Rocket Man and I were talking the other day, and we wondered why John Kerry decided to make so much at the convention of his tour of duty when he knew, or should have known, that the Swiftvets were prepared to deflate Kerry on this matter. The smart play was to use his service defensively, to respond to attacks on his willingness to defend the country, rather than to make it the leitmotif of his campaign, thus inviting attacks that might otherwise be viewed as gratuitous. Why didn’t Kerry see this.
The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, Kerry, his handlers, and his party probably sensed that they had little choice. During the late 1990s and through 2000 America was, as the cliche went, a 50-50 nation. But 9/11 threatened to change this, and the election of 2002 showed that the threat was real. At the end of 2003, the Democrats were poised to lose even more ground by nominating “peacenik” Howard Dean. John Kerry, aided by his swiftboat mates, seemed to rescue them from this prospect, but the rescue could not be complete unless non-leftists viewed Kerry, in contrast to Dean, as sound on national security. This meant defining Kerry as sound, rather than waiting for the Republicans to define him. Thus, the central theme (or at least the central word) of the convention was “strength,” and the central biographical fact, one that dovetailed nicely with this theme, was Kerry’s swiftboat service.
What were the alternatives? The number one thing that most Democrats wanted to do was bash Bush to the hilt. But this was more or less off the table because the party decided not to go hard negative. The number two thing they wanted to do was tout their liberal ideas. But these ideas are mostly unpopular. Better to talk about strength. And what appealing biographical facts does Kerry have to talk about other than his Vietnam medals? He would have loved to talk about the way he stood up to Nixon and denounced the Vietnam war, but that clearly wouldn’t do. What else was there? His support of Central American leftists? His opposition to weapons programs and intelligence funding? His marriages?
But this explanation is not completely satisfactory. In the abstract, of course, it’s better to define oneself than to respond to someone else’s definition. There’s little to be said, though, for defining oneself in a way that will lead to potentially devastating attacks on one’s credibility. Why did Kerry do this? The answer, as Rocket Man suggested during our conversation, may well be that Kerry lives in a bubble — a bubble of wealth, status, and privilege. Inside his bubble, Kerry is simultaneously a war hero and an anti-war hero. Inside his bubble, those who question either status are transparent liars who, as such, lack the power to injure him. Why not invite them to “bring it on.” Who knows whether, inside his bubble, Kerry even has a clear recollection of what happened in Vietnam? The other swiftvets remember, but that’s because they didn’t move on to bigger and things like coming home and accusing their comrades of war crimes or running as an anti-war candidate for Congress. They don’t live in a bubble, and for that reason they just might burst Kerry’s.
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