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Taking the Swift Boat to History

By: Claude R. Marx
October 31, 2018

olitical and diplomatic memoirs are a challenging literary genre. Too often they are little more than a combination of a travelogue and a lamentation along the lines of “things would have been better if only they had heeded my advice.” The autobiography of former Secretary of State and Senator John Kerry contains many of those elements, but it is more engaging and insightful than most. In Every Day Is Extra, Kerry is introspective about how many of his actions, both successful and not, made him a lightning rod for his ideological adversaries.

Unfortunately, some of the good points are lost when Kerry ignores the basic “less-is-more” rule of writing. Vigorous use of the delete key and more stylistic prose would have improved Every Day is Extra. Two of Kerry’s Foggy Bottom predecessors—Henry Kissinger and Dean Acheson—showed how to do this well.  Kissinger’s memoirs of his services under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford are acclaimed even by some political adversaries for his ability to put modern events in historical context. And Acheson, who served under President Harry Truman, produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Present at the Creation, that combines rigorous analysis and engaging storytelling. His aristocratic sheen also makes his putdowns of those he considered his mental inferiors (and that was a large group) fun to read.

Kerry’s political involvement began early. After a privileged upbringing that featured time in boarding schools in the US and Switzerland—where he developed a lifelong passion for Swiss chocolate—and an unremarkable four years at Yale, he volunteered to serve in the US Navy in Vietnam. After he left the service, during which he won the purple heart, bronze star and silver star, Kerry became one of the leaders of a group of veterans who sought to end the war. He spoke at rallies, lobbied lawmakers, and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he would eventually chair.

His doubts had begun when he first arrived in Vietnam: “I had previously always imagined that we’d succeed because we were the United States of America. There was no way to know how simplistic that conviction was until I got on the ground and could see and feel the deceptions—the free fire zones, the difficulty of separating the Viet Cong from the general population, the brutal nature of guerilla warfare, the weakness and demoralization of South Vietnam’s army and the corruption of its government.”

In his Senate testimony he famously said: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Kerry gained headlines at the time by describing atrocities committed by Americans, but he doesn’t repeat those stories in the book, perhaps because of the backlash he received.

While his experience as a naval officer gave his about-face on the war extra credibility in some circles, it also permanently branded him as a turncoat among conservatives. One of the book’s shortcomings is that Kerry recounts some of his conversations with his detractors, who disagreed with his position on the war, but does not elaborate on them. He also refused to elaborate on the way our current culture wars mimic the nation’s divide over Vietnam. While he makes his disdain for President Donald Trump clear, he doesn’t spend any time talking about how the failures of those on both Left and Right helped us reach this point. Such a discussion might have helped the book offer more insight into our current political horizon.

Kerry reached the Senate in 1985 after two years as Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor and a brief stint as an assistant district attorney. While there, he was a solid legislator who made contributions on key areas such as investigating corruption, normalizing relations with Vietnam and expanding access to affordable housing. He crossed the aisle to work with his colleague Sen. John McCain on Vietnam normalization. That was more than just conservative meets liberal, it was former POW working with prominent war opponent.

Kerry’s discussion is quite heartfelt, and he does an effective job of taking readers behind the scenes during the long negotiations. In these polarizing times, it is a reminder that there is hope for political compromise.

When Kerry ran for president in 2004, the US was in the middle of two wars and he faced an uphill battle against a popular president. Kerry’s tone when describing the campaign is angry, not just because he lost, but because of the attacks on his war record. The campaign gave us a new political phrase “Swift Boating,” fostered by the GOP and independent groups.

“I felt a galloping sense of frustration, disappointment, anger and sadness, often all at once,” he wrote.

Though Kerry never became president, he did get the other job he really coveted. As secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s second term he dealt with a range of thorny issues, with mixed results.

The Iran nuclear deal has been roundly criticized by the right and has been one of President Donald Trump’s biggest targets as both a candidate and president. Some of the criticisms were partisan and others had to do with the substance of the agreement. Kerry argues that it is the best deal they could have negotiated, especially because there is no way that Iran as a proud, sovereign nation would have voluntarily relinquished its nuclear weapons.

But Kerry also acknowledges the concerns of other Middle Eastern nations about the nuclear threat. He recounts the heated conversations he had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an old friend of Kerry’s but who has often frustrated American officials of both political parties.

Kerry was annoyed at what he called the underhanded efforts to undermine the deal, including the congressional GOP leadership’s invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint session to lobby against it. He seemed surprised by the end-run, but in light of politics’ changing rules, all bets are off in terms of what constitutes fair play.

Kerry also criticized Netanyahu for his intransigence in his negotiations with the Palestinians. From Netanyahu’s parochial political view, the approach paid off, as the Trump administration has given the Likud Party almost everything it has wanted, including eliminating calls for a two-state solution and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

This could be a case of be careful what you wish for. While this may be an effective short-term strategy, there are demographic and other trends that may make the status quo untenable, including the fact that there is greater growth among the Palestinian population of Israel than among the Jews. This could force Israel to have to choose between being a democracy or a Jewish state.

Kerry thought Netanyahu and his Arab counterparts might be willing to take bigger political risks, but that was not to be. And Kerry became yet another secretary of state who failed to achieve a solution to the Middle East’s problems.

Despite his shortcomings as secretary of state, Kerry has lived a remarkable and consequential life. His autobiography Every Day Is Extra is an insightful and well-written look at the man and his times.