John Kerry and the paradox of polish
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In many ways, Vietnam is a backdrop to his presidential bid. And while Kerry's campaign team is understandably eager to highlight the candidate's wartime heroics, it's a complicated legacy, reflecting in some ways the ambiguities of the war itself. Kerry won three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star for chasing down an enemy combatant with a rocket launcher - an act that at least one of his superiors saw as foolhardy. But he also came back and became the face of the antiwar movement, alienating many of his fellow veterans at the time.Skip to next paragraph
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"In life we can only judge people by their actions, ultimately - particularly politicians who are filled with words," says historian Douglas Brinkley who has written a book on Kerry's Vietnam experience, based in large part on the senator's diaries at the time. "In that regard, Kerry's actions in Vietnam were really quite admirable.... He signed up from Yale University, went and did his duty - and according to his men was an excellent lieutenant. But his diaries also show that he was gnawed away at by the political mistakes in Vietnam," Mr. Brinkley adds. "And he didn't just internalize [those feelings]. He publicly went to rallies and protested in the great American tradition of dissent."
On the trail, Kerry is regularly approached by veterans, sometimes with questions, sometimes just to shake his hand. And his war roots show up in other ways, too: In Exeter, he mentions a friend and Exeter alum who was killed in Vietnam, and his voice swells up. At one point, driving between campaign stops, he suddenly pulls the van over to duck into a musty military-surplus store.
The difficult postwar situation in Iraq has heightened the significance of Kerry's Vietnam experience, as words like "quagmire" return to the political lexicon. There's irony in the fact that Kerry once again is finding himself caught in a conflict he initially supported, but has come to oppose, based on what he sees as a betrayal of the public trust.
Still, for many voters now, Kerry's role in Vietnam is no more than a hazy memory - as is much of the nation's memory of the war itself.
Waiting to meet him, Joyce Averill says she recently saw footage of his 1971 Senate testimony. She didn't know much about his stance on Vietnam, she says, but got the impression "he was certainly not for that." She did note one thing: "how young he was - and how long his hair was."
John Kerry is hungry. It's nearing 4 in the afternoon, and although he's heading to a hotel for an hour or so of phone calls - and the possibility of a real meal - it clearly can't come soon enough. His aides rifle around the van, looking for snacks. One hands him a brown paper bag. "No, that's just fruit," Kerry says, with a hint of irritation.
His hunger is understandable, on a day that has already taken him on a red-eye from Phoenix to a funeral for Tip O'Neill's wife in Cambridge, Mass., to a meet-the-candidate event in Exeter, to a tour of a small business in Newmarket.
But in Kerry's case, it also seems inherent - the byproduct of a long, lean frame and a restless nature that by his own admission seeks a constant whirl of activity. While any politician pursuing the White House must be highly ambitious, Kerry has always seemed more insatiable than most.
On this day, he takes matters into his own hands, ducking into a weathered waterfront cafe for lobster quesadillas. It's a moment of freedom for a man whose every minute is scheduled. But even here, he acts deliberately: An avid windsurfer, he sits with his back to the water, saying the view "would just make me want to be out there."
As the primary battle enters the final stretch, this intense drive may give Kerry an edge. Longtime observers note that in previous campaigns, such as Kerry's epic 1996 Senate battle against then-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, he's often lagged behind until the final weeks, when he unleashes a concentrated burst of strength. "The best candidate Kerry can be is likely to show up in the last two months of the campaign," says Mr. DiNatale. "He tends to save his best stuff for the stretch."