Battle of the biographies

Noemie Emery evaluates the lives on display in the respective candidacies of John Kerry and George Bush. Her analysis of both men seems acute, though Kerry’s is the harder case to explain. Emery describes better than she explains, but the description is revealing:

Coming home as a hero in a war that was increasingly seen as a source of contention, he positioned himself on all sides of the question, giving every side something to cling to. His heroism established, he protested the war, becoming a hero to those who despised the armed forces. Having risked his life many times to save those around him, he accused the U.S. armed forces of terrible deeds. The signature event occurred in the April 1971 protest, when he threw another soldier’s medals onto the steps of the Capitol. A self-centered nature, not seen on the battlefield, started to come to the fore. He became (in the Washington Post’s paraphrase of his critics) “someone who votes one way and then describes those votes another way, . . . a politician who changes with the times.”

She credits Kerry with maturity and bravery as a young man while damning him as a gutless pol throughout his career in elective office. She notes that he has sought to have it all ways throughout his career in the Senate:

Kerry’s MO is to support something (or at least not attack it) and then attack people who act on his words. He attacks Bush for trashing the Kyoto Treaty, but did not support it when it came up in the Senate; voted for Bush’s education program, and then savaged it; supported the Patriot Act, and savaged John Ashcroft when he carried it out. He was for a unilateral American foreign policy when proposed by Bill Clinton, against it when suggested by either George Bush. There is always an “out” built into his positions. “While trying to do the right thing, Kerry has always sought to make himself a thinner target,” William Saletan observed in Slate. “He was for affirmative action, just not this affirmative action. He was for a drug war, just not this drug war. He was for an Iraq war, just not this Iraq war.” He is for everything in the abstract but not in the particular, and never in the way it’s carried out. He is for an ideal, but never in the form presented; for weapons systems, but not those actually proposed; for the use of force, but under no conditions that anybody can imagine or foresee. He voted against the first Gulf War in 1991, but said he was not against using force then, and he voted for the second Gulf War in 2002, but said he never imagined that force would be used. In 2002, 2003, and 2004, he attacked George Bush the younger for not having taken the route followed by George Bush the elder, which he hadn’t supported at the time. In 1991, he accused the elder George Bush of a “rush into war” (does this sound familiar?) and derided his coalition as “bizarre new bedfellows” and “shadowy battlefield allies.”
Thus, Kerry played up his support for the war when that appeared popular, and changed to attacking it when he faced an antiwar electorate in the primary states. When Howard Dean soared in early polling, Kerry assailed Bush from the left for having started the war. When Saddam was captured, Kerry trumpeted his support for the war, and attacked Dean from the right. Then the Kay report came out, and Kerry switched back again. (Look for a new switch when Osama bin Laden is captured; c’est la guerre.) Even the attack by his campaign on Bush as a “deserter” for his National Guard record is an unprincipled switch from Kerry’s rhetoric in 1992, when the draft-dodging Bill Clinton was running for president: “I am saddened by the fact that Vietnam has yet again been inserted into the campaign. . . . We do not need to divide America over who served and how,” he said then on the floor of the Senate.

She finds the curve of George Bush’s life to be the mirror image of Kerry’s:

Bush by contrast was the perpetual prankster, a man who seemed always a boy. While Kerry was being elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982, and senator two years later, Bush was engaged in failed business ventures and drinking heavily. Inspired by his initials–JFK–Kerry decided on public life as a child. Bush, in his forties, was still wondering what he wanted to be when he grew up. In his book “All the Presidents’ Children,” Bush’s friend Doug Wead puts a new slant on this story, seeing George W. Bush as having escaped by mere inches the fate of a great many sons of presidents (especially first sons and presidents’ namesakes), who lived out their lives as perennial children, or tried and failed to match Dad, and cracked. What seems clear is that Bush was very much still his father’s son in 1988 when that father was elected president; and it was only after his father had lost big in public that his own serious life could begin. “George is the family clown,” one of his brothers told Wead in 1988, the year their father was elected president…George W. Bush, who avoided combat in Vietnam, was nonetheless turned by war into a combat politician, taking stark stands, making raids into unknown and perilous country, exposing his flanks to political enemies.

Emery’s analysis amply supports her conclusion:

If it is hard to extrapolate from the frat boy he once was to the grim and driven President George W. Bush of the present, it is just as hard to project the self-protective, self-serving John Kerry from the daredevil hero who served in Vietnam. Lives do not always proceed in predictable patterns, and we may have a choice between a classic late bloomer who has just reached his powers, and a morning glory, who hit his peak early and has not matched it since. In the late 1960s, John Kerry was the better man, as well as the far more mature one. In 2004, in terms of political maturity and courage, the far better man is George W. Bush.

Emery’s article in the issue of the Weekly Standard out this morning is “The battle of the biographies.”

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