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philip gourevitch

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A staff writer for The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch has written about John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. In this interview, he discusses the traits of character and personality that define Kerry, his accomplishments in the Senate, and his contradictory votes on Iraq and the problems he has had explaining them. "To understand Kerry's mind on any of these issues," says Gourevitch, "you have to think about what it means to be a senator. … A senator accomplishes things by negotiation, nuance, small steps and compromise. They are often casting votes to create a record that works in several different directions." Gourevitch also talks about Kerry's 2004 campaign and what his approach and goals would be if he is elected president. This interview was conducted on September 28, 2004.

[Kerry] really disliked  this idea that America has a kind of destiny.  Because I think he thinks thats when you start getting blurry.  And thats a huge contrast with him and George Bush.

George W. Bush says he approaches problems by the gut. He's an action guy, and he doesn't like a lot of position papers. John Kerry, by contrast, from what you know of him--

Kerry has an avid appetite for consuming large amounts of information -- gathering in the maximum number of conflicting, contrasting opinions, in a sense sort of circumscribing and circumnavigating an issue and making decisions.

But to say that, and this is crucial, is not to say that he's incapable of using his gut, at least to judge by some of the crucial moments in his Vietnam biography which are so important. Here's s a person who absolutely, when everything was at stake and split-second timing was crucial, made very bold decisions that according to the men who were in the boat with him, kept them from being killed and allowed him to get out of very, very tight traps.

That's sort of the classic Kerry story, over and over, repeated in one scenario after another throughout his political career. Somebody who can almost appear to be on battery-saver or hibernation mode through long periods. He doesn't seem to know how to pin himself down, much less to be pinned down by somebody else.

And yet, as the moment of decision arises, or particularly, as the moment of great pressure -- whether it's in a campaign, whether it's in a decisive negotiation -- he seems to gain steam from the kind of deadline pressure. And ultimately, he makes his own decision. That in any case is how the people closest to him consistently describe it in reference to enough different situations that one ends up with as a kind of collective picture.

And one believes it?

It seems credible. Of course, the risks or downsides in this approach is that there are these periods of tremendous vagueness, or apparent vagueness, when he has decided that he doesn't actually have to have a conclusion yet. And so he appears actually to be inconclusive.

Another risk, of course, or strange quality to this is that it often seems like he almost needs a near-death experience to kind of wake up and get going. That's his coffee in the morning, you know? …

Where does the caution come from, do you think? This tendency to circumnavigate?

Kerry is very steeped in a kind of liberal establishment and liberal arts tradition. He was, unlike Bush, sort of a champion debater in high school. And everybody thinks, "Well, that must mean you know your own mind and you're amazingly easy to make quick, razor-sharp decisions." On the contrary. A champion debater is somebody who can walk into a room, be handed a proposition on either side of an issue, and beat the other guy, regardless of his own convictions. It's somebody who can immediately recognize the conflicting argument, who can see what the ten arguments are going to be about an issue, and start to weigh them against each other and look for their strongest points.

I think some of that, in other words, is the training of somebody who's very drawn to a kind of -- he has a contemplative side. He has a thoughtful side. Frankly, some of his harsher critics will say the problem is that there isn't enough of him there, that he is more of a blank slate and he's bringing in all of these ideas to which ones appeal to him, to see which ones stick, because he doesn't have a predisposition. I think it's somewhere in between. ...

What do you count as his accomplishments as a senator?

The question of Kerry's accomplishments as a senator is kind of a problem. Because as the junior senator from Massachusetts, he clearly lived somewhat in the shadow of Teddy Kennedy, who is, according to those who loath him as well as those who love him, a very masterful legislator….

Kerry never was that. Kerry brought to the Senate some of these prosecutorial skills. And he was interested in investigations. He was interested in foreign policy. He was interested in the same thing that has interested him consistently throughout his public career, which is trying to look at the ways that the abuse of power by members of America's government and administrations and elites can pose a threat to the proper running of this country according to its highest ideals. Whether it was Iran-Contra, whether it was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. …

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Some of Philip Gourevitch's New Yorker articles:

One of the accomplishments, I would say, is that when his investigation of BCCI led him to see that there was corruption and abuse of power by Clark Clifford, a great Democratic powerbroker very much of the establishment that John Kerry grew up revering, and other Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said, "Leave it alone" -- John Kerry didn't.

