Politics & Policy

Put Down The Duckie!

John Kerry thinks like it is Sept. 10 still.

Here’s how I spent my Sunday. In the morning I went to a birthday party for a friend of mine’s son, at Gymboree. Sam–happy birthday, Tiger!–is two years old. My daughter, Lucy Tighe, is 20 months old. She’s surely cuter than science ever thought possible, and is more important to me than I could ever have dreamed. I never thought heartstrings really existed until she started pulling giant spools of them out of me every time I looked at her. Anyway, on the drive home from Gymboree we played her favorite CD on the car stereo. It’s an assortment of Sesame Street songs. The last one I heard as I got out of the car was “Put Down the Duckie.”

It’s a brilliant song, sung mostly by Hoots, a saxophone-playing owl who tries to explain to Ernie that he can’t learn to play the sax until he puts down his rubber duckie. The greater message of the song is that you can’t learn to do grown-up things until you give up–at least for a little while–childish things. The refrain goes like this:

You gotta put down the duckie

Put down the duckie

Put down the duckie

Yeah, you gotta leave the duck alone

You gotta put down the duckie

Put down the duckie

Put down the duckie

If you wanna play the saxophone!


Anyway, listening to that song was the punctuation mark on the first half of my day. The second half was consumed by my effort to find examples of John Kerry’s giving a damn about terrorism before 9/11.

Why? Because John Kerry says that the attacks of September 11 didn’t change his thinking about foreign policy very much. In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine–no doubt intended to make him look presidential–Kerry said of 9/11, “I mean, it didn’t change me much at all. It just sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing. I mean, to me, it wasn’t as transformational as it was a kind of anger, a frustration and an urgency that we weren’t doing the kinds of things necessary to prevent it and to deal with it.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but the way I read this statement is that Kerry believes he had all–or at least most–of the answers for what America needs to do to protect itself in the post-9/11 world before 9/11. It sounds to me like he’s saying, “If only they’d listened to me beforehand…”

This is a very important point, because most commentators tend to dismiss John Kerry’s profoundly dovish record on foreign policy by saying it was from another era. They say Vietnam is central to Kerry’s qualifications, for example, but what he did more recently is “old news.” September 11, after all, “changed everything”–so why dwell on John Kerry’s actions before that horrible day? As Andrew Sullivan puts it, “Bush in 2000 was adamantly against nation-building, paid little attention to terrorism as a threat, and wanted to spend less on the military than Gore. Should he be held to account for that today? Not really. So why should Kerry?”

Well, the answer is obvious. George Bush has said countless times and in countless ways that he didn’t plan on being a “war president” and that 9/11 changed everything. We already knew that John Kerry doesn’t want to be a war president (in the primaries he promised that he’d be a jobs president, and an education president, and an environmental president, etc., before he’d be a war president). He says that the “law-enforcement” approach to terrorism is preferable and that his goal is to get terrorism back to the “nuisance” level we enjoyed in the 1990s. And, again, Kerry says 9/11 didn’t change him “much at all.” This begs the question, What did he think about terrorism before 9/11, since he’s the same man today?

So I spent the second half of my Sunday trolling through Nexis trying to find out. Here’s some of what I found. From 1992 until September 10, 2001, “John Kerry” and “bin Laden” appeared in the same paragraph only three times, and once in a transcript of the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. That transcript is a false hit, because Senator Kerry never mentions bin Laden–but it does offer an interesting glimpse into Kerry’s former semi-hawkishness on Iraq and his desire for regime change. Or, to be more accurate, his desire to sound like he favored regime change, complete with an oblique reference to his Vietnam service.

There was an NBC News (Jan 18, 1999) segment in which Kerry said, “We came within yards, literally, of the cruise missile strike, of taking out Osama bin Laden himself.” The next day The Evening Standard of London quoted him saying, “The missiles came within yards, literally of taking out Bin Laden himself. He got away by luck.” There’s a brief reference to the BCCI report Kerry worked on in something called “The Intelligence Newsletter,” from March 2, 2000. And that’s it.

If you expand the terms to merely “Kerry” and “bin Laden,” you get a whopping 24 hits. Most of them are irrelevant or about a different Kerry. A few involve statements such as Kerry’s response to a terror-attack warning on the anniversary of the 1998 African-embassy attacks. “I hate to say it, but we’re vulnerable. Anybody in a free society where people have the ability to move are vulnerable.”

