A troubling story about John Kerry.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 3 2003 11:27 AM

The Worst of John Kerry

A troubling tale from his past. Is it true?

John Kerry

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates' biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, and claims to fame. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his worst. Here's the one told by critics of John Kerry—and what they leave out.

Charge: "Kerry, who understood well the importance that the media placed on imagery, put an exclamation mark on [a 1971 anti-Vietnam protest] by lining up with veterans to return their medals to the military on April 23. Kerry said he suggested that veterans place their medals and ribbons on a table and return them. But he said other members of the antiwar veterans group wanted to throw the medals and ribbons over a fence in front of the Capitol, and Kerry went along with the idea. … Some press reports say that Kerry 'threw his medals.' But Kerry has long maintained he threw his own ribbons but someone else's medals. In an interview, he said that he had previously met two veterans … who had asked Kerry to return their medals to the military. Kerry said he stuffed them into his jacket. He said that when he prepared to throw his ribbons over the fence, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the medals from those two veterans. He said his own medals remained in safekeeping" (Boston Globe, June 17, 2003).

"[Massachusetts] Republican State Committee Chairman Andres S. Natsios … accused Kerry of 'duplicity' in tossing away another veteran's medals, rather than his own" (Washington Post, Oct. 24, 1984).

Defense: In December 2002, The New Yorker reported that "Kerry had never implied" the medals he threw were his. "Indeed, the protesters that day had tossed all sorts of things—dog tags, photographs, discharge papers, insignia." Kerry's only mistake was that "he had complicated the story with an excess of honesty, recalling that he'd also tossed several medals that had been given him by veterans who were unable to make the trip."

In 1984, the Post reported that Kerry said "he had disagreed with the decision to throw away medals but agreed to toss those of another veteran at the man's request." In 1985, Kerry told the Post, "It's such a personal thing. They're my medals. I'll do what I want with them. … People say, 'You didn't throw your medals away.' Who said I had to? And why should I? It's my business. I did not want to throw my medals away."

In sum, Kerry seems innocent of duplicity but guilty of an extremely nuanced moral code, according to which it's OK to throw away your ribbons and somebody else's medals, but not your medals. As to the broader question of Vietnam, there's no dispute that Kerry fought honorably in the war and spoke out clearly against it upon his return.

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

Ben Jacobs is a Slate intern.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

An Unscientific Ranking of Really, Really Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Oct. 23 2014 10:30 AM Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.