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Senator Kerry, Prepare for your Moment of Truth

A 27-year-old John Kerry testified about the Vietnam War at a Washington hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971.

A 27-year-old John Kerry testified about the Vietnam War at a Washington hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971. (AP File)

Memo to Senator John Kerry: whether you like it or not, the moment of truth in this campaign has arrived.

You chose a flawed, phony script in Boston and beforehand. You left a glaring omission in the biography you presented to the electorate. Treating it as ballot-box poison, you forbade all of your champions on the Fleet Center podium to mention it, much less sing your praises for it.

Now your worst enemies are forcing the issue to the limelight. This time you duck it only at your peril. You cannot obfuscate or equivocate any longer. It is time for you to admit, once and for all, that you were, and are, a Vietnam veteran who turned against the war. If you're worth the faith that we the people long to invest in you, you'll say it proudly, and remind us why that war was such a colossal crime.

It is obvious to any person who has a passing regard for facts that those fellow Swift boat veterans who oppose you politically do not stand "for truth." We know the charges they have so far brought are scurrilous, specious and cruel, and their tactics straight from the Karl Rove playbook of dirty tricks. Yet the painful reality is, they have exploited the very large opening your efforts to bury your anti-war record created.

For the Swift Boat group does have a serious point to make - and it's the one they haven't made yet. What these guys have against you, their real animus has nothing to do with what you did in Vietnam, but what you did when you returned - your activism and testimony against the war. To these guys, you are "Hanoi John," a traitor. That is the heart of the issue. That is the charge you have ducked so far, and the one you need to answer.

It's not about whether you shot yourself in the foot over there. It's about how you're shooting yourself in the foot now.

Your anti-war stance of 1971 has become your greatest vulnerability, simply because you've been unwilling to embrace it. Yet for many of us who are familiar with your life story, it actually represents your greatest strength. Opposing that misbegotten war, putting on your uniform and telling the Senate why, required authentic, gutsy, true leadership. 

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You have staked your candidacy on the claim that you can be trusted to guide the ship of state through dangerous waters. You cast this election, correctly, as a choice between a phony leader and a real leader. Yet by refusing to own up to this admittedly controversial example of your leadership, you have undermined your case. This is the unkindest flip-flop of all.

Fortunately, the Swift boat veterans are handing you a huge gift, if you will only perceive it as such—one last opportunity to demonstrate true leadership again. Remember that most of us still perceive the Vietnam war as the tragic colonial misadventure that it was. We need you to remind us, forcefully, of this truth our nation so painfully learned. And we need you to remind us that then and now, dissent is patriotic, not treasonous. This is true leadership—the right thing to do both morally and politically.

I know I'm asking you to do something risky. And I know the reasons why you'll be tempted to duck the issue again - reasons relating less to the Vietnam war than to the Iraq war. But here as well, the traps that Rove and company have set for you are traps of your own making. I cringed to hear you refuse to rethink your vote for the Iraq war, to hear you say you would have voted yes even if the stream of lies coming from the White House had been exposed. You thought you were evading the trap this time, not taking the bait, denying them another chance to call you flip-flopper. But instead, you were taking yourself, and all of us, deeper into the quagmire.

Iraq is the reason you are afraid to answer the "Hanoi John" charges; Iraq is the reason you have tried to expunge 1971 from your biography. You know that the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, while far from absolute, are considerable. You know we should not have gone into Iraq, and you know how hard it will be to get us out. And you know that ninety percent of the delegates in Boston, and the majority of the American public, now oppose this war. Yet you will not denounce it, you defend your vote to authorize it, and you promise only to try to persuade more allies to come aboard this sinking ship. You know these choices have alienated a crucial part of your base and done yourself out of what should be your strongest campaign issue.

Your own personal Iraq quagmire is, in microcosm, the quagmire facing the nation as a whole. And we need you to steer yourself and all of us out of it in as swift a boat as you can command. It so happens that the way out of Iraq leads, once again, through Vietnam. That is the unenviable duty for which you have actually reported. It's also why you could be, should be, exactly the right leader for this historical moment - if only you would rise to the occasion and be the anti-war veteran that you are.

When your views evolve as the truth slowly sets in, when you admit that you were wrong and plot a new direction to correct the error, that's not flip-flopping. That's courage. A much stronger and more mature courage than staying the course when it's a stupid course. We the people are ready for this message. In my view, this is the message that will lead to victory in November - not just victory, but victory with a mandate to bring meaningful change to our foreign policy and healing to our deeply troubled political culture.

That's why the campaign bumper sticker on my car says: "How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" The John Kerry who said those words is the John Kerry we need in the Oval Office.

Roger Kimmel Smith

Roger Kimmel Smith

Roger Kimmel Smith is a freelance wordsmith based in Ithaca, New York. He has written for The Progressive, Ithaca Times, National Geographic, Propaganda Review, Disarmament Times, Syncopated Times, Common Dreams, and Global Issues in Context.

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