Political Hay

Kansas City Kerry

His Vietnam past keeps popping up, but don’t expect Republicans to capitalize.

By 3.23.04

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Over the past week, the New York Sun and the Kansas City Star have been reporting another unsavory story about John Kerry's antiwar past. Witnesses and FBI meeting minutes conclusively place Kerry at an event he has always denied attending: The November 1971 meeting of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) in Kansas City, in which a plan to assassinate pro-war senators was discussed. How seriously the plan was debated is in dispute; some veterans say it was nothing more than "guys ticked off and talking big at midnight," while others remember a bitter confrontation over the idea. All agree, however, that Kerry was not involved in the discussions and would never have approved of such a plan.

Nevertheless, the Kerry campaign is eager to distance itself from one of VVAW's most notorious episodes. Now that the evidence of his attendance is overwhelming, the campaign is trying to chalk up its earlier denials to faulty memory. Late last week Kerry spokesman David Wade conceded that Kerry had been there, but clung to the contention that the senator simply didn't remember the meeting. Wade's description of the Kansas City meeting as a "historical footnote" was too clever by half -- if the meeting and Kerry's attendance really were footnotes, the campaign would never have cared about the story in the first place.

On Monday, the Sun reported on a former VVAW member who claims Kerry operatives urged him to change his story about Kerry's presence in Kansas City. John Musgrave, a Marine who earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, claims that John Hurley, head of Veterans for Kerry, asked him to call back the Star reporter he had spoken with and "tell him you were wrong." Hurley insists he only asked Musgrave "to be very sure of his recollection." Apparently this simple instruction required two phone calls to impart.

The Kansas City story has emerged at the same time that the FBI has revealed it conducted surveillance on Kerry during 1971 and 1972, when he was rising to fame as an antiwar spokesman. The FBI monitored the Kansas City meeting as well, though it's not clear if it picked up the chatter about assassination plots. When informed of the FBI story recently, Kerry unleashed his practiced moral indignation, harumphing about civil liberties and the sad abuses of power of the Hoover-era FBI: "I'm surprised by [the] extent of it. I'm offended by the intrusiveness of it. And I'm disturbed that it was all conducted absent of some showing of any legitimate probable cause [italics mine]. It's an offense to the Constitution. It's out of order." Then the Kerry campaign trotted out more of its defiant, desperate macho, claiming that the FBI revelation was "a badge of honor."

Kerry has not explained why the FBI was wrong to spy on meetings where political assassinations were being discussed. If that isn't "legitimate probable cause," what is? The senator likes to bluster about President Bush's supposed failures on homeland security, and perhaps he is worth heeding on that score. After all he, not our hopelessly provincial president, has real-world experience with groups threatening violent action. He should make the most of it. Perhaps a line can be worked into his stump speeches, right after the line about aircraft carriers: "I know something about assassination plots, too."

ANOTHER QUESTION THAT COMES to mind is whether Kerry felt any obligation to report the plot to authorities. Under certain conditions, knowing about such a plan -- even a plan that was probably half-baked at best -- and not reporting it could be a crime in itself. Gerald Nicosia, the author of Home to War, a largely positive treatment of the VVAW, absolves Kerry of any responsibility: "I think if the thing ever got off the ground, Kerry would do something to stop it." Still, it would be worthwhile for someone to ask Kerry directly, if only because Kerry would provide at least two answers to choose from.

For those opposed to Kerry's presidential ambitions or troubled by his conduct after returning home from Vietnam, the Kansas City story shines a welcome light. It may even do the senator some damage. But it is unlikely that Kerry's disgraceful behavior as a member of VVAW -- slandering American soldiers, spreading fictitious atrocity stories, theatrically discarding someone else's war medals -- will be a major factor in the campaign. The Vietnam records of Kerry and Bush have been given a going over, almost as if they are preludes to the real campaign, when the two candidates can tackle real issues like prescription drugs, gay marriage, and outsourcing.

Our political culture has been irrevocably altered by the Clinton ethos of "moving on." There is a widely held sentiment among the media, and perhaps even the public at large, to let sleeping Vietnam dogs lie. Let's just agree to disagree, the thinking goes. Besides, George Bush is hardly an articulate advocate for the merits of the Vietnam War. In his February interview with Tim Russert, he denounced the war because "we had politicians making military decisions," as if this is not a feature of every war.

Kerry has little to fear from the Kansas City story. Even if there is a bombshell revelation yet to come, the story is already playing out on the familiar terrain of "gotcha" personal campaigning, devoid of genuine historical context. Kerry faces an opponent who has no desire to discuss Vietnam-era politics and a public that has long-since accepted the liberal narrative of Vietnam as a wrongful war. And he operates in a political culture in which a Democrat's sins are easily forgiven, if in fact they are viewed as sins in the first place.

All of this is to be regretted, because the election of 2004 offered one of the last chances to have a meaningful national debate about the merits of the Vietnam War. Unless I was out of the room the last 30 years, I don't think we've had it yet. As an interested non-expert who grew up in Vietnam's aftermath, it seems to me that Vietnam in the context of the Cold War and Iraq in the context of the Terror War have many points of comparison.

Chief among them is the concept of the Twilight Struggle against an implacable global adversary, where the rules of engagement cannot preclude elective interventions that are part of a long-term strategy. But the only discussion about Vietnam we tend to get is of the quagmire variety whenever an American soldier dies in Iraq; only then is the war in Iraq said to be "like Vietnam."

The Right lacks confidence in its Vietnam arguments and the Left has no moral authority, so the two sides have agreed to a silent truce on the matter. But it's not a truce that serves the interests of the country, any more than VVAW did then or John Kerry does now.

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About the Author

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