The Magazine

Arms and the Man

From the February 9, 2004 issue: John Kerry in Vietnam.

Feb 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 21 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Tour of Duty

John Kerry and the Vietnam War

by Douglas Brinkley

William Morrow, 546 pp., $25.95

ACCORDING TO the publisher's press release, "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," by Douglas Brinkley, "was never intended as a political biography"--meaning, I suppose, that it is not meant to be confused with those ghost-written, election-year puffers and potboilers under whose weight the remainder-tables of America's bookstores are already beginning to buckle and break. "Tour of Duty" is intended to be a real book that makes an enduring contribution to the national letters--akin to the moving and beautifully written "Faith of My Fathers," by John McCain and Mark Salter, rather than "A Charge to Keep," by George W. Bush and Karen Hughes, which was, lucky for them, forgotten within weeks of its publication in 1999. Among this year's campaign books, the story told by "Tour of Duty" is more compelling than "Four Trials," by John Edwards; it has much less bombast than Howard Dean's "Winning Back America," and none of the dullsville policy chatter of "An Even Better Place: America in the 21st Century" by Richard Gephardt, RIP. And unlike, say, Al Sharpton's "Al on America," it sheds light on the life of a presidential candidate who is not a boob.

Also, the author of "Tour of Duty" is no skulking ghostwriter but a figure in his own right. Douglas Brinkley has written, among much else, books about Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and John Kennedy. These, along with his fondness for the television camera and the op-ed page, make Brinkley an exemplar of what is called the "presidential historian"--a recently minted job title that denotes writers of popular biographies who have a special fascination with American presidents and politicians. Michael Beschloss, Robert Dallek, and Doris Kearns Goodwin are among the more familiar brand-names. Their granddaddy is Arthur Schlesinger Jr., famed chronicler of the Kennedy clan. Like Schlesinger, these new presidential historians often write well, with a special talent for brisk and colorful narratives, and as with Schlesinger, their relations with academic history grow more tenuous with each published book. Though Brinkley is himself director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, you are much more likely to find a presidential historian lecturing from behind a desk at Jim Lehrer U. or Charlie Rose Tech than from the podium of a classroom filled with real students.

Another common attribute of the presidential historian is toadyism--an admiration for his subject that sooner or later puddles into sycophancy, especially if the subject has agreeable politics. Here again, Schlesinger showed the way, though Beschloss, Dallek, and the others seem intent on outdoing even the author of "Robert Kennedy and His Times" in their willingness to glorify their subjects. Brinkley must be aware of the danger. At several different points in "Tour of Duty" he asserts that this is his book, not Kerry's; the clear implication is that it is a work of cold-eyed history rather than political advocacy or personal puffery. The bulk of the book involves long, detailed accounts of Kerry's adventures as commander of a "Swift boat" during the Vietnam war. "The narrative is based largely on journals and correspondence Kerry kept while on his tours of duty," Brinkley writes at the book's opening. "He, however, exerted no editorial control on the manuscript."

AND WHAT DO YOU KNOW? He didn't need to. (The italics on that no, by the way, are Brinkley's.) John Kerry himself couldn't have written a more admiring book about John Kerry. Even a modern presidential candidate might think twice before writing a sentence like this about himself: "Looking into the faces of the Vietnamese peasants he encountered, a wave of compassion shot through John Kerry." Kerry knew what he was getting with Brinkley. In his acknowledgments, at the book's close, Brinkley stresses again his editorial independence. "Kerry wished that the story of what the Swift boats did in Vietnam was better known," Brinkley writes, "and toward that end granted me permission to quote from what he collectively called his 'War Notes' with only one string attached: that I write any book or article drawn from them within two years."

This time the italics are mine. If Kerry's true purpose was to spread the word about the history of Swift boats in Vietnam, correcting an oversight in the historical record, you can't help but wonder why he required the author to finish the book in two years. As it happens, Brinkley began his work in 2002, which meant that it would have to be finished by . . . oh. And sure enough, the book arrived in bookstores two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. You don't suppose the senator had some other purpose in mind?