Campaign Crawlers

Unfit for the Screen

A film biography of John Kerry faces an insurmountable obstacle -- the candidate.

By 9.20.04

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NEW YORK -- George Butler, a filmmaker and photographer best known for documentaries celebrating Arnold Schwarzenegger (Pumping Iron) and Ernest Shackleton (The Endurance), has finally decided what to call his John Kerry campaign movie, er, documentary. Coming to theaters in October, the film is titled Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.

Butler has been following and photographing Kerry for 35 years, which should qualify him for some kind of clinical diagnosis. According to a summer article in the New York Times, he has accumulated footage of "both of Mr. Kerry's weddings, all of his campaigns, countless family vacations."

It's a good thing conservatives have taken such total control of the American media. Otherwise this year's unprecedented onslaught of partisan filmmaking might be viewed as coordinated, or worse, in violation of campaign finance laws. In 2004, Democratic-friendly filmmakers have brought the Ghosts of White Houses Past, Present and maybe Future to the big screen. We've had The Hunting of the President, about the vast right-wing conspiracy to destroy Bush's predecessor; Fahrenheit 9/11, about the evils of Bush himself; and now Butler's mock documentary about Kerry, Bush's potential successor. And these are only the most obvious examples.

Going Upriver will have to go a long way to match Pumping Iron for the arrogance, self-importance, and petty nastiness of its protagonist, but Butler may have the goods in the senator from Massachusetts. Kerry's hubris has only grown since that April day in 1971 when he defamed a generation of United States troops in order to jumpstart his political career. At least in Schwarzenegger's case, a viewer can look back at his 1970s megalomania and sense that age has tempered him to a degree. But 35 years of Kerry footage will remind most viewers of those people they run into at class reunions and think, "God, he's an even bigger ass than he was then."

If Kerry's personality wasn't bad enough, his life presents an even bigger problem for Butler.

For starters, how will the filmmaker handle the fallout from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as set out in campaign ads and the best-selling book, Unfit for Command? The Kerry campaign has already retracted or obscured several of his longstanding Vietnam claims, including the Christmas in Cambodia tale.

Butler must be editing frantically in advance of the release date. He'll have to make sure that he cuts any footage of Kerry's 1986 speech on the floor of the Senate, where he declared that memories of his holiday in Cambodia were "seared -- seared -- in me." Extensive accounts of the heroics that Kerry performed in winning his medals will have to be carefully reviewed as well, as some of these have been called into serious question, if not debunked.

Butler can find less ambiguity in his hero's antiwar activities. There are no disputes about what Kerry said to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971. It's all in black and white. No doubt Butler will select carefully here as well. He probably won't include the part where Kerry wishes that a "merciful God could wipe away" his memories of Vietnam. If God had been more attentive, there would be no Kerry campaign. Butler probably won't include the moment when Kerry dismisses the Cold War and pontificates about American consumerism when he says: "There is no threat. The Communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands."

And Butler certainly won't waste any footage discussing Kerry's debut as an author with The New Soldier, which Kerry wrote with fellow members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. At the end of that book, which sports an infamous cover photo of veterans holding a flag upside down, the future senator writes:

…the New Soldier does not accept the old myths. We will not quickly join those who march on Veterans' Day waving small flags, calling to memory those thousands who died for the "greater glory of the United States." We will not accept the rhetoric. We will not readily join the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars…We will not uphold traditions which decorously memorialize that which was base and grim.

It is from these things the New Soldier is asking America to turn.

So what is Butler left with? The uncontested portions of Kerry's war record, now somewhat reduced by the Swifties' revelations; the unfortunately unambiguous antiwar record; and a long, forgettable career in Washington.

Maybe Butler should focus on footage from the "countless family vacations." There must be some good stuff in there that even a merciful God wouldn't wipe away.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.