smart guy, straining to find a unique insight in some vignette, misses the basic point by a mile. Such, however, is the case with the estimable David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday about what he sees as Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry’s decades-long metamorphosis from earnest Vietnam-era ardency to transparent opportunism.
Brooks’s op-ed falls prey to a disturbing media trend: the counterintuitive notion that because Senator John Kerry obscures simple truths about simple truths beneath an underbrush of purported “complexity” and “nuance,” press coverage of his candidacy is obligated to follow suit rather than do its job of clearing the path. The present significance of Kerry’s antiwar activism lies not in its illumination of how the candidate has evolved or, as Brooks argues, devolved. Rather, it is in the frightening possibility that he hasn’t changed at all.
In his op-ed, “The Vietnam Passion,” Brooks theorizes that the once “authentic” John Kerry of the 1970s has morphed Dorian Gray-like over the ensuing 30-plus years into a calculating will-o-the-wisp politico. Along these lines, Brooks first notes that the nominee’s nemeses, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, are beginning to run an ad based on Kerry’s 1971 congressional testimony opposing the Vietnam war. The columnist then surmises:
If voters see that testimony, they will see a young man arguing passionately for a cause. They will see a young man willing to take risks and boldly state his beliefs. Whether they agree or not, they will see in John Kerry a man of conviction.
Many young people, who don’t have an emotional investment in endlessly refighting the conflicts of the late 1960’s, might take a look at that man and decide they like him. They might not realize that man no longer exists.
That conviction politician was still visible as late as the 1980’s. When Senator Kerry opposed aid to the contras, or took on Oliver North, he did it with the same forthright fire.
Now, it’s all well and good–even interesting–for Brooks to buck conventional wisdom which says (for good reason, I think) that public attention to his 1971 testimony is terrible for Kerry’s prospects. Brooks offers up an intriguing counterclaim: Kerry is such a bloodless, unalluring figure that an episode in which he exhibited real passion may make voters–particularly, young voters removed from the pitched battles of the 60s and 70s–view him in a new, more positive light. The problem, though, is that Brooks has conflated and thus critically confused two very separate concepts: passion and conviction. As a result, his analysis overlooks the fundamental import of the testimony.
Far from conviction, the relevance to presidential politics of Kerry’s passionate 1971 performance is, precisely, that he appears to have had good reason to know it was false and slanderous. If that is the case, it was not a demonstration of “forthright fire” and Kerry cannot have had real “beliefs” and “conviction” about it.
Pace Brooks, the testimony then becomes the very antithesis of “authentic,” because Kerry was either knowingly lying about American military activity in Southeast Asia or recklessly insouciant about the validity of his breathtaking war-crimes charges. In either event, his passion, having nothing to do with truth, would be explainable only by zealotry in the antiwar cause or by crass self-promotion. These, far from assets, would be liabilities, suggestive of unsuitability for an office that, minimally, demands objectivity, judgment and, yes, conviction.
Equally ominous for Kerry would be the emergence of a consistent pattern, an unflattering mental framework within which Americans may begin to peg this man they are really just getting to know. The 1971 testimony–far from the long ago and far away manifestation of a different, authentic Kerry–is very much of a piece with an adult lifetime of behavior, both small and large, indicative of detachment from reality and disregard for truth. Why did he film himself in mock battles? Why has he, for over a decade, spoken with great passion on behalf of diametrically opposite policy positions on Iraq and innumerable other issues? Why did he not only concoct the “Christmas in Cambodia” tale but take it to the floor of the United States Senate and inject it into a debate about national security?
Contrary to Brooks’s take, a 1980s’ “conviction politician” is not to be found in the contras dispute, the dramatic stage for Kerry’s “seared–seared–in me” Cambodia memory. That, instead, is turning into Kerry’s “I-did-not-have-sexual-relations-with-that-woman” moment. The faux episode is not, as Kerry’s how-dare-you bluster would have it, immune from analysis and judgment because to weigh it would somehow impugn his military service or his patriotism–in fact, it would do neither. It is not immune any more than President Clinton’s infamously self-righteous declamation was, as his apologists maintained, beyond consideration because it was “just about sex.” Christmas in Cambodia, like the 1971 testimony, is worthy of exploration because it is a barometer of basic honesty, raising the specter of a core lack of conviction and authenticity–one embedded in character, not developed over time.
Therein lies the problem for Kerry. Americans did not form their lasting impression of Clinton’s pathology until after he was already elected president. Removing a president is a much different proposition than choosing not to elect him in the first place. Clinton, in addition, had many things going for him that Kerry does not–while both men are highly intelligent, Clinton is charismatic, instantly likable, a tremendous communicator, and a politician whose opportunism (on welfare reform, a balanced budget, stiff anti-terror laws, etc.) could often connote a prudent pragmatism whereas, at this point, Kerry’s (on Vietnam, Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, troop reduction, etc.) seems nakedly craven.
Clinton also had the good fortune of governing a pre-9/11 America, in which an otherwise competent leader’s lack of probity could be sloughed off by the masses as a peccadillo–the stuff of late-night comedy monologues, not consequence. That world, however, is over. Now, it’s stark. It’s life and death, and the public need to trust that the president has core beliefs–including commitment and real conviction in matters of national security–is paramount.
Which is to say: Clinton’s lack of authenticity proved in 1999 to be an insufficient reason, under the circumstances, to oust him. But Americans in 2004 are unlikely to hand the keys to the kingdom over to someone they’ve become convinced has never been authentic.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is an NRO contributor. McCarthy is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.