Is Kerry Blowing It?

On an April night in Washington 33 years ago, a tall, slender man in navy combat fatigues tapped me on the shoulder.

I was sitting in a large army tent pitched on the Mall, in the company of a couple of dozen Vietnam vets, one of whom-a bearded, wiry little guy with a terrific sense of humor and an inexhaustible supply of mescaline-was temporarily using my other shoulder as a resting place for the stump that had been his left leg. He’d just asked how come I was wearing a South Vietnamese officer’s jacket with the word “TIME” embroidered over the pocket, and I was about to explain-that’s when I felt the tap.

I turned to see John Kerry, who two years earlier had been a lieutenant commanding a patrol boat in the Mekong Delta. In the last few weeks he’d become more friend than source. “What’s up?” I said.

He dropped into a Vietnamese squat and whispered, “Come with me.”

Wondering what the mystery was all about, I waited until my buddy eased back on his crutches, then followed Mr. Kerry out of the tent. Outside, the air was unusually cool. Up and down the Mall were other tents filled with vets-more than 1,000-hunkered down, telling stories of the ‘Nam and speculating about the next day’s operation: one last cadence-counting, flags-flying, weeping, cheering, wheelchair-rolling march up Pennsylvania Avenue to throw down their medals on the steps of the United States Capitol.

John Kerry-the most decorated of those who called each other “brother”-was going to be walking point.

“So?” I said, as we stood under the stars, hugging ourselves against the chill.

He smiled. “I got a better place for you to sleep.”

I trailed after him to a parking lot where half a dozen former junior officers in fatigues were leaning against a Mercedes sedan. John made introductions, assuring them that though not a vet, and in the employ of a publication that had declared Vietnam “the right war in the right place at the right time,” I had spent a stretch of involuntary quality time with those who’d been shooting at them not long before. That seemed to satisfy, and we set off in the Merc toward our objective, which turned out to be a Georgetown townhouse belonging to an assistant something or other at the Pentagon. He was away for the evening, but had left a key, which John extracted from his uniform blouse and fitted into the lock of the front door.

“Talk about being in the enemy camp,” I said, as it swung open.

He laughed. “The owner’s a good guy. He said we could use his ‘hooch’ for the night.”

We repaired to the walnut-paneled library, liberated a bottle of vintage brandy from an antique cabinet, and plopped down on expensively upholstered couches and easy chairs. As combat boots settled on what looked to be a George II coffee table, our leader offered a solemn toast:

“Brothers who didn’t come home.”

I caught his eye as I lifted my crystal snifter. Something told me that the chiseled-faced young man looking back had big things in store for him.

John Kerry has indeed made a name for himself since leading the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But these days-I haven’t seen him since that April night in 1971-he’s catching it because of that long-ago protest march. On the Internet and, if you can believe it, on the floor of the House of Representatives, the holder of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts is being called a traitor: “Hanoi John.” Vets are being dragged off American Legion barstools to say that he’s no better than those who supposedly spat on them and called them “baby-killers”-an urban legend that ranks right up there with feminist bra-incinerators. A phony photograph has been circulated showing him communing with Jane Fonda. There’s even been mockery about one of his wounds: A retired lieutenant commander dismissed it in The Boston Globe as “a fingernail scrape.” (Easy to say, if you’ve never been hit by shrapnel.)

From the REMFs, as we used to call them in Vietnam (you’ll have to ask a vet what it means), such behavior is S.O.P.; the surprise is that they’re getting some of their ammunition straight out of John Kerry’s mouth.

The latest convolution to issue therefrom concerns the discarded medals: How many? Whose? What kind? According to the Kerry campaign, it’s a “right-wing fiction” that he ever threw away any. Of his medals, that is. Ribbons-duplicates of which are available in any Army-Navy store-are different. He did toss those. The medals he left on the Capitol steps belonged to other people who couldn’t make it to the march.

Leave it to The New York Times to come up with a videotape of Mr. Kerry saying something quite different during a television interview in November 1971. Asked how many medals he flipped onto the steps, Mr. Kerry (befuddled, perhaps, by the absurdity of the query) replied: “I can’t remember, six, seven, eight, nine.”

In 1984, while running for Senate, he presented the revised version to The Boston Globe : He still had his own medals (he offered to show them to an upset union man); he’d thrown someone else’s. That zig would be followed 12 years later by a zag. Asked by The Globe why he hadn’t thrown his own ( doesn’t anyone at that paper have better things to do? ), Mr. Kerry explained that he “didn’t have time to go home and get them.”

None of this matters-unless it’s a sign of things to come.

What compels Mr. Kerry to stick his foot in it? Pretending he never heard of Jane Fonda-who reportedly helped finance the VVAW-one can understand; there was, after all, that memorable pin-up of her perched on a 37-millimeter anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi. But why backtrack on a gesture that was self-sacrificing, deeply felt (whatever came out of his hand) and crucial in establishing him as the figure he is today?

Mr. Kerry has also been shimmying about what he said three decades ago in Senate testimony on the subject of U.S. troops committing war crimes. He claims: not a word. “No,” Mr. Kerry told CNN’s Judy Woodruff in February. “I was accusing American leaders of abandoning the troops. And if you read what I said, it is very clearly an indictment of leadership. I said to the Senate, ‘Where is the leadership of our country?’ And it’s the leaders who are responsible, not the soldiers. I never said that.”

Mr. Kerry is half-right. He did, most eloquently, tear into the politicians and bureaucrats who sent young men off to die without purpose or point. But another of those darned videotapes exists, and it shows Mr. Kerry, equally eloquent, enumerating rapes; cut-off ears, heads and limbs; genitals wired to portable telephone sets with the juice turned on high; randomly shot-at civilians; razed villages-“in fashion,” as he put it, “reminiscent of Genghis Khan.”

What the right usually leaves out about this tape is that Mr. Kerry isn’t accusing, he’s reporting , word for word, the confessions of 150 vets during a VVAW-sponsored conference in Detroit only weeks before. Moreover, Mr. Kerry-unlike another decorated Vietnam vet named Kerrey who now sits in judgment on others’ faults-did not exempt himself. “I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed,” he said during an appearance on Meet the Press shortly before his Senate testimony. “I took part in shooting in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire …. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages.”

There should be medals for that kind of guts, too.

So why back away? Especially now, when the stakes are just as high as they were in Vietnam?

A craven press is badgering him, and so are ideologues still trying to win a justly lost war. But mostly John Kerry is suffering from a condition that strikes liberal Presidential candidates the moment they begin to taste it-“it” being the shock that they might actually hear “Hail to the Chief” whenever they walk into a room, if they play their cards right. And that means: don’t seem too liberal, and explain away, deny, revise, trim or flat-out lie about all past events, beliefs and statements that got you the Democratic nomination in the first place.

It happened to another friend of mine in 1972. His name was George McGovern; I wrote his authorized campaign biography (he didn’t cut out the passages that hit him over the head, which tells you something about McGovern, liberals or both); and for a goodly while, many otherwise sensible folk believed he would end the war by sundown on Inauguration Day, just like he’d promised all through the primaries. But no sooner was the nomination his than Senator McGovern-a decent man if ever there was one (and a brave B-24 pilot, besides)-commenced fudging: Well, maybe halting the fighting would take a little longer than supposed. There were all those P.O.W.’s to get back first, etc., etc. The net on Election Day was Nixon, 49 states; McGovern, 1. (That one, of course, was John Kerry’s state.)

There was plenty else awful in the McGovern campaign, and even if the White Knight from the Dakota plains had stayed pure, the best result might have been a few more states shaded blue. But at least the people who’d worked so hard and believed so utterly would have felt better; “McGovern” wouldn’t have become an expletive; Jimmy Carter might still be planting peanuts; and Howard Dean wouldn’t have had the crypto-Republican Democratic Leadership Council to kick around, because it wouldn’t have existed. In which case, no one outside of Little Rock would ever have heard of a couple named Bill and Hillary. See what happens when you ignore what Mother said about fibbing?

No one’s saying that Mr. Kerry’s cooked. But McGovern parallels give him a toasted look he didn’t get skiing in Sun Valley.

The solution? Well, for starters, friend of days gone by, lay your hands on a tape of your 1971 Senate testimony; have Bob Shrum turn it into a TV commercial. Air it morning, noon and night.

Stop apologizing for the good things you’ve done. You were a hero, O.K.? During the war, and after. Maybe especially after. Besides, you’ll have ample opportunity to apologize for real screw-ups as the campaign moves along.

And take a good look at what’s happening in Falluja. Are the Marines getting anywhere sitting around waiting for the bad guys to make nice? All that’s happening is that the fellas in the checkered scarves are getting good target practice.

Same with your enemies on the right. Retreat, they smell blood. Smack ‘em, they behave. True, it’s not very St. Paul’s-but you do want to hear them play that song, don’t you?

Oh, yes, just in case anyone asks you about Jane Fonda again, remember: When she was manning that Commie ack-ack gun, American pilots had clear sailing.