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The Campaigners

March 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: George Bush and John Kerry: two men, close in age but with very different histories. What do those histories tell us about the campaign to come?

For some answers we turn to Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at the University of New Orleans. He’s the author of the new book, “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War;” and Fred Greenstein, professor of politics at Princeton University; he is the editor of a forthcoming book, “The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment.” He’s also author of “The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush.” Welcome to you both.

This promises certainly to be a very tough campaign. Let’s look at the — at what history tells us about how these two men operate under such severe pressure — Doug Brinkley beginning with you and Senator Kerry.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: John Kerry’s a great counter puncher. If you punch him he punches back harder. There’s a great resilience to him. All you have to do is look at what happened to Governor Weld; when he found himself going into debates with Kerry.

Kerry starting scoring punches and then Weld made the classic mistake and that is criticizing Kerry for flip-flopping on Vietnam. Kerry called together a group of men known as the Dog Hunters; today they are the band of brothers. These are Vietnam vets that circle him and vouch for him. It’s often time the veterans that do more to help John Kerry than anybody else on the campaign trail.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Greenstein what about President Bush, what tells us what he does under pressure?

FRED GREENSTEIN: I don’t think you see much in his early history but if you look at him in the 2000 campaign and in the presidency, you see someone who is really rather cool and effective under pressure. At any rate resilient in the face of difficulties.

He lost the New Hampshire primary to Senator McCain, he bounced back and did not become cowed and pushed on to win the nomination. After 9/11, some people felt he was a little bit wobbly on the night of 9/11 but before that week was over and certainly in the months ahead, he seemed strong, forceful and there was by the responsibilities that he faced.

MARGARET WARNER: It goes without saying both these men want to win but Professor Greenstein staying with you for a minute, how driven really do you think George W. Bush is to get reelected and where does that come from, again in his history?

FRED GREENSTEIN: I think it’s a history of evolution and change. President Harry Truman used to say that the presidency is an office in which one either grows or swells. Now extending that to the life of George W. Bush, he is one who has shown growth. Until the age of 40 his adult life was a kind of feckless affair, drinking, its underachieving son of a super achieving leader named George H.W. Bush but he got his act together, proceeded — really made his mark.

There were points in the 2000 campaign, particularly the nominating campaign where the younger Bush seemed a little bit listless, made remarks that indicated he didn’t really like being on the campaign trail — told reporters it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he was defeated. But after 9/11 you get the powerful impression of somebody with a great sense of mission. And I think he is absolutely determined to be the Bush who is a two-term president.

MARGARET WARNER: How important would you say it is to him — it’s often said that he definitely doesn’t want to repeat what happened to his father being rejected for a second term. Do you think that’s a big motivator?

FRED GREENSTEIN: I think it is. He himself has said he has learned from his father’s experience. One of the things he has learned is that you should not be an in-box president. His father was the one who made light of the vision thing, as the senior Bush put it. The senior Bush was enormously political adept and experienced, but there was not a strong sense of direction to his presidency, as he went into politics, which he did at the elective sense when he ran for the governorship of Texas, he set goals, pursued them. It’s a real strength of his to be on message and to control the agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Brinkley back to you and Senator Kerry. Same basic question: He thought about running for president in 2000 — decided not to. How driven is he to win this and where does that come from?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: He is very driven as you have to be to want to — a lot of people try to climb the mountain and only a few of them make it to the White House in politics. He gets it a lot from Richard Kerry. John Kerry was born in Denver, Colo. His father was a test pilot going in high altitudes during World War II. Kerry was born in the hospital while his father was struggling for his life. Then his father want into the foreign service. First he got his paychecks from the government and then the Army air corps and then the service.

The young John Kerry bounced around a lot and learned to be self-sufficient. He went on his own to places like — camped in Nottingham Forest looking for Robin Hood as a young boy or went to those white crosses at the beaches of Normandy and contemplated what D-Day meant. He told me in an interview once he remembered taking a train from Berlin then to Frankfurt them to Zurich in the height of the Cold War and seeing Soviet troops out his window when he was reading comic books and how scared he was to be on his own. He is somebody who has been very self-sufficient for a long time.

And if you cut to 1996 when Kerry is asked to give the class oration at Yale, and he is opposed to Johnson’s policies in Vietnam yet he’s enlisted in the Navy, that’s classic Richard Kerry, his father, meaning you respect service to the United States even if you are opposed to a policy. So when you study the early years of John Kerry and see the influence of Richard Kerry on him, it’s not surprising that he had the views he had. I might add when he came home in March of 1969, John Kerry with three purple hearts, he did not protest the war, join VAW, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, until he was out of uniform because from his family he had a great respect for U.S., what U.S. Navy uniform meant.

MARGARET WARNER: The big focus of your book of course is the Vietnam experience. How does that shape the candidate and campaigner voters will see?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, you know, coming from a life of privilege like John Kerry did, getting to go to private schools and Yale, you might want to say he lived in a rarefied world as a young man, meeting Conrad Adnauer in Germany or getting to see Jean Benet through his father. Suddenly in Vietnam he was with men from Selma, Ala., and Illinois and Columbia, S.C., and Ames, Iowa, many of them had just graduated from high school and never went to college. If they did go to college it was a two-year technical school.

