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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No one who reads it will doubt that "Tour of Duty" was published in haste. It's hard to believe that Brinkley would write this badly if Kerry had allowed him to work a while longer--through one more election cycle at least. Some passages are merely inept, though partially comprehensible: "Chicago still stood as America's most American city: its Italian pizzerias and German beer halls, side by side with its Jewish synagogues, Polish bakeries, African-American churches, and all the other savory ingredients in that windy microcosm of this nation's boiling melting pot." Other passages are just baloney: "As it did for so many Americans of his generation, John Kerry's youth came to a cruel end on November 22, 1963." And some passages, no matter how often you read them, will never make sense, as when Kerry visits San Francisco during the Summer of Love: "Anarchy was in the air; spelling 'Amerika' and putting Chairman Mao's 'Little Red Book' of Communist precepts in vogue. It was stylish not to be, and downright hip, to look unkempt." (Lay off the bong.)

A READER LEARNS to read between the lines. Brinkley is loath to say anything critical of Kerry, but every once in a while the cat slips out of the bag anyway, purring suggestively. In prep school, a friend recalls, "John was always talking about global issues. He was only eighteen years old and he knew just everything about politics. . . . That annoyed some people. No doubt about it." "He relished holding court on every policy issue," Brinkley writes. Translation: He was a know-it-all.

"He always had a sense," says another friend, "of his place in history as a young man." He loved public speaking in the exhortatory mode, especially when he himself was doing the speaking, and he got to hector his first big audience in 1958, at the age of fifteen, in a speech to his classmates called "The Plight of the Negro." One Negro was present. When he vacationed abroad as a college student, another friend recalls, "There was only one thing John had to do in London, and that was go to Hyde Park Corner and make a speech. He stood up on a soapbox and off he went." Translation: He was a windbag and a know-it-all.

Though born well-to-do, Kerry never hit the big money until he landed his second wife, Teresa Heinz. His father was a foreign-service officer and lawyer, his mother an heiress to a shipping trust. They shuffled Kerry and his sister among postings in Massachusetts and Berlin and Oslo and Washington and London, before parking the kids in a series of private schools in Europe and New England. The longest he lived anywhere as a boy was in a large house in a suburb of Boston. He stayed there two years before being uprooted again by his restless parents. Still, he tells Brinkley, those two years in the suburb "gave me a sense of belonging to the land."

That remark, pompous in the unmistakable Kerry style, is touching in its way, too. His parents were stern and emotionally remote. There was family wealth--sailboats and biking trips through the English countryside--but no familial warmth. When Brinkley writes about Kerry's first years in prep school, that "his life would have been simpler, in fact, if he had been an African American from Atlanta or an Okie from Tulsa," it is not quite (italics mine again) as stupid as it sounds. Kerry was plunged by his parents into a class system in which ambition was frowned upon, where, even in the early 1960s, irony and detachment were highly prized, and by nature, Kerry was gnawingly ambitious and utterly without irony. He had his own struggles.

Of course, you can't feel too sorry for him too long. By the time he graduated from Yale he had also enjoyed a sunlit cascade of summers wandering the Riviera, weekends sailing in Newport, double dates with Auchinclosses and Bundys (McGeorge's side of the family, not Al's). He had watched the America's Cup in the company of President and Mrs. Kennedy. He surfed, sailed, skied, and flew private planes for recreation. At Yale he was enlisted into Skull and Bones, the most widely-publicized "secret society" in the world, joining the ranks of such "Bonesmen" as George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, along with more Harrimans, Rockefellers, and Whitneys than you could spank with a riding crop. That's what they're called, by the way, "Bonesmen"--though "Boners" is a better word for this collection of stiff pricks.

When Kerry graduated in 1966, having been voted class orator, he delivered another of his public scoldings. It was a skeptical critique of the Vietnam war. "What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism," he announced to his classmates. "And this Vietnam war has found our policymakers forcing Americans into a strange corner." The speech was warmly received. Then Kerry left school, joined the Navy, enrolled in Officer's Training, and prepared to be sent to Vietnam.