The mystery of John Kerry's missing courage.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 2 2003 4:55 PM

The Thin Man

The mystery of John Kerry's missing courage.

Little to see
Little to see

It's obvious what John Kerry is selling this morning. He announces his candidacy for president in front of an aircraft carrier, surrounded by a dozen big American flags. He's preceded to the podium by a succession of fellow veterans. Former Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee, introduces Kerry as "a profile in American courage." A military band plays "Anchors Aweigh" as Kerry rises. He recalls his service in Vietnam. He uses the word "courage" 10 times.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The notion that Kerry is just now kicking off his campaign is a well-understood joke. He's been running for more than a year. I've heard and read about his war record many times. Yet I still stare incredulously every time he talks about it. I can't get a rude but persistent question out of my mind: Can you believe this guy fought in Vietnam?

He did, of course. He's the only candidate in this race who did. He earned the Silver Star and Bronze Star and was wounded three times. I didn't serve in that war (I was, among other things, too young), nor did most of my colleagues in the press. I respect what Kerry did and endured. Still, I look at him and wonder how such a brave warrior became such a cautious politician.

Lately, I've thought about Kerry's service when I watch Howard Dean, the candidate Kerry is trying to overtake. Now, there's a guy who looks like he fought in Vietnam. Dean's words always seem to be holding back an inferno of anger. John McCain was the same way. Kerry is the opposite: He claims to be angry, but you look at him and can't believe it. His body doesn't live up to his words. When Kerry disagrees with you, he makes you feel as though the disagreement is his problem. When Dean disagrees with you, he makes you feel as though it's your problem. I know Kerry fought and Dean didn't. But it's still hard to believe.

Take the test yourself. Call up a friend who hasn't been following the campaign and knows nothing about the candidates. Have your friend watch five minutes of Dean speaking and five minutes of Kerry speaking. Then ask your friend which guy fought in Vietnam. Unless Kerry mentions his war record, I'll bet your friend picks Dean.

At Kerry's announcement, the question takes a different form. Dean is out of the picture. Kerry sits onstage in a row of veterans, several of whom speak on his behalf. My eyes wander across the row and come to rest, with familiar incredulity, on the wooden guy in the white shirt. Of all the guys in this row, can you believe this is the one running for president?

The opening acts overshadow the main event. Alex Sanders, a 65-year-old bulldozer of a judge, flashes his wit and grit. Cleland lights up the crowd with zingers, plain talk, and more animation than Kerry can manage with four limbs. While Cleland works his magic, Kerry sits expressionless behind him, squinting and repeatedly touching various parts of his hair to make sure they're in place. They're fine, but Kerry seems terribly anxious that somewhere, somehow, a hair is out of place.

Cleland tells the audience about Kerry's service as captain of a swift boat on the Mekong River in Vietnam. He says that tour of duty showed Kerry's "leadership" and "courage." But then Cleland appears to wander off-script. One day, he recalls, Kerry's boat "came under fire by enemy attack from the shore. And instead of trying to outrun it or outgun it, he did a very unusual thing. He turned his boat into the attack, making himself a thinner target, making himself less of a target than he was. He attacked the attacker."

I've read about this episode many times. But I've never before heard it described this way. Always, the reporter—usually a non-veteran—emphasizes the bravery or recklessness of attacking the enemy. That isn't how Cleland sees it. He emphasizes the defensive genius of the maneuver: Kerry made himself a thinner target. I don't know whether Kerry thought about it that way at the time. But that's clearly the way he thinks about American soldiers in Iraq. In his speech today, Kerry repeats a line he's used at every campaign stop: It's time to "take the targets off American soldiers."

When you look at it that way, Kerry the warrior and Kerry the politician begin to come together. While trying to do the right thing, Kerry has always sought to make himself a thinner target. He was for affirmative action, just not this affirmative action. He was for a drug war, just not this drug war. He was for an Iraq war, just not this Iraq war. This is Kerry's nature, and he knows it. He sometimes argues, when pressed about his vote on the war resolution, that most votes in Congress are really "yes, but" or "no, but." In Kerry's case, it's sometimes "yes" and sometimes "no." But it's always "but."