He also heads an investigation that leads to the indictment of Manuel Noriega. Are these great accomplishments? How do we assess--

Well, one of the curiosities about Kerry and his record in the Senate is that he barely mentioned it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention this summer, which leaves one puzzled. Because it makes you think that perhaps he himself felt that it wasn't one of his strong suits. And I think it's a mistake. … He did a number of things using certain aspects of the Senate powers and his skills to pursue these investigations, to conduct certain aspects of foreign policy questions, to normalize relationships with Vietnam--an extremely tedious, unglamorous, and emotionally fraught as well as politically fraught campaign that he led there to sort of lay to rest the POW/MIA issue.

That is, perhaps, his greatest accomplishment in the Senate?

I think that his handling of the groundwork for the normalization with Vietnam, which is to say the process by which he and his committee -- with John McCain as his partner from across the aisle -- vetted every single one of these claims, claim by claim -- that there were live sightings of POWs still in Vietnam, that there was one being held here, that there was one being held there, that there were unpatriated remains in Hanoi--

And he managed to work both with hostile American veteran families and [families of] people who were killed, as well as with the Vietnamese government to get concessions from both and to essentially lay this incredibly toxic issue largely to rest, as well as to manage the extremely volatile and emotionally high-strung John McCain, who wanted to launch across the table at a lot of these people, and to keep him seated and say, "Look, we're trying to accomplish something. It's cool." John McCain gives him a lot of credit for that. … And people have asked John McCain about that, and John McCain has repeatedly said, "I'm grateful to him for it."

Those are skills. They're not glamorous. They're not high-legislative skills. They are executive skills. But they're also a kind of diplomatic skill where he kept his eye on a long-term goal and he went there. So that, I think, is an accomplishment that it's puzzling that he doesn't actually take more credit for.

In 1991, Saddam invades Kuwait. Walk us through, if you will, Kerry's process at that point.

...George Bush, the senior, was talking about a New World Order. He was trying to pioneer a system where you would go to the U.N., you'd create international alliances, you'd go together, leading them through the instruments of the U.N. In many ways, a very kind of traditional use of the U.N. And here was a perfect example: Saddam Hussein, Iraq, invades Kuwait. One sovereign country violates another sovereign country. It's not an internal war. It's not a civil war. It's very, very clean-cut. This is exactly what the U.S. is designed to work with, and [George H.W. Bush] manages to use, with his diplomats, the Security Council resolution very skillfully.s

In retrospect, I don't think you'd find very many of the Democrats who are still in the House or the Senate who voted against that at the time who oppose it in retrospect. Who say, "That was the wrong war at the wrong time." They will say, "That was successful." But it was successful for a lot of the reasons that now in the current Iraq war have been pushed aside by the younger Bush. Because it used the U.N., because it kept within a mission, because it stayed very much within the rules of international warfare, because it stuck very strictly to its alliances, and because it developed a very strong idea of alliances, because in a sense America didn't get left holding the bag alone, which was one of the great problems in Vietnam.

For Kerry, I think the sensibility and habits of mind that he brought to that first important [1991] vote-- [it was] really the first time as a senator that he was called on, or that most of these people were called on, in a generation, to vote about America deploying massive force abroad to fight another country in an unpredictable war. I think what really formed them was the experience in Vietnam of being misled, lied-to, deceived and the tremendous cost. Remember the tremendous cost of Vietnam. We forget that. We think Vietnam went bad. And then we say, "Oh, maybe Iraq's going bad." But in Vietnam, more than 50,000 American lives [were lost]. These are huge costs, nobody in a generation untouched. So to them, they were saying, "What are we doing, and for what?" In retrospect, I don't think he would cast the vote the same way now. ...

In that [1991] vote for the Gulf War, he's out there on the Senate floor reading from the classic pacifist novel from World War II, Johnny Got His Gun, about the horrors of war and how people get mutilated in war. And frankly, this is one of the real legacies of the Vietnam War. The argument that ultimately was used against the Vietnam War is "Too much American life is being lost for nothing."

Kerry claims and has always claimed that he is not a pacifist. He went and fought. But the argument of somebody who is reluctant to use force, but is not a pacifist, always has to be a kind of cost-benefit analysis. "This is a right cause, this is a worthy cause, this is something that it's worth making this tremendous decision as a leader and sending young Americans to risk their life and certainly some of them to die." For Kerry, that was almost impossible in 1991. He did not want to send Americans to die. That's what reading Johnny Got His Gun is. His objection was, "People will die." He didn't even argue whether it was right or wrong. It was war that he was arguing about. It was a kind of more abstract, bigger thing than the specifics of that Gulf War if you look at the text of his speech on the floor.

As the decade of the 1990s progressed -- and as it turned out that the Gulf War was militarily and politically extremely successful in its own limited terms, albeit one that left Saddam Hussein in power, and that abandoned and deserted the Iraqis that we now claim we're liberating -- you had John Kerry very quick to recognize that this was a new scenario. This was not like Vietnam, and the Vietnam mentality that he brought to it didn't apply.

Now, some people say, "Oh, that's so opportunistic." And other people around him will say, "Actually, he just simply saw that it was so totally different." Yes, he had one mindset going in. But very quickly, he recognized a shift in reality, and he's adaptable to shifts in reality, and you can see that with not just Democrats but Republicans, through the 1990s, there was a whole shift in the idea of what's possible with American force and when it should be applied abroad in a single-superpower world.

And that was something that evolved through the refusal to use force in Rwanda … and the decision to use force more assertively in the Balkans, or to approve the use of force by others in places like East Timor, where you had tremendous political unrest. You no longer had the bipolar world of the Cold War to kind of say, "Well, they're your people or they're our people. It's our patch or your patch. We're fighting proxy wars here." We have to sort this out, and America is the lead country.

Now, during that period you had people like Madeleine Albright who, as secretary of state, spoke of America as the indispensable nation in its role. Kerry was very uncomfortable with that. When you talk to people around him, he'll say, "Yeah, yeah, sure, we are the sole superpower, and it has fallen to us to be that kind of nation." But that kind of talk, that kind of grandiosity, he really disliked … this idea that America has a kind of destiny. Because I think he thinks that's when you start getting blurry. And that's a huge contrast with him and George Bush.

But then he approaches the 2002 vote. Get us inside his head, if you can at all, as to how he approaches that 2002 vote.

I think John Kerry approaching the 2002 vote, the inner workings of his mind must have been a very complicated spectacle. This is a man who was clearly intending to run for president. He knew that this vote would be a decisive factor in that. Does that mean that all he made were political calculations? No.

He had to figure out a position that he believed in enough and could live with enough that was the right thing. But of course it figures, just like it does for anybody. These are professional politicians. These are guys -- both the people we are choosing between this year are professional politicians whose every move is politically calculated as well as adjusted to their belief system. They become indistinguishable.

Kerry goes into that vote in 2002 looking at a really technical point. He ultimately boils it down to a technical point, which is correct, but nevertheless a point that he's had a hard time explaining ever since, which is "I am not being asked to vote for war. This is not a declaration of war. I am being asked to give the President of the United States the authority to go to war if he sees fit, down the road, after a set of assurances that he's made to us and the Congress, to the American people, to the world community, that he will only use force as a last resort. I'm authorizing him to use force and the threat of force to backup very, very intense diplomacy. And I believe,"-- this is the Kerry argument, and it has been from the beginning, very consistent on this point -- "I believe that the President of the United States needs that force."

Now think about it. It's a very defensible argument. The president comes to you and he says, "These are extraordinary times. We have somebody here who's clearly in violation of the world's will as expressed through all these U.S. resolutions. He's an extremely slippery fellow, and he's a brilliant brinksman, this Saddam Hussein. I need to be able to put a serious gun to his temple and hold it there while I press, otherwise it's pointless even to try anything but war." Kerry says the president should be able to do that. He's also of course thinking, "I want to be president. I want, when my turn comes, to have these powers."

There's a whole argument, and an important argument that Congress should never have just handed over, under the pressure of September 11th or anything else, its power to declare war. That's what the president essentially won at that moment. He got Congress to advance him the power to declare war -- they gave him a blank check.

It's important that Kerry originally supported a Biden alternative bill which would have essentially said, "The president has to go out there, use all this force that he needs to -- the threat of force. But if he really wants to use force, he's gotta come back to Congress and get our permission."

The fact was that in that political climate, that wasn't an alternative. So when that was no longer an alternative, he had to choose between "either we say yes to the President's request or we actually stand against him." And that was the decision he made. He's had a hell of a time explaining that he didn't vote for war, he voted for the authority to use force to back diplomacy, and that was then used wrongly. That he thinks that the President should have that authority, but the president misused that authority. It's not that complicated a point. But he's managed to make it very unclear.


