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John Kerry Appears Before His Own Committee

Maybe there’s a filmmaker out there somewhere who’d be interested in making a kind of surreal documentary – something in the Being John Malkovich vein, called John Kerry Appears Before His Own Committee. The action opens in 1971, with Vietnam Veteran John Kerry posing his famous question to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" The camera then cuts to the Committee members where we find not its 1971 Chair, Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, but its 2010 Chair, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry who is painfully unable to answer the young man in front of him.

Like the Malkovich film, the Kerry film would focus on questions of continuity and consciousness: How can the 1971 and the 2010 versions be the same man?

Until that filmmaker steps forward, though, we’ll have to deal with these questions in more mundane fashion and simply ask how Kerry can today fail to repeat the question he asked thirty-nine years ago – or at least why he won’t ask it out loud, when his doing so would carry far more weight than it did the first time.

True, Kerry has recently sounded less than a 100 percent comfortable with the Administration’s war plans – his remarks at a recent Committee hearing prompted the headline: “2 leading senators raise doubt about Afghan war.” And given the Bloomberg National Poll’s finding that only seven percent see the war in Afghanistan as the most important issue facing the country right now, a glass-is-half-full take might be that at least Kerry drew some pretty decent attention toward this war. An optimist might even say he’s just warming up.

The problem is that John Kerry’s had nine years to warm up now. And what has he come up with after all that time? While questioning whether the Administration had a “solid strategy,” he nonetheless argued that "this is not the time to give up." Give it another nine, maybe.

The same day that Kerry was telling the nation to soldier on, the Foreign Relations Committee released 1,100 pages of classified transcripts of 1968 closed sessions that included remarks from Senators expressing serious misgivings about the course of the Vietnam War. The 2010 Kerry is very impressed that the record “shows these guys wrestling with the complexity of it when our generation was living it out in a very personal way. You couldn’t have imagined in that room of the Capitol that policy makers were agonizing over it in that way, and having that gut kind of conversation.”

I can’t help but think that the 1971 John Kerry would have said, “So what?” – or at least a lot of the other Vietnam Veterans Against the War who came to Washington with him would have asked, “But what did they do?” Kerry’s predecessor, Fulbright, seemed much more to the point at the time when he stated his fear that if all the Committee did was wring its hands, “We are just a useless appendix on the governmental structure.”

Bloomberg’s pollsters may have found that concluding the Afghanistan War doesn’t rank that high on most Americans’ priority lists, but it’s not because they think it makes sense – 58 percent considered it a “lost cause,” while only 36 percent thought the U.S. could win. It’s just that it has come to seem almost a permanent and inevitable part of the political landscape – a situation that cries out for people in high places to act upon what so many can see. But what is Kerry calling for? “A better understanding of exactly what the definition of success is in Afghanistan."

John Kerry’s done some very useful things in his twenty-five years in the Senate; he even voted against authorizing the Gulf War. But whether it was his White House ambitions, genuine belief in the “War on Terror,” or something else, his name does not come up in discussions of current antiwar leadership. If someone who knows him could just tell him that he still has the chance to realize the promise he showed nearly forty years ago by giving the right response to the question he asked back then, it would be a great service to him – and the rest of us.

Until then, though, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that where the 1971 John Kerry pushed the nation forward, the 2010 version is holding it back.

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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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