Halfway through Tim Russert's hour-long interview with Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry on April 18, there was an exchange that revealed in microcosm some of the fundamental unspoken rules of American politics in our day. Russert played a clip from Kerry's 1971 appearance on Meet the Press following his testimony as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A longhaired Kerry, in uniform, was seen saying that he stood by the essence of his testimony, in which he had said that veterans had admitted that they had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power." He added that under the Geneva Conventions such acts were war crimes.
Russert did not play the tape to congratulate Kerry for his truth-telling. On the contrary, he was clearly calling him on the carpet. He even suggested that "a lot" of Kerry's allegations had been discredited. In fact, every word that Kerry spoke then has been shown to be true in an abundance of testimony. Even now, new revelations pour out. For example, the Toledo Blade just won the Pulitzer Prize for unearthing the story of an army company that went on a seven-month rampage in Vietnam, routinely killing peasants, burning villages, cutting off the ears of corpses. Troops in the field can hardly engage in such conduct over a period of months without the knowledge and at least tacit approval of higher authority.
Kerry answered warily. He began by trying to make light of the clip. "Where did all that dark hair go? -- that's a big question for me," he joked. He went on to say that although some of his language had been "excessive," he was still proud of the stand he had taken. His predicament is worth pondering. The powers that be, with the approval of mainstream opinion, had sent him into a misbegotten war whose awful reality they covered up. When he helped uncover it, it was not they but he who was punished. In short, by sending young men into an atrocious, mistaken war, they created a truth so distasteful to the public that its disclosure, by discrediting the discloser, keeps them in power.
Was Kerry "flip-flopping" -- the Bush Administration's main campaign charge against him? Was he all-too-characteristically trying to back off from a position he had once taken while at the same time embracing it? And didn't this performance echo his complicated and equivocal stance on the Iraq war, in which he has said that his vote in the Senate to authorize the President to use armed force against Iraq was "not a vote to go to war" and that in 2003 he voted "for" the $87 billion supplemental authorization for the war "before" he voted "against it" (a statement the Republicans are making political hay with in a current TV ad)?
Kerry's equivocations are indeed related. For if as a soldier in Vietnam in 1968 and '69 he was brought face to face with one reality -- the human reality of the war -- then as a presidential candidate in 2004 he has been driven up against another -- the political reality that no antiwar candidate of modern times has ever made it into the White House. One might think that Kerry's good sense and bravery in opposing the Vietnam War three decades ago might stand him in good stead today. (How many Americans now think getting into Vietnam was a good idea?) But as the Russert interview shows, just the opposite is the case. It is Kerry's bravery as a soldier fighting the mistaken war, not his bravery as a veteran opposing it, that helps him in his bid for the presidency.
And so just as Kerry bowed to political reality by distancing himself from his old testimony while expressing continued pride in it, so he bowed to that same reality by voting for the Iraq authorization (while expressing opposition to "the way" the President went to war). Even today he will not acknowledge that his vote -- and the war -- were a mistake. Kerry is stuck between politics and truth. After the Congressional vote on the war, however, a peculiar thing happened. Kerry's political sails, far from filling with a fresh breeze, began to flap idly in the wind. Polls and pundits agreed: His nomination was dead in the water.
The action shifted elsewhere. For while opposition to a crazy war might not be a ticket to the White House, it was still good for something. It swelled a powerful popular movement. Huge demonstrations against the war took place in the United States, as they did throughout the world. In the time of Vietnam, antiwar sentiment propelled first Eugene McCarthy, then Robert Kennedy and later George McGovern into the forefront of Democratic politics. Now antiwar sentiment propelled Howard Dean into his brief moment of front-runnership. In the game of politics and truth, truth was sneaking in the back door. Suddenly, everyone was saying that the Democratic Party had recovered its energy, its "backbone."
But then came another surprising twist. A shrewd, or possibly over-shrewd, Democratic primary electorate, steaming with indignation against the war but apparently fearful of history's lesson that the antiwar man cannot win, shifted its allegiance from Dean to Kerry. All at once, the apparently political calculation that had underlain Kerry's vote for the war in the first place paid off, and he became the candidate.
Such is the archeology of the dilemma that Kerry and the Democratic Party face today. Their flip-flopping, which is real enough, is between the truth as they see it and politics as they know it to be. The party is an antiwar party that dares not speak its name. Its candidate is energized, but with a borrowed energy. He has a backbone, but it is a borrowed backbone.
The antiwar movement that has lent Kerry and his party this energy and this backbone faces a dilemma, too. On the one hand, it needs Kerry to win, even though he refuses to repent his vote to authorize the war. On the other hand, neither the movement nor Kerry can afford to let the antiwar energies that were and remain a principal source of their hopes and his, die down. The movement must persist, independent of Kerry and keeping him or making him honest, yet not opposing him. If truth must be an exile from the mainstream of politics, let it thrive on the margins.
Jonathan Schell, Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute, is the author, most recently, of 'The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People' (Metropolitan).
This article was originally published in the May 10 issue of The Nation
Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell