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douglas brinkley

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Douglas Brinkley is the author of Tour of Duty - John Kerry and the Vietnam War and professor of history at the University of New Orleans. In this interview Brinkley offers an overview of Kerry's childhood, family and early ambition and details his combat experience in Vietnam and leadership in the anti-war movement. Commentng on Kerry's "core" as a politician, Brinkley tells FRONTLINE, "Some have said there are two types of politicians. There are ones that go from port A to port B, straight ahead. Then there are political sailors who tack with the wind, the way FDR was. You twist and turn to get to where you want to go. Kerry has an objective. It's to win the presidency. He's going to do whatever he can to do it, and it's not going to be in just this straightforward way." This interview was conducted on April 20, 2004.

He's more ambitious than just about anybody that you would encounter. But that ambition comes out of a great love of history and politics.

Where is Kerry from?

Many people don't realize John Kerry was born in Denver, Colorado. … His father was a fighter pilot during World War II and was bouncing all over the United States. … He would fly these planes, like in "The Right Stuff," at the highest altitude imaginable. So he contracted the airborne disease tuberculosis. Starting in World War I, it became a tradition, if you got TB you went into the Rocky Mountain climate and you'd go to Denver. …

So he's born at Fitzsimmons General Hospital in Denver. They move shortly after that back to the East Coast because he father has to get out of the military. He can't officially fly airplanes anymore and has to start readjusting for the new family life. He believes in public service so deeply, his father, and wants to continue working with the government. But he heads now into the State Department.

In Kerry's case, you get the feeling that he's from a place, but it's not a physical place, if you will. So what is that place that he's from?

It's a good question. He's from the bosom of New England establishment thinking. He's from the prep schools that populate all the New England states. He's a son of Yale University. He's somebody who, due to the fact that he never really had roots anywhere, lived all over Massachusetts and then Washington, D.C., and spent time in boarding schools in Switzerland and was in Oslo and in Berlin -- never had a physical place.

… So he came from a place of really the WASP establishment, as it used to be called. The people he looked up to before John Kennedy were the people his father looked up to: Henry Stimson, Harvey Bundy, people like the Tafts, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, people that were key in the hierarchy of Yale. You get John Kerry falling into that.

But yet John Kennedy's something more exciting. If there is a physical place -- his father, Richard Kerry, was born in Brookline, [Mass.],the same place John Kennedy was born. Even though there's Jewish roots in the Kerry family on his father's side -- he's Jewish -- he was raised Catholic. So now here with John Kennedy in 1960 running for president. Kerry's in prep school, and the guy running for president is from the same town his father is born in. He's a Catholic from Massachusetts. The Kennedys represent a continuation of both the establishment and the Roosevelt New Dealers.

But yet there was something different. There was this new Kennedy twist to it, which was one of adventure and vigor, and kind of Emersonian self-reliance and personal courage and all these things. So you see John Kerry, I think, buying into both John Kennedy, but also into his father's Wise Men establishment.


He's from this place that you've described very well. What's that place like? What are the values? What do they want out of life?

There's an elitist side to it, saying that some people rise above others, that there is such a thing as an aristocracy in America, and it's something to strive for, to be part of it. It did not come natural to John Kerry. He had to kind of strive to be part of that aristocracy.

But at its best, it's about duty to country. It's about a sense of a personal integrity and honor. It's a sense of a collegialness with peers. It's a sense of doing your best. It's what you would seek carved in stone on the walls at Yale or Harvard or Princeton. It's a continuation of feeling that, in a democracy, you can't have just raw mob rule; that you're going to have to have an educated class that can make decisions, particularly in foreign affairs and on issues of international banking or the world at large.

It's a world that people like Theodore Roosevelt came out of, and Franklin Roosevelt came out of in the Democratic Party. In the Republican Party, it's a world Robert Taft came out of. It's not a world of West Point sense of duty, like Dwight Eisenhower. It's more of a sense that culture is important, and that culture is Western civilization, that there's a lot to be learned from the traditions of Great Britain, and that special relationship with Britain and schools like Oxford and Cambridge -- the whole Rhodes scholar concept which still permeates our country.

How is Kerry an outsider, at St. Paul's in particular and to some extent Yale? Here's a guy who has Boston Brahmin blood. He's a member of the Forbes family on his mother's side. His father, though Catholic with Jewish blood, is personal friends with various grand men of the establishment. What's so outsider about that?

Well, first off, you have to look at his mother and father like you do when you do a biography of anybody. Richard Kerry not only was a pilot in World War II, but was a civil servant. He did not come from money. Real name was Kohn -- it got changed to Kerry. His father committed suicide. There was, on his father's side, a kind of bankruptcy that had occurred in the family.

He was simply getting paid civil servant paychecks when he was working in Washington or Berlin and Oslo -- not much money. Rosemary, his mother, did come from the Forbes clan of Massachusetts. It's called old money, but that old man had gotten worn down.

John Kerry only went to prep schools because he had an aunt who had the money to pay for his way into those prep schools. So here's somebody who couldn't afford to go to those. So while he was going there, he knew that his mother and father did not have the money to even send him there.

Look, you don't have to feel sorry for this person. He's coming from a pedigree of sorts from his mother's side of the family, and there's access to money. He was never without pocket change. But when you're in your teens and your peers are coming from these very wealthy families, you're going to spend your weekend at their mansions on Long Island or beautiful homes on Cape Cod.

Kerry was sort of a rootless guy, always staying in the extra bedroom of these houses. He was kind of feeding off of that establishment. Because of it, he seemed to be more of a striver. There was a feeling at prep school where Kerry was that when you come from a lot of money, you come from a lot of wealth, you would carry yourself with a bit of detachment, and a bit of an air of superiority, or you didn't have to learn -- you came from a kind of trained aristocracy.

Kerry was always striving, always trying to be number one. Always trying to overdo it, in that he had an overachiever status. I saw this once when I wrote a book on James Forrestal, who had that same thing -- an Irish Catholic, and you watch his way through prep schools and into Princeton -- always pushing harder than everybody. It grates on some people. He wants to win the debate; he doesn't want to be the head of one club, but head of three clubs. ...

So Kerry is, from earliest age we can determine, more openly ambitious than other members of this tiny little world he's in?

I think he's more ambitious than just about anybody that you would encounter. But that ambition comes out of a great love of history and politics.

I looked through his archive, and it's stunning to see the correspondence. In college at Yale, he has a letter from Claire Boothe Luce and a letter from Clementine Churchill, and photographs of himself with four or five U.S. senators. He has already had personal photos and encounters with President John Kennedy, and is dating Janet Auchincloss and is rooming with Harvey Bundy. It's extraordinary stuff when you go look through the scrapbooks of John Kerry in this period. He's somebody who is consciously putting himself in that milieu, when Richard Kerry and Rosemary, his parents, weren't really fully part of that.

It's not like JFK, or FDR, where the parent is sort of putting a booster rocket on the kid and saying, "You are a child of destiny." It's somehow coming from within him somewhere?

I think it's coming from his love of history and his great readings that he did as a child on biography, of reading a lot of Winston Churchill, who was his first early hero. It's the Churchill of the Boer War and that he could be the swashbuckling hero.

John Kerry has a very vivid imagination as a young person. I mean, he actually did go and take his bicycle from Norway to go camp in Sherwood Forest to be around the ghost of Robin Hood. His father's sense of New England patrician background comes a lot from Emerson and this incredible notion of self-reliance, and also Emerson's essay, which Bobby Kennedy loved, on what is a hero.

John Kerry wants to be the hero in his own drama. He likes King Arthur and the Round Table. He likes the young swashbuckling Churchill, and he loved the early antics of Theodore Roosevelt. He is going to become a great American hero of some sort, I believe, and it's through history and reading, more than [through] his father.

What his father gave him, though, was this notion of self-reliance. His dad used to blindfold him in the fog, put him on a boat in the harbor, and say, "Make your way back to shore without seeing," meaning, "I want [you] to learn how to navigate by feel." Not many parents go to that extreme of teaching a kid the need for self-reliance.

John Kerry told me in an interview once how he used to go by himself and walk from Berlin, in the height of the Cold War, from their house. Walk to a train station, buy comic books and candy bars, and have to go commute back to Switzerland on a train by himself. He'd be looking out the window at Soviet troops with the guns, and he's all alone.

He got yellow fever when he was in Switzerland boarding school. He was dying for his parents to come see him, and his mom and dad never came to visit him. They were living in Berlin. ... It was very lonely. So he turned to history. He turned to figures in history. Books became a great friend to John Kerry as a young man.

When I've read these correspondence, there's one from Switzerland I read. It goes on for pages about every detail of what it was like there. He's somebody very well aware of the world of letters and the world of politics and the world of heroism. When you read his correspondence in Vietnam -- and here he's dissenting -- he's knows about Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, the British World War I soldier protest poets. How many guys are in Vietnam and have that kind of literary ammunition in their decision-making capacity? ...

What's the difference between Kerry and Bush, if there is one? They both come from these families that are entranced with the idea of public service. They both come from old Yale families. They've both been interested in politics, I think, from an early age. How are they different from each other?

Richard Kerry and Rosemary weren't interested in making money. The Bushes were. The Bush family moved to Florida and Texas to get into the oil business, which was where the riches were. They've suddenly made the connection of the Eastern establishment to the Houston petroleum club.

Richard Kerry and Rosemary are not doing that. Richard Kerry is comfortable with his civil servant pay, writing one memoir in the Star Spangled Mirror about his time in the diplomatic corps. John's mother Rosemary's biggest concern in life was the Audubon Society and how to keep the natural beauty of Cape Cod pristine. They are not looking to find new ways to make money in a booming American post-war economy the way the Bush family was.

George W. though, and John Kerry -- how are they different from each other?

I think they're completely different people in these ways. George W. Bush was not interested in Kierkegaard and Heidegger and reading all these books. He was not interested in the European tradition of education that you would show off by how you could recite your Rudyard Kipling the way Kerry would, or that you knew Yates, or that you spoke foreign languages.

When you talk to people that were with them both at Yale, Bush's feeling of inferiority in intellectual conversation turned him to Texas, where being an intellectual was frowned upon. You just had to wear cowboy boots and talk straight, talk hard, buy into the myths or reality of the Alamo and Sam Houston and San Jacinto and some of these kind of American stories. You didn't have to go learn your Portuguese. You didn't have to show off that you out-debate somebody for two hours.

So Kerry is much more of a trans-Atlantic person. He believes in this Atlantic alliance. Kerry thought that was a sign of success, that you could stay up all night and debate David Hume with somebody. George W. Bush learned that "Well, all I need to do is get along with the guys." There's a great populist streak in George W. Bush, in the American grain of it, that you get along with the working-class people. In that way, Midland, Texas, is the intellectual home of George W. Bush.

Is Bush ambitious in the way that Kerry's ambitious?

Obviously you don't run for president and have the arrogance to think that you are the best person to lead the country if you're not cocksure about yourself in some way, and are very, very ambitious. There's no higher office to seek.

But I think if you cut to their teens and 20s, I don't think George W. Bush saw a sense of destiny for himself yet. I think he was looking for good times. He was looking to make some money.

[He had a] lack of intellectual curiosity. George W. Bush had every opportunity in the world to travel the world and he didn't care to go to China with his father. He didn't care to go put the backpack on or not, to stay at great hotels, and go to France and Germany and Portugal. It didn't interest him. There's a intense lack of curiosity with the young George W. Bush about the world at large.

John Kerry, on the other hand, spends his whole growing-up years bragging about his knowledge of the world at large. "I've been to all the Scandinavian countries." He'd been to every Western European country. Once when they drove from France with Harvey Bundy -- they were heading to Austria. He made a point [of making] them get off the main road to go to Liechtenstein, because he wanted the passport stamp so he could show he was in every European country. George W. Bush could care less about such a thing.

I think that there's just that difference of approach in ambition. Kerry was seeing himself in a global context. Bush was seeing himself, I think, in getting along with his immediate peers.

For a presidential-caliber politician of Kerry's generation to have gone to Vietnam, it was quite easy, as we all know at the time, not to go. ... Most didn't go. Cheney didn't go. Bush didn't go; on and on and on. Clinton didn't go. Why did Kerry go?

Well, first off, you have to put into perspective [that Kerry was ] waiting enlisted in late 1965. Lyndon Johnson has just started the escalation. It wasn't apparent that we were going to be stuck there for so many years. I think that's always important to keep in mind.

But look, there are a couple things operating in John Kerry. One is his father Richard Kerry's sense of public service. Richard Kerry loved the military. He would've stayed in it if he had not contracted TB. The thought that his son would serve in uniform, even though he was against the policy in Vietnam, made perfect sense in the Kerry household; meaning, his father thought it's a great thing for his sons to spend their time in the military. Richard Kerry was old-fashioned in that way, kind of part of the World War II generation that looked at it as a rite of passage for growing up. Yes, you go to college, but then you have to serve your country for a few years in the military. It's good for you.

So he had encouragement from his father on that score. But more importantly, [he had] his two best friends in Skull and Bones, Dick Pershing and Freddie Smith. Pershing, General Blackjack Pershing's grandson, was gung-ho about Vietnam and the military, and was going. Freddie Smith, who used to fly planes with the young John Kerry and went on to found Federal Express, joined the U.S. Marines, and he was gung-ho. So for Kerry, with the group of guys at that age he's with, they're all joining the military.

John F. Kennedy had said, "Pay any price, bear any burden." Lyndon Johnson had won in 1964, a landslide. This was the Democrat Lyndon Johnson's war, from Kerry's perspective. There's no guarantee by signing up to the Navy that he was going to see combat in Vietnam at that point. He might go there for a tour of duty.

But [aside from] that, it seemed like a great adventure. Again, he loved the stories of the young Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. He loved the stories of Winston Churchill and the Boer War. He loved the stories of John F. Kennedy in "PT-109."

I've read all of his messages in the Kerry archive. Well, when he was on the Navy on the USS Gridley, he would read in the morning on the radio. He has one about the Solomon Islands. He'd write these little history vignettes, and one of them was all about John Kennedy and PT-109. So this combination of friends, family and his political heroes -- what was his option? To not go, to try to skirt the war, to look for an easy billet in the National Guard or go to Canada or claim you're on a Ph.D. program? That wasn't who John Kerry was as a person. ...

Tell us what happened to Pershing.

Dick Pershing was the real life of the party at Yale. He's a larger-than-life figure. All women wanted to hang out with him. He was a great flirt. All the guys wanted to be like him. If you look at pictures of him from Vietnam that exist, you'll see as close a figure as Rambo as you'll ever see. …

When you're in your teens, you look up to somebody like that. John Kerry used to go with Dick Pershing to Park Avenue and see all the General Blackjack Pershing artifacts that just filled the penthouse in New York. Blackjack Pershing was one of John Kerry's heroes, too.

So Dick Pershing goes in and he gets blown up. He gets killed. Kerry, at this point, gets the news while he's on the USS Gridley. A telegram's handed to him. He gets nauseous, and he grabs a hold of the railing and he reads it. His buddy, the guy he most looked up to, the seminal reason that he joined the military and bought into the Vietnam venture, has been snuffed out.

This angers him tremendously. He writes these impassioned letters to his future wife, Julia. He writes a Mom and Dad letter and says, "I'll never be the same again. This, I will never forget -- that my friend is no longer here for this stupid war in Vietnam."

Why was he feeling it's stupid already in 1968? He had been reading a lot. He had been reading Bernard Fall. He had read Arthur Schlesinger. He had read Bobby Kennedy's To Make a Newer World. I saw in Kerry's library the copy of that book, which is so heavily underlined, it's almost unreadable. He had memorized Bobby Kennedy's view of the war. That book came out in 1967. It was a dissenting view of what was happening there. He had heard Eugene McCarthy speak at Fenway.

So Kerry is already feeling -- he's a Democratic dove on Vietnam. He's in uniform, and now Dick Pershing's gone. I think the prospect of corrosion starts in. You can feel every day his soul getting more and more destroyed by what's going on in Vietnam. He now is starting to almost do a study of the absurdity of U.S. government policy in Vietnam.

Why did Kerry keep such an extensive record of his thoughts in the form of letters and tapes? Most people don't do that, particularly the tapes. Is it a sense of destiny or history about himself, or a form of therapy, or what?

I remember Charles de Gaulle once used to say, "I'm going to be the next Joan of Arc of France." I think John Kerry knew that he was already somebody, which was John Kerry.

He had a very healthy sense of himself. He loved to write, and still loves to write. It's a natural form for him. I think sometimes he's better on paper than he is maybe interacting at a cocktail party.

It also was a place to pour his angst, his emotions. I've noticed a difference between the diaries and interviewing all the guys that that served with him in Vietnam, because in the diaries, he can talk to the heart. It was the real Kerry, and he's setting a record. I think he was setting a record against the U.S. government from the start, that he was going to document the absurdity of what the U.S. government was doing. He had in mind Wilfred Owen, Seigfried Sassoon and these types, and that it was going to be OK to be the dissenting soldier.

When he had to lead men on PCF-94, he couldn't tell them his anguish. He had to lead them. "We're going to pull through the firefight. We're going to make it out the canal. You'll be home next Christmas. We're going to get our mail tomorrow." He had to be cheerleader for his crews, which he did day after day, hour after hour. The diaries are where the reflecting Yale intellectual, who's interacting with blue-collar workers, most of them never went to college…..He's able to be the intellectual John Kerry, the soldier statesperson, the Churchill -- you know, the Kennedy -- in those diaries. I think it was a form of survival and therapy for him.

Do you think the thought of being president had already occurred to him by that time in life?

I've asked him that point blank, and he says no. But clearly, I've talked to other people who thought that he certainly, at the very least, thought he was going to become a congressman or U.S. senator someday.

Whether he thought as high as the president, I can't get into his mind. But I did get the look at the diary of Harvey Bundy's girlfriend Blakely [Fetridge]. In it, they throw a party, [where] they're pretending. Here, John Kerry's birthday, and for the birthday, she writes in her diary, "We spent the evening talking about when John Kerry's president, who will be secretary of agriculture? Who will be secretary of education?"

So his closest friends at Yale are already projecting on his birthday that John Kerry's going to be president someday. He knew that they were projecting that. So there was a feeling that someday he may be president. I think because of that, he's probably keenly aware of what he wrote. When I've looked at all his diaries, I was aware of the consciousness, the self-consciousness.

But what happened -- and convinced me of a genuineness in them -- is suddenly, he let loose. He would maybe start doing them and have some fancy writing about the winds -- he was reading John Hershey's book on sailing while he was there in Vietnam, and Truman Capote -- you can feel he's sort of trying to be eloquent. And then suddenly he gets news that a buddy has just killed. And the tone is, "We did it. What's going on?" It's no longer a guy writing in this high-minded way. There's something very guttural about some of the writing, and very anguished about it. I think in those passages of his Vietnam diaries, it's clear that this is just a guy using this for therapy, if you'd like, to cope with his reality.

You know, he wrote a lot of letters home. In the letters he wrote home to Mama and Papa, as he called them, they're kind of upbeat letters, mostly. I mean, he's complaining about this. But in the diaries, they're not upbeat. They're as dark as reading the existential thoughts of Conrad or something. It's grim stuff. Yet he's not sharing that grimness to his parents or girlfriend. He's keeping it to himself.

How is he as a commander, a leader to a group of men who were from a very different background from his own?

Remember about John Kerry -- he's 6'-4". Tall. Extraordinarily athletic. When he's running for president in 2004, he played hockey with Boston Bruins up in New Hampshire, and held his own at age 60. He was an extraordinary hockey player when he was young, great soccer player. Lacrosse, sailing, downhill skiing. So he's a very physically fit, athletic guy, and that counts a lot for men in their 20s. I mean, you can't call him a wimp, or he's not somebody who's a desk officer type. He's physical.

I think that endeared him to his men, the fact that he, in many ways, could outperform them on anything. ... That physical, athletic side of him, and his physical presence, the largeness of these hands -- they're these giant mitts he has -- I think stopped him from being considered effete.

Now did some people find him aloof? Sure. Did some people find him a Boston Brahmin? Yes. Did some people think he thought he was too good for them? A little bit. But once you got to know the guy, and he was so physical, he was able to fit in with the working-class people. I've interviewed dozens of people [from] Vietnam. Anybody that really was on a boat with John Kerry, except for one guy, will all tell you how incredible he was as a commanding officer on the boat. I mean, it's believable, because he grew up on water. He was a natural sailor. His father had trained him.

He spoke French, and the navigational maps the Swift boat guys were using in Vietnam, were French maps. He could talk to native people in French if they couldn't communicate sometimes with English.

He's a politician at heart. So he knew how to kind of win these guys over. He worked them a little bit to get their loyalty as their commanding officer. He let them call them John while on a swift boat. When they were back at shore, he was Lieutenant Kerry. But he was able to break down and really become a band of brothers. It's not phony when you go and watch John Kerry in 2004 in the campaign. I know who Drew Whitlow from Oklahoma is, or who Skip Barker from Alabama is, or Jim Wasser from Illinois. And these guys are standing by their former commanding officer, because he brought them home alive, and he was a first-rate skipper. ...

Any incidents from combat that particularly stand out in your mind or in his mind?

First off, as much as he likes, I think, to be a hero -- I mean, if he is a war hero or has a sense of romance of what that means in military history -- he was not looking for hard duty in Vietnam. To the contrary. He simply, from January to June of 1968, was on the USS Gridley. His job on the Gridley was maintenance, to spic and span polish the Gridley. He had one captain that was good. But he had another captain barking at him all the time. "Kerry, there's dust here, Kerry."

So his view is, "I'd love to get off this assignment of being maintenance guy on the Gridley." He sees in Danang Harbor, in the spring of 1968, a 50-foot aluminum Swift boat, shiny, beautiful little boats, just made out from Louisiana starting in 1965. He decides, "How do I get one?"

He finds out you apply to Swift boat school. If you get accepted in Swift boat school, this is what happens to you. First off, they send you home. You get off the Gridley. He could go see his girlfriend Julia in Massachusetts, which he did for two months -- no duty -- great two months with your girlfriend in New England for the summer. Then in August, you get to go to Swift school at Coronado, beautiful San Diego, for six weeks, where you're trained how to ride these beautiful, brand-new 50-foot boats. Then you go to become a member of Operation Market Time in Vietnam, whose sole job is to patrol the coast of Vietnam, 1,100 miles of Vietnamese coastland and coastline. You're doing Coast Guard duty. That's what Kerry put into.

He gets there, and Operation SEALORD is enacted. Now they're being sent into the river systems, and Kerry never bargained for that. And not only are they being sent into them -- the engines of those boats are heard from two miles away. It's like a Harley-Davidson roar. So if you're a Viet Cong sniper and you're a guerrilla, and you hear [this sound] coming, you go right to the main grove thicket, point up your weapon; it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Kerry was just simply tired of being shot at, tired of not having helicopter cover.

On each mission, as Admiral Zumwalt himself said, "You had a 70 percent chance of being maimed or wounded." Kerry's saying, "None of us guys in the Navy should have to put up with that." Every mission he went on was a possible death mission. So Kerry started thinking for himself on how [he] can survive. ...

Kerry is a very successful politician. He's lost [before], like Bush, and then has won consistently ever since. Yet he doesn't seem to have President Clinton's ability or President Bush's ability of really connecting with people. He leaves people a little cold. How do you explain it?

I once was doing an interview of John Kerry in Boston around Christmas. He had to break it up and was going to the eye doctor, and said, "You want to come along, and we can continue talking?" I said sure.

We entered a building in Boston. It was Christmas. Two maintenance workers in uniform, saw their U.S. Senator John Kerry. They were very thrilled to see their senator in the flesh. They walked up to him, and they looked like they were about to go hug him, and [say] "Merry Christmas."

Kerry simply bowed. I thought, "God, Bill Clinton would've had his arms all around these guys. 'Merry Christmas, guys.'" Most politicians would've. I asked Kerry after he left, "Why were you were so cold to them?" He said, "I respect them too much to go pawing on them. I don't like people grabbing and hugging me, and I don't want to be that kind of politician. I respect them too much."

I think he feels embarrassed by some of the realities of American politics, which is that over-gladhanding, over-hugging, backslapping. So I think there's a reticence to him. I think some people will see it as aloof; he finds it as being respectful for people. And it's worked for him.

…I think people see him as confident, somehow. I've been surprised in Massachusetts that he's not beloved, yet he ran last election unopposed and gets 80 percent of the vote. I think most people feel he's pretty good. I think they feel he's a pretty good senator, pretty good legislator. They don't find him an endearing character the way Ted Kennedy is up there. Ted Kennedy is the big bear-hug guy, but I think he's been able to be successful by being that way.

You know, I promise you one thing. He keeps a part of himself that nobody gets to. I don't care how much pressure the media puts on him in 2004. They'll never know a part of John Kerry that's a bit of a loner, that's very isolated. It's his survival area. You can see it when he goes to his own study up in Boston. He's engaged in public life. But he will never let being the senator or a national figure overwhelm his essence. He's created -- it may be a way for him to cope with life.

There's a core John Kerry that will never fully give into that kind of populist backslapping. He's doing it more. He has to do it more to survive. But he'll always maintain a kind of dignified approach to the way he comports himself.

What are the parts of being a politician that he's best at, do you think, and that would account for his success?

I think John Kerry really is a Boy Scout who loves America and cares deeply about all these issues. He really believes in the political system. When you look at his protest in the Vietnam War, he wanted to do it within the system. He went to the State Department and complained. He testified on Capitol Hill. I think he realizes that he's not somebody like Jimmy Carter, who used to say, "My politics is the sad duty of establishing politics in a sinful world." Politics is not a sad duty to John Kerry. He enjoys it. He thinks he's helping people's lives.

He's a guy who, [when he was] young, thought about being a priest. He's somebody who cares a lot about people. He meets somebody who's homeless or he meets somebody who's trying to get a college tuition grant or he meets somebody laid off the job, he listens to their stories and likes the fact that he's in a position to help them. In that way, he pulls for the underdog. It's part of an aristocratic tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, and I think it's very, very real.

He has an extraordinary amount of compassion, and he does hear people. I find that Kerry's greatest gift as a politician is his ability to listen. I saw it all through his time in Vietnam. People thought it was weird that he was interviewing people about incidents on the Bo De River. Or when he went to the Winter Soldier meetings in Detroit, he'd interview guys. …

But beyond that, I was very much struck by how he just took out Howard Dean. You don't do that just by listening to people, right? You've got to be tough. Or you've got to be a strategic thinker.

John Kerry can be absolutely ruthless. I would not want to be on his enemies list when he's ready to go after you. I think he's very judicious, and he waits. He pauses a lot. But when he strikes, it's with a kind of vengeance. He waits for his opponents to make mistakes.

Is it a personal thing, or is it just that's how he plays the game?

That's how he plays the game. He is an absorber. His strength, as he enters any political room, is he believes he knows more about the issue than the other people at hand. He studies the issue so fully, when he challenges George W. Bush, "Let's debate for three hours on education," he would do it. He knows that he knows about education policy. Bill Clinton had that policy strength, too.

I think, also, Kerry has a sense of the long haul. He's a bit of the tortoise. He's not the hare. He doesn't flash at you immediately. He takes his time. But when he strikes, it's with a knockout punch. ...

What would be an example of his ruthlessness in the past?

We were mentioning the Vietnam War. The great moment of Kerry in Vietnam is his Silver Star. He's the only one in his division to get it, and that's when he's going up a river, and suddenly there's a guy on the bank that's putting up a weapon. It's aiming at him.

Regulations say you keep going straight ahead. Kerry makes the snap decision to turn his swift boat and run it right into the bank. The opponent is not ready for that. That's a move they haven't seen before. Suddenly, the VC guerilla falls back out of the spiderhole, picks up his weapon, starts running. John Kerry leaps off the boat, chases him down a garden path and kills him, shoots him dead while the guy's fleeing.

That's a metaphor for John Kerry's political career. You think you're taking aim at him. You may have fired on him for a while. Suddenly, he will come at you with a kind of vigor and strength; and go not just to wound you, not to get in a clever jab, but to knock you out of the game completely.

He's a great lawyer in the sense that he listens so well to every word. So he hears the mistake in language. I've never met anybody in my life who can correct people as well as John Kerry. He'll say, "No, you just said a minute ago --" He listens to every single word. He's in many ways waiting for his opponent to make the mistake. ...

Kerry comes across as a politician who ... has really complicated issues on things, notably the war in Iraq. How do you explain that? He comes across as the ultimate sort of cautious, difference-splitting politician, rhetorically.

…John Kerry doesn't think in terms of black-and-white. He's all gray, and he looks at all sides of the issues. That makes people think he likes to be devil's advocate. Whatever you say, he'll challenge you on. You almost get like, "Why are you challenging me on that? It's so obvious." But all of that is in preparation for the big strike. It's in preparation to think it and to feel out the weak links in the arguments. So when he does go forward, it comes across with a kind of clarity.

I agree with you though, I think there's a problem that he has sometimes of going on and speaking in such a way that it's a lot of transcription. It's a lot of words, and it was a yes-or-no question. But he does not see the world in yes or no.

You know, some people have said there are two types of politicians. There are ones that go from port A to port B, straight ahead. Then there are political sailors who tack with the wind, the way FDR was. You twist and turn to get to where you want to go.

Kerry has an objective. It's to win the presidency. He's going to do whatever he can to do it, and it's not going to be in just this straightforward way. He's going to constantly tack with the wind.

Here's a very important point. I think the guy used to be straightforward like that. But he lost in 1970 for being so straightforward on the anti-war movement, and he lost in '72. Why did he lose? Because everybody replayed his [speech] that he gave in front of the Fulbright Committee, where he was so emotional and spoke so clearly about it. They showed the cover that he chose, the photo of the American flag upside down on his book, The New Soldier, that is the sign for distress. But the right grabbed it and beat up on him.

Kerry lost his two first elections because he was so straightforward, so in-your-face and so clear. In those ensuing years, he went to law school, and he got back into politics. He never wanted to be trapped again on claiming an issue that he couldn't escape out of. ... That's an aspect of him that some people don't like. But I would argue that it's given him the ability to go as far as he's had in 2004. I don't know what went through his mind when he made his vote on Iraq. But certainly he was positioning himself by that vote, to find ways to have it both ways, in a sense.

The heart of John Kerry, I believe, was opposed to it when he voted for it. But I think he didn't want to be set up. He does not want to be set up by these games. ... He's very perceptive on the timing of politics. Nobody knows better the need to pace yourself in 2004 than John Kerry. That was something Howard Dean didn't know. He was new to it. Kerry always knew that it was a long race, and you pace yourself out. You don't burn yourself out with certitude; you keep some ambiguity out there, because you're going to need it down the road.

Let's go back to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War period. Somebody as ambitious as the young Kerry and with his eye on the future -- how does he make a decision to become essentially a public protest leader? He's obviously somebody who thinks of the consequences of things. ... Did he not care?

The horrors of Vietnam. I mean, he came home in March 1969, three Purple Hearts, wounded three times. And many people forget -- he stayed in military uniform from March 1969 to December, and he was totally opposed to the war.

His buddy, Don Droz, was just killed. But he wasn't going to protest the war while in uniform. He waited to get out of uniform. Christmas, 1969, he talks to his father. They agree he should go see Admiral Walter Schlech, a very important person in Kerry's biography. Schlech had kind of befriended Kerry. They had traveled to Panama together, Greenland together. He asked Schlech, "Can I get out of uniform to run as an anti-war congressperson? I want to run against the war in Vietnam. I can't take it anymore." At that point, Schlech had turned against the war. So Kerry was lucky; he lets him off. And he starts running.

It would have been a much easier gain for John Kerry to finish his military duty in Brooklyn for six months and run for Congress as the decorated war hero. He didn't need to throw his entire ammunition into the radical wing of the Democratic Party where Black Panthers and hippies and Alan Lowenstein were dwelling. He made that [decision] because, I believe, it truly came from the heart. He had studied Vietnam and the lies of Nixon, the lies about Cambodia and Laos. The death toll that he saw hurt his conscience deeply, and he did the right and courageous thing when he protested.

