What Douglas Brinkley's Book Tells Us About John Kerry

News at Home

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. His book, Morning In America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s, will be published by Princeton University Press. Mr. Troy is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

In running for president, Sen. John Kerry is dancing on the head of a pin. While President George W. Bush can seem maddeningly simplistic in a complex world, candidate Kerry is awash in nuances and contradictions. An anti-war candidate who voted for the war in Iraq but opposed the latest appropriation for reconstruction, Kerry is also running as the populist foe of the wealthy and privileged, though he is himself a multimillionaire Boston Brahmin Yalie who never married a woman worth less than $300 million. Kerry's contribution to the two-century-old genre of campaign biographies and autobiographies is characteristically complex but also, like his life story, moving, inspiring and surprisingly formidable.

In Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, historian Douglas Brinkley shows how Kerry can pull off another great paradox defining his campaign: glorifying military exploits in a war he abhorred and later famously opposed. The book pulls no punches. Brinkley defines Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War as the launching pad to his political career. In fact, while a Republican might have started the book with Kerry's heroics in winning the Silver Star or the Bronze Star, Brinkley begins with Kerry's dramatic Senate testimony as a wounded and decorated war veteran denouncing the war. This opening positions Kerry as a man of conscience doing his duty -- both in fighting for his country and in opposing the war he came to believe was immoral.

Campaign biographies are supposed to be predictive. Readers want a crystal ball suggesting whether the subject will win and just what kind of president he will be. This book will excite Republicans with the prospect of casting Kerry as a Jane Fonda-loving, pot-smoking traitor-dilettante who ran anti-war protests from the comfortable perch of"the Georgetown home of Oatsie and Robert Charles," warm hosts despite being pro-war Republicans. In fact, many, many rich or famous people have cameo appearances in the saga of this strikingly well-connected patrician who proves that America still has an aristocracy.

Yet Democrats will rejoice that this JFK -- John Forbes Kerry -- is no Michael Dukakis. Ramrod straight, with a chestful of medals and a massive Dudley Do-Right chin only a mother, Garry Trudeau, or a Mount Rushmore sculptor could love, Kerry is not well-cast as a subversive. Moreover, he is not afraid to fight -- and the thumbnail sketch of his political career emphasizes many veterans' deep loyalty to Kerry and the delicate, deep-seated"Band of Brothers" emotions Republican character assassins must avoid unleashing when attacking him.

Tour of Duty is clearly a presidential campaign biography. John Kerry emerges as a Golden Boy from an earlier era, born in 1943, the well-bred son of a Foreign Service officer with deep roots and extensive connections. A St. Paul's School preppie, a Skull-and-Bones Yalie, Kerry spent his youth hobnobbing and high-flying, all the while nursing feelings of financial inadequacy among the mega-wealthy and demonstrating an ambition that was just a tad out of place in his world of cotillions and trust funds. In yet another squaring of the circle, Brinkley balances the romantic frivolity of Kerry's social set with the emerging seriousness and public-service-oriented patriotism of the young Kerry himself.

Sen. Kerry granted Brinkley full access to his"War Notes" and nine interviews"with only one string attached," Brinkley writes,"that I write any book or article drawn from them within two years." This generous grant occurred in 2002, which means that the deadline just happens to coincide with Kerry's presidential push. To underscore the message, the book ends with an epilogue:"September 2, 2003 [Charleston, South Carolina]," with Sen. Kerry launching his presidential run lovingly supported by his"brothers," his fellow Vietnam veterans.

The journals and notes Kerry provided are so extensive that his voice comes through loud and clear. Readers of this book will feel the sense of mass-produced intimacy, so essential to modern democratic political bonding, and will find it hard to understand journalistic descriptions of Kerry as"aloof." In keeping with the genre of campaign biography, Brinkley makes his subject heroic, a man for our times and a man for all times, a silver-tongued do-gooder clearly cast from birth to fill George Washington's shoes and be"first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Yet Brinkley's brief for Kerry's presidential candidacy may rank as the oddest presidential campaign biography or autobiography ever written. Invariably, these works are straightforward puff pieces celebrating the candidate and setting up the candidacy -- and the hoped-for victory -- as the logical culmination of a life well-lived. Romantic novelists and the politicians themselves, with their respective professional instincts for melodrama laden with symbolism, are more suited to this genre than historians, trained as they are to delight in complexity and preserve a critical distance. While Brinkley clearly admires Kerry, sometimes slavishly, this biography does not ignore the doubts about Kerry's sincerity and fears of his ambition that have dogged Kerry since his youth. It would be hard to find any other campaign biographer who would write,"From the time he started law school in the fall of 1973 to his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1984, he compiled a modest record of somewhat unfocused achievement."