I think because he's uncomfortable with it. I think he's genuinely uncomfortable about whether that was the right vote for any number of reasons. I think that it's a reasonable [dis]comfort. Remember that the idea that Saddam Hussein didn't have WMD and that the intelligence was as bad or as doubtful as it now becomes clear in retrospect, and that the president was warned about many of these things. We didn't know that. Most of us don't have any independent way of ascertaining intelligence.

So it seems to me what's wrong here is that he's substantive, but he's got a deaf ear when it comes to having to understand what the meaning of that vote is going to be.

Well, this is the problem. To understand Kerry's mind on any of these issues, you have to think about what it means to be a senator and why what it means to be a senator is very, very different from what it means to be a president.

A senator accomplishes things by negotiation, nuance, small steps and compromise. " I give you a little bit, you give me a little bit." I don't get exactly what I want, but I move the ball in the direction I want it to go. To say, "I voted for something before I voted against it," one of the lines that he's got hung around his neck in a big way, is actually a totally normal Senate move, right? They are often casting votes to create a record that works in several different directions. This is not a Republican thing. This it not a Democratic thing. This is not a John Kerry thing. …

…What does he learn from his loss in the 1972 congressional race?

I think he learns it from every aspect of his experience thereafter. I think the 1972 race burned him. I think it was the first time that, in some fundamental way, ambition, smarts, entitlement, position and privilege didn't work together to get him what he wanted.

Vietnam was not what he wanted. He didn't want to be in that kind of fire-fighting. You read his journals from thens, which are so eloquent and so powerful, it's clear that John Kerry wasn't living a war-hero movie. But I think that the defeat when he got home, -- his brotherCam Kerry used the word with me -- he had a sense of the absurd as he readjusted back to life in the States. Then he goes through this intense period of kind of superstardom, as a spokesman for the anti-war movement. Then he gets crushed in this campaign in Lowell, Massachusetts. And then, he's got a wife. He's got a couple of kids. He's suddenly like a guy working his way up in a DA's office.

It quite lacks the kind of sense of historical destiny, perhaps, that John Kerry, up until then, probably had noticed in his own biography, and had been very conscious of, and that other people around him had been conscious of his cultivating.

Why does he decide to run for President in 2003?

One of the reasons John Kerry gives that really made him want to run this time, is, he says, "When I saw what they" --the Bush people-- "did to John McCain and to Max Cleland," when he saw the way that they attacked the character of people he considered great American patriots and people who had sacrificed heavily for the country, and used total falsehood, whisper campaigns, slurs, rumors, the dirtiest possible falsehoods to destroy them as candidates and if possible as characters, just to shred them-- … He claims that that really made him want to fight back. …

Do you know anything about the specifics of his reaching the decision to run?

…By all accounts, he had been thinking about it forever. And people have been thinking about it for him. You hear about the people at Yale who say, "I thought of him from the first time I saw him as somebody who might even be president," that's not because he said something to them. It's because somehow that was the way he came across and the way he presented himself and the way he was perceived. …

He does something in Iowa -- and he's done it in other campaigns back to '84 -- where he surrounds himself with these Swift Boat mates. What is he doing?

In campaigns there's this term that they use for all the people who work on the campaign, who go out and give speeches, and answer press calls and so forth, which is "surrogates." And in Kerry's case, the word really applies. He has kind of emotional surrogates. He has this way he gathers the veterans around him. The way he gathers his family around him. These are people who, in some way, supply and carry the emotion and the expression, and the experience, and the humanizing qualities that he himself has in short supply.

I remember in Iowa, the night before the Iowa primary, he had a big rally in Des Moines. And he was starting to lose his voice and so on. It really gelled something for me, which is Kerry is definitely the stiffest guy in a pretty stiff field. Yet, his rallies were the most emotionally intense. And in Iowa, that was especially true.

He's very conscious though, by that time, in January of 2004, of the war going badly. So, there's a very conscious effort to wrap himself in the credentials of somebody who can actually know something about war?

The post-9/11 election, it's clear, is going to be a contest for commander in chief. From the beginning, the conventional wisdom has been that this is Bush's great strong suit. From the beginning, one of the Democrat's perceptions has been that Bush is actually not so great as a commander in chief. ...

… In New Hampshire, a week after the Democratic caucus in Iowa which Kerry had won, I was traveling on his bus, and he told me, "Look, I don't have to be able to win on national security and foreign policy issues. But I have to pass the threshold of being credible in the minds of voters as a commander in chief, as somebody who is capable and confident, as someone to lead the country in a time of war, when people are anxious about national security and anxious about unpredictable threats, and anxious about foreign engagements that we can't even foresee at this stage."