If you search for whole documents containing “John Kerry,” “terrorism,” and “editorial,” you will not find a single piece written by him that deals substantively with terrorism as we understand it today. No mentions of major speeches warning us of the dangers to come; no references to legislation Kerry never bothered to draft.

There are, however, references to his book, The New War. It’s worth pausing to discuss that book, because his campaign now claims it was prophetic about the war on terror. Unfortunately, as The New Republic’s Michael Crowley has written, the book actually catalogs how Kerry missed the coming war on terror entirely.

Anyway, aside from a few random hits–he does say in 1996 that closing Pennsylvania Avenue around the White House to car traffic “is to give up part of our liberty, freedom and what America stands for”–that’s it.

Not a single op-ed by him or editorial mentioning him appears during the same period with the words “bin Laden” in it, although The Journal of Commerce in 1999 quoted him as saying that unilateral sanctions against rogue states are “increasingly futile and self-destructive.” But not once from 1990 until September 10, 2001, do the words “John Kerry” and “al Qaeda” appear in an article, according to my searches. I couldn’t find a significant quote –let alone an article written by him–dealing with terrorism in the wake of the first Trade Center bombing, the embassy bombings, the Millennium plot, or even following the release of his own “prophetic” book on the global mafia.

However, in the wake of the Cole attack–four years ago this month–Senator Kerry defended the Clinton administration on CBS’s Face the Nation. In response to an attack that killed 17 U.S. servicemen, then-vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney questioned whether the attack could be attributed to a lack of military readiness. Kerry was asked to respond. He said, “While there are legitimate questions always about military readiness in the context of a campaign, Yemen and what happened to the USS Cole is not one of them….I mean, really any terrorist can attack anywhere in the world at any time. And it is inappropriate sort of after the fact to say, ‘Well, you know, why were we pursuing this policy when, in fact, a ship almost anywhere in the world is vulnerable.’”

That’s it. That’s Kerry’s footprint when it comes to the war on terror in the 1990s. Now, look, I know that Nexis-search sleuthing is not perfect. I am sure I’m missing some press release or staff-written letter to the editor or speech he gave to the Amherst Rotary Club. But if you know how these things work, you know how revealing this is. John Kerry says he hasn’t changed from the 1990s, and in the 1990s he didn’t about any of this stuff. And during the 1980s, he was as dovish as you can get, fighting Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy at every turn and even calling Reagan’s tenure a period of “moral darkness.” And in the 1970s he was calling American soldiers war criminals and fighting for a nuclear freeze.

When John Kerry says 9/11 merely confirmed what he’d been warning about for years, he makes it sound like he was some Churchillian figure standing alone against the dark and gathering storm, when the reality is far closer to an image of him as a back-bencher snoozing behind the pages of a newspaper as Churchill thundered alone. Regardless, he’s either lying out of arrogance or telling the truth. And if he’s telling the truth, shame on him, because that means he did nothing, said nothing, warned no one–even though he knew what was happening.


So what does this all have to do with listening to Sesame Street songs? Two things. First, this war and this election are first and foremost about the world my daughter inherits. The world may or may not be safer today because of what Bush has done, but who cares? The aim is to make the world safer tomorrow. George W. Bush has certainly made his share of mistakes conducting the war on terrorism, but he understands that it’s a war that needs to be fought. It’s hard to shake the impression that so many “pro-war” writers want to punish George W. Bush for his mistakes by voting for Kerry. How childish. The choice isn’t between punishing Bush or rewarding him: It’s between electing a president who understands the fight we’re in and one who denies we even need to be in one. Despite Kerry’s newfound convictions about the need to “destroy” and “kill” terrorists, there’s little reason to believe he understands what this war is about. Bush says Kerry has a “September 10th” worldview. He’s right, of course. Kerry himself admits that he has a September 10th worldview. That would be fine, if Kerry’s worldview on September 10th wasn’t so awful.

Which brings me to my second point. Kerry can’t let go of his view that terrorism is a law-enforcement problem, that it can be solved with “good diplomacy” and arduous summits in posh resorts. In his megalomania he believes his book described the problem we face today when it barely described the problems of yesterday. He insists that his service in Vietnam–Vietnam!–is still the best way to judge how he would conduct the war on terror, even though his two decades of public service indicate at every turn that his service as a Vietnam protester is a better indicator of his judgment and values. John Kerry can’t let go of the past; he can’t relinquish his preconceived notions formed a generation ago. He wants to be president–but, in short, he won’t put down the duckie in order to do so.


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