Brinkley's account of Kerry's wartime service -- especially the brief four months he spent in combat -- is simply too long. The historian became too enamored with his sources, namely Kerry's voluminous journal entries describing an overlooked part of the war: the patrolling of Vietnam's rivers. Though somewhat illuminating, these details bog down the book.

This is a shame, because Brinkley's account of Kerry's emergence as the leading war veteran against the war is well-paced, insightful and compelling. In this account, which covers the last quarter of the book, Kerry emerges as a patriot. Like so many others, Kerry grew his hair long, had his nightmares and vented his rage. But he also worked to moderate anti-war radicals. In trying to present the movement's best public face, Kerry demonstrated his great skill: his ability to speak American to Americans. He emerges not as a fire-breathing radical, but as a hard-core liberal in the mold of Ted Kennedy, Allard Lowenstein and George McGovern. In fact, at the risk of resurrecting Newt Gingrich's noxious phrase from the 1990s, compared to Kerry, Bill and Hillary Clinton are merely Potemkin McGoverniks; this guy is the real deal.

Ultimately, this book does what a campaign book should do. Tour of Duty hails John Kerry as an American hero, and navigates biographical minefields -- the book spends much time introducing Julia Thorne, whom Kerry married in 1970, but dispatches his divorce in two cryptic lines; it dutifully attempts to make Kerry's flamboyant returning of someone else's war medals at a rally seem reasonable. More important, the book suggests that Kerry will not be so easily demonized or outfoxed in the campaign. Brinkley provides an engaging portrait of Kerry and the Vietnam era. It still remains for the candidate to explain why heroic service in the Mekong Delta during the 1960s augers effective leadership in the twenty-first century White House.

This article first appeared in newsobserver.com and is reprinted with permission of the author.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Neil V. Pepper - 10/30/2004

I have been hearing people say that Pres. Bush is running his last campaign. I don't understand because if he should lose, can't he run again? I know that a President is limited to two 4 year terms, but is the requirement that they be served consecutively? I would appreciate direction to where to find out the answer.
Thank you,
Neil Pepper

Eugene Patrick Tuttle - 8/31/2004

As a grunt with C Co. 2nd Bat. 16th Infantry, I often had the "pleasure" of being taxied around on your vehicles during your (Livingston, I presume) time in Vietnam - 1966 to 1967. I think we were extraordinarily conscientious about avoiding civilian casualties, and therefore resent Kerry's contribution to the contrary image. Clearly there were exceptions to the rule, but by highlighting exceptions (mostly second hand stories) and making them seem like the rule, Kerry highlighted himself. And this, the more one looks at his overall exploitation of his Vietnam service, has apparently been his goal all along. It's unfortunate that challenging his medals for heroism (a near impossible he-said-she-said debate after all these years) has largely obscured an issue that there is little dispute about. Kerry, an officer -- and volunteer, after all (most of us were draftees) -- virtually abandoned his men by drastically cutting short his tour because of a few extremely superficial wounds. There's a character issue here with a thread that continues from Vietnam to his senate anti-war grandstanding to this summer's convention speech. I wrote an article elaborating on this for a major daily that, unfortunately, was not used (any suggestions?). I would hope, however, that despite the "move on" consensus of most editorial boards, the injury/curtailment issue gets greater scrutiny during the next two months.