If you read Herman Melville or Stephen Crane or any great writers who write about the sea being on a ship you get to know each other. And so Kerry was the lieutenant, head of two swift boats and Paul Alexander, who did a biography of John McCain did a wonderful film about this called “Brothers in Arms,” you see on the swift boats all these men got respect Kerry. He wasn’t able to show off that he knew foreign languages or that he had a sense of the poetry of Tennessee and Kipling. He had to be very real.

I think the fact that over these decades the so-called band of brothers, all them except for maybe one or two have been standing by his said side on the campaign trail means a great deal to him. It’s been — his introduction to raw democracy came through the U.S. Navy he has never forgot. He is never more comfortable than he is with the men he served with on the 44 and 94 boats.

MARGARET WARNER: A campaign of course is a seesaw, sometimes a candidate is up; sometimes he’s down. Sometimes something really unexpected happens. Professor Greenstein what does this tell us about where in what circumstance George Bush performs best.

FRED GREENSTEIN: George Bush is someone who certainly has responded to circumstances. You always do have to make the qualification before and after with George — with George W. Bush. Before his so-called nomadic years as he likes to put it, the years when he was — when he was young and responsible — irresponsible — namely before he went on the wagon and found, found religion, you don’t find him responding to circumstances very dramatically, although even then, say in the 1970s when a congressional seat opened up in his district he chose to run — to run for Congress.

But his life and focus and his response to circumstances is much more decisive and emphatic after ’41 and then within his presidency there’s much less of a sense that he is bound to make something of the presidency in the eight months before 9/11 than in the period beyond it. I think it does help him to experience a shock of one kind or another and then he is likely to focus on and put in major effort and be highly determined.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Brinkley, would you say — does the same thing apply to John Kerry that he is more effective when either he has got his back against the wall or something unexpected has happened that he has to respond to?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: It seems to be that way when you study his biography. When you talk to the guys in Vietnam, like I did, and I’ve interviewed all the men of his two Swift boats, except for one, most of them tell stories of when — a moment of crisis he responds so quickly and in the right way and if you look at even some of his campaign this past year was quite lackluster in most of 2003 and suddenly in January he was right on message and everything started to be working for him. The media was using the word a closer in baseball terms a clutch hitter.

Why he is this way is sometimes hard to say but I think it’s because he’s a very rounded person. He has a lot of thing he’s does in his life. He is somebody who writes poetry on the side. He plays guitar. He loves to travel. He is somebody who has a varied life, not just politics. When it gets boiled down to the pressure he becomes 110 percent politics at that moment.

MARGARET WARNER: When the pressure comes on and he has to make a decision is he cautious or willing to roll the dice, take a risk?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: I think he is cautious up until the pressure is on and then willing to take a risk. As he said when he was in Vietnam and saw his friends killed he saw how short life is. He was taken with Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and he saw how short their lives were.

I can promise you in 2004 he’s not looking to run in 2008; this is John Kerry’s one shot at it and he is going to give everything he has got to the point of fatigue. He will collapse on the campaign trail before he decides to take a week off and rest. This is a man who had prostate cancer a year ago and still really hasn’t taken a day off since the operation.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Greenstein in a campaign as both these men with will, a lot of advisors, a lot of pollsters and yet often a moment comes in a campaign when a candidate has to go with his gut or her gut political instincts, when there’s a decision only he or she can make. How good are President Bush’s political instincts, what does history tell us about that?

FRED GREENSTEIN: They are excellent. He is a natural politician. At least he is a natural domestic politician. Obviously his political aspect of his presidency hasn’t traveled abroad and won friends and admirers in the rest of the world as much as I’m sure his own administration and he might have hoped.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us an example of his domestic political instincts being good where he had to make his own decision.

FRED GREENSTEIN: Well, here you can push back on him. Here you can look before age 40. This is a man whose uncle once thought he would become a professional political consultant. George W. Bush at 18 works on his father’s Senate campaign. Later in his — he then goes on to Yale and — either late in his — late in his Yale years he works on his father’s House campaigns. He actually runs several congressional campaigns, he runs for office himself.

When his dad ran for office in ’88, he became the co-director of his dad’s election campaign working hand and glove with the legendary Lee Atwater. This is a guy I think who in some ways, for much of his life as been at core an electoral politician and I think his instincts are very strong.

MARGARET WARNER: Same question to you about Senator Kerry but perhaps briefly because we’re out of time — political instincts?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: He has very good ones. He does the best when he is prosecutor. After Kerry lost his congressional races in 1970 and 1972 and he ran as an anti-Vietnam war candidate; he got clobbered. The Republicans went after him. Kerry did two things. He took off a decade. Got his law degree, became a prosecuting attorney. He likes to prosecute people. If you look at the great moments in his Senate career, it’s when he went after the Reagan administration for the Iran Contra Affair, when he went after people in the BBCI scandal. If you look at his campaign, he is really taking the case to President Bush. That’s that instincts of a prosecutor that he has.

MARGARET WARNER: Douglas Brinkley and Fred Greenstein, thank you both for joining us.