Where is the real John Kerry?
This John Kerry is not that John Kerry. This John Kerry has turned out to be an ineffectual, soporific presidential candidate whose main talent lies in torturing the syntax of his sentences so as to never get caught actually saying anything.
That John Kerry was an earnest young man, so full of conviction that his eyes burned with it, a young man newly returned from a war in which he had fought bravely enough to earn a chestful of medals before deciding that the war was all wrong.
I was in a Senate committee room on the now-famous day in 1971 that the young John Kerry appeared before the U.S. Senate to testify against the Vietnam War. It was a day that, amazingly, has emerged as a central issue in the 2004 presidential campaign – amazing because of all the other issues that would seem more urgent in these troubled times.
The other thing that amazes me is John Kerry's evident inability to communicate his ideas clearly and persuasively. What happened to the man who gave that powerful testimony more than three decades ago? I have been puzzling over that question for months as he stumbles along in his bid for the presidency. He doesn't seem to be able to explain clearly to American voters where he stands on basic questions such as the war in Iraq and international terrorism.
This is in stark contrast to the John Kerry I first saw in person on April 22, 1971, when he electrified the nation with his passionate and compelling anti-Vietnam War testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the time I was Sen. George D. Aiken's legislative assistant. Aiken was the ranking Republican on the committee whose members mostly opposed the war. Democratic chairman Bill Fulbright, the acerbic former college professor from Arkansas, had just launched a month-long hearing on "Legislative Proposals Relating to the War in Southeast Asia." At the last moment, Fulbright invited Kerry, a young former Navy officer from Massachusetts who was the leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Kerry's group, which was camped illegally on the Washington Mall, had come to Washington to protest the war. Outfitted in combat fatigues, the veterans were planning a dramatic conclusion to their protest: They intended to throw away their medals on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol at what they called "the end of the reoccupation" of Washington. Their goal was to convince Congress to cut off funding for "this barbaric war."
The protest was causing deep anguish in the Nixon White House. While the protesters were camped out on the Mall, Nixon was mulling whether to send in police to rout the veterans. The vets' protest had the Capitol gripped in high drama as they lobbied congressional offices for their cause.
It was against this backdrop that Kerry was invited to testify before the committee on the morning of April 22. The hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building was packed with TV crews and Kerry's fellow veterans. The two press tables, normally empty, were filled with print and TV reporters, including some of the media stars of the day – Mary McGrory of The Washington Post and Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News. I recall them specifically because I was sitting with them at the press table, a courtesy allowed for an aide to a prominent member.
In the blaze of TV lights, Kerry opened with an impassioned statement against the war. It was the clearest indictment I had ever heard of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He described soldiers who were drafted for a war they didn't believe in; he described a war that was fought for wrong reasons, based on wrong information. He described soldiers who returned home without help to get them to shake their drug habit or heal their wounds. Committee members sat rapt as Kerry informed them that "60 to 80 percent of the troops stay stoned (on pot) 24 hours a day to get through Vietnam." Others then moved on to heroin and opium, he said, and had returned home addicted to drugs.
While the most quoted portion of Kerry's testimony is the now famous line – "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" – I thought then as I do now that Kerry's attack on Richard Nixon for his failure to end the war was his finest moment. In those days, unlike now, Kerry got right to the point when he said, "People have to die so Nixon won't be the first president to lose a war."
When Kerry finished his statement 30 minutes later, the room burst into applause and then the members peppered him with questions, most of them friendly. Sen. Stuart Symington, D-Mo., a former secretary of the Air Force, asked Kerry how many medals he had earned and whether he had a Purple Heart because he was wounded in action.
"Yes," said Kerry.
"No more questions," responded Symington.
George Aiken wondered aloud whether "they (the North Vietnamese) might help us carry our bags" during the pullout. Kerry and the room erupted with laughter. Kerry responded that he thought the North Vietnamese would be more eager to see the United States leave than the South Vietnamese Army generals who needed American troops to keep them in power.
Through it all, Kerry answered each question forthrightly, never ducking a query. So powerful was his testimony that, at one point, Fulbright said: "I can't imagine anyone communicating more eloquently than you did."
So potent was his testimony that the Nixon White House immediately went into attack mode, not unlike the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The Nixon tapes have since revealed that the president's aides, Chuck Colson and H.R. Haldeman, convinced the man who then commanded the American Legion to launch a counterattack on Kerry.
He was accused of dishonoring veterans. Nixon, it seems was convinced that Kerry was a political plant by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and that Kennedy was using Kerry to launch new political attacks on the White House over the issue of Vietnam. By 1974, U.S. involvement in Vietnam started to wind down, as the gradual withdrawal of troops reduced American involvement, and the end came in April 1975 when the last helicopter left the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. For the first time in its history, the United States had lost a war, and it happened less than a year after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace.
Kerry went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate and served there for nearly 20 years before he ran for president. He even served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, listening to witnesses testify from the chair where he once sat.
As I watch Kerry run for office in 2004, I keep looking for signs of the passion that stirred the nation in 1971. Does that John Kerry still exist? Or was it just a brief shining moment in the long struggle against the war in Vietnam?
Stephen C. Terry of Middlebury was legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. George D. Aiken, R-Vt., from 1969 to 1975.
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