So far in this campaign Mr. Kerry has shown little interest in being daring, expressing a thought that is unexpected or quirky on even minor issues. We wish we could see a little of the political courage of the Vietnam hero who came back to lead the fight against the war.
-- The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2004
AND THAT, believe it or not, is from the Times's endorsement of John Kerry in Tuesday's presidential primary. The editorial's wistful words get to the heart of the character issue that troubles so many of those who have looked closely at Kerry's career in public life. The Democratic frontrunner is increasingly being described as a "flip-flopper" or a "waffler" or "two-faced." But the real problem with Kerry is something more fundamental. As the Times rightly notes, he lacks political courage.
Perhaps that is why he and his campaign talk about it so much.
The search engine on Kerry's campaign website lists some 200 pages on which "courage" appears. When he formally announced his candidacy at Boston's Faneuil Hall last September, he uttered the words "courage" or "courageous" 19 times ("courageous Americans always rise to the occasion . . . the courage of our people to change what is wrong . . . it was courage that was talked about in this hall . . . we must have the courage to stand up . . . the courage of Americans can change this country"). The sign behind him read: "The courage to do what's right for America." And when he took his announcement speech on the road, the trip was billed as the "American Courage Tour."
No one doubts Kerry's physical courage. He is a Vietnam veteran, with a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts that attest to his battlefield bravery. But courage in combat doesn't automatically translate into courage on the Senate floor or the campaign trail. And that kind of courage -- the courage of a leader who knows his own mind and speaks it fearlessly, who doesn't trim with every shifting breeze, who doesn't court unpopularity but isn't afraid of it, either -- has never been a hallmark of Kerry's career.
Every few days, we seem to get a fresh example (or a resurrected old one) of Kerry brazenly revising his history, or declaring "flip" from one side of his mouth while asserting "flop" out of the other.
Last week the Jerusalem Post reported that Kerry strongly defended Israel's controversial security fence as "a legitimate act of self defense," since "no nation can stand by while its children are blown up at pizza parlors and on buses." He said "the fence only exists in response to the wave of terror attacks against Israel," and insisted that the International Court of Justice in the Hague has no authority to pass judgment on it.
Yet just a few months ago, Kerry gave every indication of being firmly against it.
"We don't need another barrier to peace," he told the Arab American Institute in October. "Provocative and counterproductive measures only harm Israelis' security over the long term, increase the hardships to the Palestinian people, and make the process of negotiating an eventual settlement that much harder."
This may be the first time that a politician has literally come down on both sides of the fence. It can't be a comfortable position. But it's the one in which Kerry can all too often be found.
It is not news that candidates, hungry for popularity, occasionally try to be all things to all people. The problem with Kerry isn't that he engages in shifty equivocation and revisionism once in a while. It is that he has done so over and over and over. Like the first JFK, Kerry served with distinction as a Navy lieutenant in wartime. But never in his public career has he been what John F. Kennedy called a "profile in courage."
In 1992, Kerry insisted that Bill Clinton's draft avoidance during the Vietnam War must not be made a political issue. "We do not need to divide America over who served and how," he said. In 2004, not only doesn't he silence Democrats who disparage George W. Bush's military record, he goes out of his way to play the Vietnam card. "I'd like to know what it is Republicans who didn't serve in Vietnam have against those of us who did," Kerry said last week. Profile in courage?
As he campaigns for president, Kerry says he has "a message for the influence peddlers . . . and all the special interests who now call the White House home: We're coming. You're going. And don't let the door hit you on the way out." Yet over the past 15 years, reports The Washington Post, this enemy of "influence peddlers" has raised more money from paid lobbyists than any other member of the US Senate. Profile in courage?
Under fire in Vietnam, Kerry was fearless and steadfast. But rarely if ever has he shown comparable bravery on the political battlefields at home. It is difficult to think of any instance in which he has taken a tough stand and stuck with it despite the clear political risk in doing so. Instead, time and time again, he has tried to have it both ways -- from the medals he threw away/didn't throw away to the wars in Iraq he supported/didn't support. At the age of 25, John Kerry's courage was indisputable. Now, at age 60, it is more or less undetectable.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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