This morning’s Wall Street Journal takes a look at John Kerry’s efforts to explain his votes against the Gulf War in 1991 and in favor of the war against Saddam Hussein in 2002: “Brainwashed?” In this connection the Journal recalls the evanescence of Michigan Governor George Romney from the national stage after he asserted in 1967 that his former support of the Vietnam War had been the result of “brainwashing” during a trip to Vietnam. I don’t know if comedian Mort Sahl stole the joke, but I vividly remember him saying at the time that Romney didn’t need to be brainwashed; in his case, a light rinse would suffice.
David Skinner has tracked down and read Kerry’s second book — you may recall our look at his first book, The New Soldier — 1997’s The New War: “The senator as author.” The book that will form the basis of Kerry’s campaign, however, is historian Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. Andrew Ferguson reviews the book in the current issue of the Weekly Standard: “Arms and the man.”
Ferguson relegates Brinkley to the category of “presidential historian” — you know, like Arthur Schlesinger. Ferguson is cynical and funny about Brinkley and about the book, but respectful of Kerry’s distinguished service:
Brinkley writes at great length about Kerry’s antiwar activism and only a bit less about his later political career. For anyone interested in these phases of the story, however, “Tour of Duty” is nearly worthless. His devotion to Kerry is simply too large. Brinkley spends a single paragraph on the medal-throwing, for example, and though he dedicates many pages to Kerry’s courtship of his first wife, he mentions their divorce in a single phrase. All the less commendable events of the post-Vietnam career are ignored or smoothed over.
This is, as we’ve seen, a professional hazard common to “presidential historians.” Yet the same reticence is shared also by two generations of Americans, who have never seen combat themselves, or indeed any kind of life-threatening struggle, and who puzzle over what they might do if they did. In a country like ours, where life is generally so soft and easeful, heroism is a special kind of conversation-stopper. What are we to do when confronted with a veteran like Kerry, who charged when we might have run, whose courage came out when the stakes were highest?
We look at our shoes and shuffle our feet. We don’t ask too many questions. We shut up. We let him go on and on about his “life of service to our country.” As we should.