Politics & Policy

The Ghost Senator

Kerry's 20 phantom years in the upper chamber.

One of the biggest problems that John Kerry has is that he is still an enigma to most people. We all know more than we want about his service in Vietnam, but very little about what he has done between then and now. In particular, his 20-year Senate career is a blank.

For this reason, I found of great interest the new book by former Senate staffer Winslow T. Wheeler, The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security. Wheeler spent 31 years working on national defense issues for both Republican and Democratic senators. The main point of his book is that the defense budget is no less prone to pork-barrel spending than any other part of the budget. He writes about his frustration at having spent so much of his time working on pet projects for his bosses that added nothing to our national security and served solely to advance their re-elections. Unfortunately, in many cases, these pork-barrel projects came at the expense of critical defense needs, such as operations and maintenance.

Toward the end of his book, Wheeler makes some very interesting observations about Kerry that are relevant to the presidential race.

Wheeler starts by noting that there were certain senators that he always knew would be major players on defense issues. Whether he agreed with them or thought they were dreadfully wrong, the views of certain senators always commanded respect. They came to the Senate floor well prepared for serious debate, commanded facts and analyses supporting their positions, and always contributed something meaningful to every issue they engaged in.

“But then,” Wheeler writes, “there was also another type of senator I would run across in the elevator or see in the chamber — the ones I could never associate with any deed or even articulated thought that had any lasting effect. The thought would dash through my head, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a senator too; forgot that he was even still around here.’ John Kerry was such a senator.”

Kerry should have been a major player on foreign policy and defense issues, Wheeler thinks. He is a long-time member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the most prestigious in the Senate, and clearly has the intellectual ability to understand the nuances of complex issues. But instead of being a player, Wheeler calls him a “ghost senator.”

Says Wheeler, Kerry “had all the physical trappings of a senator: the mane of graying hair, the deep, rich voice, the intent stare, and the appropriate physical posture. But, Kerry never seemed to make a difference. It was almost as if he was both a member of the Senate and yet not a member, at least not one that mattered. He was a ‘ghost senator’; he had all the form, but none of the substance.”

Lest one think that Wheeler is just engaging in partisan snipping, his greatest frustration with Kerry is that he did not oppose the Iraq invasion, which Wheeler feels was a mistake. He quotes at length Kerry’s words on the Senate resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq and has a hard time believing that Kerry had any idea at all of what he was talking about.

Says Wheeler, “One wonders if Kerry had read either the text of the legislation he was voting for or the White House document proclaiming the preemption doctrine, especially how it defined ‘imminent.’ If Kerry had read these documents, one then wonders if, to him, words in print have any meaning other than what a U.S. senator wants to pretend they mean.”

We may now have a better idea of why Kerry almost never refers to anything he did in the Senate in support of his election to the presidency. There is simply nothing there.

I quit working in the Senate in 1984, the year Kerry was elected, and so I never had a chance to see him at work. But I know from experience that congressional staffers are among the most penetrating observers of which members of Congress are hard workers, which ones are lazy, which ones are publicity hounds, and which ones have Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities.

Among themselves, congressional staffers are brutally honest about their bosses and other senators. They have to be. Oftentimes, critical legislative strategies depend on whether you think a staffer can deliver his boss for a key vote, committee hearing, or floor debate. You can’t afford to depend on a staffer who is delusional about his boss’s abilities or dependability.

Of course, a thin Senate record is no guarantee that one will be a bad president. John F. Kennedy’s Senate career was nothing to brag about. Nevertheless, it is revealing that Kerry was essentially absent without leave on national security issues during his entire time in the Senate according to someone in a position to know.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Write to him here.


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