William Livingston - 3/26/2004

:-))) Despite the grimbling of our Army being both top-heavy with rank & overly burdened by its non-fighting tail not an awlful lot of that tail is really unnecessary. It is said that during WWII our Army's tail comprised 90% of the armed forcs, leaving only one G.I. in ten acually engaed in combat. In 'Nam it was said to be one in nine, or only 5%, depending on who was making the count, were actually engaged in combat. Nonetheless, we won WWII & although we lost Viet-Nam the loss was at the peace table, not on the battlefield. Indeed, there was that famous confrontation between Col. Summers & a PAVN Col. after the war, Summers aid to the Viet, "You know, we won every major engagement on the battlefield." The PAVN responded, if I have my quote accurate, "So what?" In other words, the PAVN was saying you still were the losers. Be darned if he wasn't correct.

William Livingston - 3/26/2004

Pirate(?) Morgan,

IMHO Zumwalt's purported (after all, we have only a second-hand report of what is said to have said) comments were neither hyperbole nor joking. If he said it, he was serious. Because I think Zumwalt was quoted accurately I feel very queasy about Kerry. As said before, it is my belief that I was permitted by our Lord through a special grace to survive ordinarily killing wounds when WIA in 'Nam. Perehaps, just maybe, one reason He chose to permit me to live was because never once in my two tours in 'Nam did I ever consider deliberately harming a non-combatant. Moreover, as far as I know, nor did I harm a non-combatant by accident. If that doesn't seem much to brag about there's this: much of my time in 'Nam was an Aero-Scout, flying tiny, as often as not armed, helicopters at and below treetop level in srarch of the enemy. No kidd'n on occasion I putt-putted along very slowly just a few feet off the ground following footprints of V.C. & N.V.A. in muddy ground. Whilst we were NOT encouraged to kill the innocent, there was a temptation to do that because unquestionably stray farmers way out on the border with Laos, for instance, were paying taxes to the Communists rather than to the South Viet gov't AND doubtlessly frequently were serving as, conscripted, enemy soldiers.

But for me the likelyhood that a Viet living "Waay out there" was most probably at least a part-time V.C. was not justification to blow him away, especilly not to a rustic such as I. As far as I was concerned, most of those Viets out there were simply Joe Farmer attempting to make a living & I had no reason to harm him, not unless he took a potshot at me, regardless once a Col. of the South Viet 1st Division once as much as ordered me to kill them. Of course, I wasn't in his chain-of command & it was easy enough to disregard his order. But all of us Scouts had sufficient military justification to kill those stray, living on the border farmers, but there was not a moral justification IMO. Perhaps some Souts reacted otherwise, but I never saw it, illegal/unnecessary/unjustified, killing, happen. But then throughout most of my second tour I led or was in command of the Scouts of our unbit or in command of the unit itself, Troop B, 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division & on my watch there was no unecessary killing. Likewise when I led the Scout platoon of Troop D, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division, my first tour, 1966-7. A Midwestern country boy & Christian just doesn't do that sort of thing. In addition, my first tour in 'Nam I was only two years out of the Peace Corps (Liberia Group I, 1962-4).

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/26/2004

Thanks. I followed some of that stuff about his "wounds". I'm also following how it is slowly working its way up through the media food chain that Kerry, despite his earlier denials (he had always claimed he had resigned at the prior St Louis meeting), he was in attendance at the Kansas City meeting of the VVAW where a plan was discussed (and rejected) to assassinate Nixon and Congressional members.

I also picked up the comment, by a senior Navy type, that Zumwalt had said it was a good thing they got Kerry out of Nam when they did, as he had been killing a lot more civilians than enemy. Hyperbole? Joking?

BTW, my DD214 says I have an ArCom, but actually I got the even lower (and newly minted at the time), Army Achievement Medal -- it was so new, not only did the separating authority get it wrong on my records (and failed to show my SF course work on top of it), they actually didn't have the medal in stock!! I've never, to this day, actually been awarded it, though I have the citation. SNAFU. Of course, it goes without saying (being a convinced intel REMF type) that it doesn't call for a V device.