Can he do that?

Well, that's certainly been the bet from the beginning, that at least out of the field that ran in the Democratic primaries this year, he was the best shot. Can he do it? Yes. It's doable. Certainly the opinion polls throughout the year have shown that American voters are very open to the idea of getting rid of Bush and replacing him. …

What do you think he thinks of his role as president to be? Bush swings a big bat. He's looking to hit it out of the park. We know that now about Bush. Maybe we didn't know it in 2000. How does Kerry conceive of what a great American president should do and be? You can compare him to Bush here, if you want.

I don't think Bush had any idea what he wanted his presidency to be. Except kind of a good old boy -- tax cuts and getting rid of regulations for industries that were friendly to him and that kind of were his cronies -- until the country got hit. … And [that event] gave him focus. It gave him purpose. It's like a conversion experience. On the other side of that, the world changed. Everything changed. …"Here's who I am now. War president. A guy who stands up to the bad guys. They messed with the wrong guy. Here I am. Take the battle to the enemy. Smoke 'em outta their caves." All this kind of talk. And behind it is a much more sophisticated analysis than often those kind of single-pitched notes come across.

Kerry, I think, has a much less grandiose and self-dramatizing approach to these issues. I think his idea is a more traditional idea of what a good American president would be, somebody who looks after the American public . Somebody who oddly, because he's not considered a conservative, would conserve many of the institutions of American life whether it would be social security, that you wouldn't try to dismantle that, that you try to have a graduated income tax, that you try to protect certain things in the country.

When he looks abroad … I bet he'd like to capture or kill Bin Laden. I bet he'd like to come in and refocus the war on terrorism against terrorists. I think he is seriously on foreign policy concerns, interested and concerned about proliferation issues, and sees those as the central battlefront in the war on terror.

But I don't think that at this stage, there is an overwhelming sense of, "Here is the legacy I want to leave if I am president for four or eight years." I think it would probably be rare to find a president who entered office with a clear vision of this. I think it's a false expectation or a false wish that a president should be so well defined in his own mind in advance.

If anything, the Kerry critique of Bush is that Bush has this inflexible notion of himself as a kind of action hero and champion of western civilization who is going to just change the world. "We're changing the world." He says this over and over again. Not everybody dislikes the world so much that they want to change it so much. Some people would want to say, "Well, let's try to protect the parts of the world that work well for us." I think that would be more the Kerry approach in some ways. It's very difficult to know what kind of a president he would be.

It's very important to realize that most of what Bush has been able to do, he's been able to do because he controls both executive and Congress, his party does. It's unlikely that Kerry would have that advantage from the start. And I think it's very important that the Democratic analysis is, whoever becomes president is going to have a whole lot of mess created by George Bush. That's the view of the Democrats. Therefore, when they think about what they have to do, you know, if you say, "Well, is all you're going to do be try to clean up Bush's mess? Is most of what you're trying to do, reverse the damage done in your eyes? " Or "how do you make your own initiatives?" "Oh, no. We'll have many initiatives." ...

I think the difficulty for Kerry is going to be, before he can start to create his own legacy, he will be having to, in some ways, alter the directions that Bush has set the country in. Bush has changed the way America conducts its business at home and in the world more massively than most presidents in a very long time.

Can you pull the Kerry biography together. Does he have the character and the competence to be president?

I think he's quite capable of being a good president. I don't think there's any question about that amongst the people who know him well.

One thing you can't help wondering when you look at this race is, neither of these guys -- who are very, very different at a time when people are very juiced up and charged about this contest -- neither of these guys has been able to command a decisive lead for very long at a time. They're neck and neck. Now, most people say this is evidence of a tremendously divided nation. I would say it's … evidence that neither of them really lights a broader fire. When Clinton won, when Reagan won, they won well. They managed to distinguish themselves from the "divided nation" average. When you have two guys, neither of whom is super-exciting to the voters, then they sink back into this kind of fifty-fiftyism. …

What they're banking on, both candidates, is hostility of voters to the other guy. They're both trying to make a referendum on the other guy. Very odd move for the president, by the way, incumbents usually don't run against their challengers as much as they run on their records, and the other guy runs against it. Neither candidate seems confident of his ability to win a really affirmative victory for himself.

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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