Is Kerry Hamlet or Truman?

Daniel Henninger, in the WSJ (March 12, 2004):

John Kerry entered the U.S. Senate in 1985, and for 18 years built the record that is now the basis for calling him either complex and nuanced or inconsistent and opportunistic. Most famously, Mr. Kerry voted for the Iraq war resolution, but criticizes nearly every action Mr. Bush has taken on Iraq. He voted for the Patriot Act but says John Ashcroft is"abusing" it. There is a long list of similarly nuanced positions (a word Mr. Kerry rejects).

Here is a Harry Truman story from Alan Axelrod's book on Truman's leadership style. Speaking at Columbia University in 1959, a student challenged the 33rd President, a Democrat, on dropping the second A-bomb."The reason I asked this," the student said,"was that it seemed to me the second bomb came pretty soon after the first one." After speaking testily of"Monday morning quarterbacks," Truman said simply:"I was there. I did it. I would do it again."

This isn't John Kerry. Indeed, it is unlikely that Harry Truman's blunt, almost cocky retort would be seen as admirable by current standards of public sensitivity. But the stubborn forcefulness of Truman's decision-making still stands as a symbol of presidential leadership, as does that of FDR, Lincoln and increasingly Ronald Reagan, who installed Pershing missiles in Europe against opposition similar to that faced now by Mr. Bush on Iraq. Roosevelt pressed the Lend Lease Act against an embittered domestic opposition.

This is a guess, as inevitably one has to guess about a presidential challenger, but John Kerry's temperament, as we have seen it, appears unlikely to have let him make Truman's decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He would have found the implications of that decision too difficult to bear the heavy judgments of history, then or now.

Iraq aside, one must doubt that Mr. Kerry would have attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan on the scale and with the ferociousness of Mr. Bush's successful assault. After September 11, both conservatives and liberals opposed retaliation against al Qaeda's redoubts in Afghanistan, describing many scenarios of political and geographic disaster. It is reasonable to guess that a President Kerry would have sided with those articulating arguments against.

Across the years, Mr. Kerry has been Hamlet, a political metaphor sure to rise again and again until November. This is one ghost that can't be mocked offstage. It needs to be faced. Vietnam haunted him, then and now. By his friends' accounts, he wrestles in his maturity with the decisions of life and politics.

Hamlet is very much a man for our times. Perhaps the presidency deserves one version of Everyman in the complex and inconstant world we inhabit. I doubt it. The historian James McGregor Burns said a few years back that often now politicians"don't have firm sets of ideals or values, either liberal or conservative or radical, that can underpin strong leadership." Some truths don't change. It is very hard to see John Kerry as the right fit for the office of the American presidency....

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