William Livingston - 3/25/2004


You've a valid point here about veterans, if not Kerry himself. Evidently, many folks from other socities have difficulty in comprehending the attitude of some G.I.s. For instance, one reason I fought in 'Nam was to defend the right of my fellow Americans who chose to oppose the war to do so. Likewise, I'm often, usually, at odds with the Leftist points-of-view that prevail on HNN, but while I oppose the Left I would fight to defend its right to express its voice.

William Livingston - 3/25/2004

Of course, that should read Army Commendation, spelled with a "C." Ah well, I try to be coherent. Sometimes successfully.

William Livingston - 3/25/2004

Friend Richard Morgan,

According to e-mails flying about scores of Viet-Nam War veterans, including Yours truly, have grave doubts about the validity of Kerry's reported war wounds. For starters, he evidently did not miss a single half day of duty due to his "wounds." For another, attempts to gain access to his medical records to determine what sorts of wounds he supposedly incurred are being blocked by Kerry himself.

In contrast, Yours truly once WIA was, one hellofa trip, hauled back to the States on a stretcher & subsequently spent ten months & 3 days in naval & military hospitals, the first & longest go-round, attempting to recover from the effects of my wounds incurred. As a consequence, I'm not much impressed by Kerry's scratches.

Nah, I'm not grousing in sour grapes about his decorations. To begin with, I too hold a Silver Star & a Purple Heart as well as a Distinguihed Flying Cross & a Army Dommendation Medal w/ "V" device. But then, I was in-country nearly 23 months vs. Winnie Kerry's fewer than four months in-country. Still, he in the Brown Water Navy had a duty assignment that may have, could have, been interesting &/or a ball of fun, at least whenever one wasn't getting shot at. And probably it was often pretty hairy duty. Still, his Purple Hearts are VERY suspect

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/16/2004

I find this article rather unconvincing and just as partisan as it accused Douglas Brinkley. There seem to be two targets of this article.

The first, of course, is John Kerry. The author calls Kerry "awash in nuances and contradictions," based on selective and very broad evidence. Frankly, I find nothing contrary to John Kerry. Fighting in a war that one latter protests against may seem contrary on the superficial level, but it is perfectly consistent for a man who loves his country to fight for it, only to find that he had been lied to, and then try to pull that country out from that war. The author similarly finds it a paradox that Kerry should be a "populist foe of the wealthy and privileged, though he is himself a multimillionaire." Why is this so odd? Was TR, FDR, JFK all contradictory? When Bill Gates gives money to charity, or opposes the repeal of the estate tax, is he a paradox, or must wealthy people always be against progressive policies?

The second, and more important target seems to be Douglas Brinkley, who the author accused of pandering to Kerry for election purposes. "Tour of Duty" he claims boldly, "is clearly a presidential campaign biography."
This is a charge that is not adequately defended. Brinkley, the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and a professor of history who has written or co-written over 10 books, also co-authored "The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation" with Stephen Ambrose. I mention this because if the author read Ambrose’s work on WWII, he would know that he relied heavily on veterans' letters and recollections, just as Brinkley has done. The book is about John Kerry, and to be shocked to find the author take a bias and favorable position on Kerry is rather odd. I could accuse David McCullah of the same bias for John Adams, or most other biographies that are written. It is OK to point this bias out, but to suggest that it is intentional in order to help Kerry’s campaign is simply too far a leap without more evidence.

The author then tries to solidify this straw man argument by including, almost critically, how Brinkley includes some negative things about Kerry in the book as well! Finally, it should be noted that it was Kerry, not Brinkley, who demanded that the book be released by election time.

I would like to note that much of the criticism of the book seems fair, in my opinion, and should have been framed in the form of a legitimate book review, rather then attacking the author for being in bed with the subject for partisan reasons.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/15/2004

I too have my doubts on Kerry. The medals thing. The annulment. The unspectacular legislative record. The unbridled ambition and the trimming. I'm certainly troubled by his participation in, and endorsement of, the Winter Soldier "investigation" -- as dishonest an undertaking as I've ever seen. Kerry couldn't separate the wheat from the chaff there -- in fact, one of the members of his own VVAW leadership was an out-and-out fraud. How much weight to attach to these things as just examples of youthful folly, and how much to include in Heraclitus' dictum that character is destiny? I'm not sure yet.