Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bob Kerrey levels with the New York Times

Proud politicians—who want to be accurately appreciated, today and for all time—say the damnedest things to the New York Times.

Concluding an interview with former Nebraska Senator and now candidate Bob Kerrey, journalist Matt Bai gets at what could be Kerry’s biggest campaign uncertainty. It deserves careful reading:

In April 2001, about four months after he left the Senate, Kerrey saw his darkest secret explode into public view. In this magazine, and in an accompanying segment on 60 Minutes, the journalist Gregory Vistica reported that while in Vietnam, Kerrey led his SEAL team on a mission in which more than a dozen unarmed women and children were massacred. The revelation set off protests at the New School, and although Kerrey spoke about the issue at length and later served on the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of 2001, it also seemed to preclude his return to elective office.

“Toward the end of one of our conversations, I asked Kerrey if he thought Fischer (Republican candidate) or any of the outside groups would use his war record against him. Kerrey shrugged and said he was prepared if they did, and then to my surprise, he tried to explain, at some length, how he thought the episode had changed his life.

“'We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are,' he said. We were sitting alone on a patio in back of a coffee shop in Fremont, accompanied by chirping birds. 'People now look at me differently. They look at me more for who I really am, as opposed to this glamorous war-hero, Medal-of-Honor-recipient narrative that I don’t think is truthful. To see me as somebody who may have done something heroic but also did something that was terrible, I think helps people adjust in their own lives to their own attitudes about war and bad behavior. Because we’re not perfect people.'” 

Finding this all too stark, Bai helpfully elicits that Kerrey is still not at peace with himself, and that the pain he still feels, in some way, motivates his long shot attempt to return to the Senate.

To readers of the New York Times, Kerry’s statement is philosophically interesting. It’s more attractive when said about us, rather than by us, but it’s true: we are more than our worst acts. Further, Kerrey’s coping skills since Vietnam should be inspiring to all of us who have ever had trouble living with ourselves.

To voters in Nebraska, however, there are two significant problems with confessing to war crimes in Vietnam.

The first deserves a lot of consideration. Serving another six years in the most coveted deliberative assembly in the free world is an honor, not a form of penance. Recognizing Kerrey as a good neighbor and standing by him as a friend is one thing. The Senate, however, is a reward.

The second is easier. Kerrey's statement is disingenuous. In Nebraska, he’s not seeking to explain himself as a flawed veteran. He’s being sold as a war hero, pure and simple.

On the first page of his campaign website, just touch his photograph (in full military combat garb) and learn his “story.” You will learn about joining the Navy Seals, his war wound and leg amputation, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. You’ll learn that he was shocked by the attack on the World Trade Center and is determined to keep America strong and safe. You’ll find nothing in it, however, about women and children. It’s the resume of a squeaky-clean foothills idealist.

This is an important election year, and grown-up politicians must do all they can to win. However, what are those Nebraskans who read the New York Times supposed to do?

A candidate can clench his jaw and shut up like the Greatest Generation. However, can Kerrey confess to war crimes in the New York Times and be sold in Nebraska as a war hero? Is America that big? Was Vietnam that long ago? Is one more seat in the Senate that important?

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