What people don't understand after John Kerry testified on April 22 in 1971 in front of Fulbright and became now the celebrity veteran, and Morley Safer has him on 60 Minutes -- He's on Buckley's show and Dick Cavett. He's getting $500 a speech.

The right in America -- call them Republicans, the Nixon White House, the FBI, the right -- they went after John Kerry. They took a huge toll out of the guy. We laugh about it now. They looked like they were sort of following him everywhere. His phones were bugged.

John's wife, Julia ,who I've interviewed for hours, is still unable to cope with the harassment that they faced in 1971 and 1972 by the U.S. government. She had a brick go through her window and land by the baby's crib and almost killed their baby in the house that they were going in. They couldn't have a conversation without knowing their lines were tapped.

When you listen to the White House tapes and listen to Chuck Colson, Haldeman, Erlichman, saying, "Let's destroy--" exact words of Chuck Colson -- "Let's destroy [this] young [demagogue] before he becomes [another Ralph Nader]."

Kerry felt a lot of heat. It was not fun for a 27-year-old confused guy, still having nightmares about Vietnam, to have this right-wing establishment pounding on him. I think it took a great psychological toll out of him. I think by 1972, he was wiped out. If you study the history of that 1972 congressional election, he lost. They set up his brother in this fake burglary, and his brother gets arrested. The Independent candidate turns on him. Read the Lowell Sun stories that they printed daily in his local newspaper, calling John Kerry a traitor, anti-American, somebody who's a worthless dissident, a hippie nobody.

The false stories that came out on Kerry, and he didn't know how to confront them ...

Tell us what Dewey Canyon III is.

Dewey Canyon III became a protest of Nixon's policies in Laos and Cambodia, the bombings and the growing of the war. So Kerry decides, and he's a leader of this, that "We're going to get 1,000-plus veterans to Washington, D.C., in April and have a mass protest. Let's dare the FBI. Let's dare the Nixon White House to arrest men who have their legs blown off from a land mine, who are blind from being in the war."

This ragtag band of winter soldiers of 1,000 veterans came to Washington. People focus on Kerry's testimony so much. His accomplishment was bigger -- he organized the whole protest. He got all the park permits. There are transcriptions I've read of him in front of federal judges making sure nobody got arrested. He personally met with the police not to have any altercations. He wanted a non-violent, all-American protest, and he got it. It was a non-violent week that they had over there.

The radicals decided, "We're going to do a ceremony and take our medals and ribbons and things and throw them over the fence at the White House for dramatic effect." Kerry was completely opposed to that. He thought it needed to be done in a more sane way, that they could do it at the Capitol, and that you just return a symbolic gesture of something the U.S. government gave you -- a document, a certificate, a dogtag, a ribbon, a medal.

There was no such [thing] as giving up your medals. Kerry created and worked to establish the returning of something symbolic. There are photographs that you can show of all the things that were returned. The medals were a minor part of the artifacts that were returned. Kerry went and returned all his ribbons, because that's all he had. He'd been in Washington for weeks. He wasn't running around with big medals dangling off of his khaki shirt. They were up in Boston, in Massachusetts. So he gave what he was wearing. He had been wearing ribbons. If you look at his testimony -- or when he testified -- those ribbons, he'd returned them all. But also two veterans that were too ill to make it there gave Kerry their medals and said, "Can you return them? This is what we want to give." So he gave up those medals. ...

What, since then, has been a real cause for Kerry, if anything? Is there anything else that has been a cause for him on the level of protesting the Vietnam War?

I call my book Tour of Duty, because I came to the conclusion -- some people think I'm exaggerating it -- but Kerry's duty in Vietnam never ended when he came back. His duty was to protest the war, to run as an anti-war congressman, but also to work. He sponsored the Agent Orange legislation. He went back to Vietnam 14 times. He brought his daughters back there. He went with John McCain. He went to Cambodia and Laos. He went underneath Ho Chi Minh's tomb looking for the remains of Americans.

He wanted closure on Vietnam. I think that is the main issue, if his senator career ended tomorrow, that he'd be most known for.

I think second to that is the environment. His mother was a great lover of the Audubon Society and of the environment. Kerry himself loves hiking and windsurfing and the outdoors. But his passion he had in stopping the drilling in the Arctic wilderness, saving the pristineness of Alaska -- his outrage that America's not participated in the Kyoto agreements -- he met Teresa, his wife, at the Rio summit.

I think there's a green side to John Kerry, if you like, that he's an environmental activist. His record on the environment is as best as you have on a pro-environment record of anybody in the U.S. Senate. Ted Kennedy kind of stayed away from environmental issues, dealing with jobs and Social Security and kind of left Kerry as the Massachusetts senator to deal with the environment. I think his success in stopping the drilling in Alaska is one that he would rank high as something that he's very passionate about.

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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