Sen. Kerry: Engage! Tour Iraq by Humvee, Drive Down to Najaf

John Kerry got in touch the other day.

It’s always nice to hear from a chum of 30 years ago, and considering how busy he’s been with the campaign, taking time out to write seemed awfully thoughtful. Especially with what’s been appearing in this space.

Bubbling with anticipation, I ripped open the envelope.

If you checked “Democrat” last time you registered, you know what dropped out. Because you got the same letter requesting “a most generous contribution” to the Democratic National Committee. John wrote (excuse me, Senator Kerry wrote): “Our tomorrow depends on it.”

A P.S. asking after the kids would have helped the medicine go down, but even in his allons mes amis! to the barricades days, John won no stars for being cozy.

As fund-raising goes, though, the two-page missive wasn’t bad. Mr. Kerry’s signature appeared handwritten (testament to how clever computers are getting), and between the “Dear” and the “Sincerely,” he listed five good reasons to pull out the checkbook: Everyone would have a job. You wouldn’t have to worry about breaking your neck or quitting smoking, as you’d have affordable health insurance. Land, sea and air would be pristine. Every school would be just like St. Paul’s. There wouldn’t be any racial, gender or sexual discrimination-and you could join a union, or have an abortion. In fact, you could even stick up a bank, if you wanted, confident that when the cops caught you they’d at least read your Miranda rights. Mr. Kerry was emphatic about that. “When I am President,” he promised, “we will end the assault on our civil liberties and civil rights by appointing an attorney general whose name is not John Ashcroft.”

Readers with elephant memories will recall that in his convention acceptance speech in 1968, Richard Nixon made exactly the same promise. And sure enough, soon as Tricky took the oath, Ramsey Clark had to pack. So, General Ashcroft, be warned: Unless Mr. Kerry changes his mind between now and Inauguration Day (this could happen), those secret plans you’ve been making to stay on in the new administration will be inconvenienced.

And what did Mr. Kerry say about Iraq?

Not one word.

Well, maybe he forgot; it’s been a hectic week.

First, he had to stay on message- health care premiums! -when everyone else on the planet was talking about Abu Ghraib.

Then he had to explain why, if he cared so much about the unemployed, he was off campaigning instead of staying in Washington and casting the one vote needed for the Senate to extend for 13 weeks benefits for the Americans who’ve flat run out of luck finding a job.

Then he had to pretend he had a snowball’s chance of carrying Arkansas by traipsing down to Little Rock, where he accomplished his actual mission-paying obeisance to the fund-raiser-in-chief-by lauding Bill Clinton for so many virtues (including turning him into a Razorback football fan) that the L.A. Times reporter lost track after a dozen. But Teresa no doubt filed away one suggestive line: “Whatever President Clinton did,” her husband said, “it worked for him.”

Throughout, Mr. Kerry strove mightily to avoid saying boo about Iraq. “We’re all interested in what’s happening,” he told a reporter, assuring he was bearing up under all the pestering about the war. “But life goes on and we’ve got to make America strong here at home.” The Tar Baby finally stuck to him, when he was forced to view the unexpurgated Abu Ghraib slide show the military brass was putting on for Congress. Emerging from the snoop-safe Capitol Bijou, Mr. Kerry pronounced the images of torture and humiliation “sickening” and “appalling”-subsequently amplified by “depraved and sad.”

His review was several shades paler than the seemingly genuine horror George Bush has been expressing-but sufficient for political purposes. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Kerry rambled on, wrecking what had promised to be his first flip-flop-free week in many moons by assigning blame to “a group of people run amok, under what circumstances we have yet to determine.” Quick as you can say “Tom DeLay” (who spent his week calling Democrats traitors), the Bush campaign pointed out that only days earlier, Mr. Kerry was pinning the Abu Ghraib rap on the entire chain of command, up to and including the Commander-in-Chief. The G.O.P. press release seemed to stir the normally stoic candidate, who shortly thereafter doubled back to his first version.

Midst these events, Mr. Kerry issued what the Associated Press described as “his fullest criticism yet” of Mr. Bush’s handling of the war: “I mean, this is not a success,” he said. “I think that it’s been one miscalculation after another, frankly.”

Weigh that for outraged megatonnage.

The young John Kerry had no trouble calling Vietnam “immoral.” Indeed, the eloquence with which he rubbed the country’s nose in the soul-staining consequences of that war was what brought him to prominence. But in all the months he’s been running for President, Mr. Kerry has yet to be quoted applying anything remotely close to the “I”-word to Iraq, which is Vietnam’s equal in everything but body count. Instead, he promises, “I won’t cut and run”-which is word for word what Lyndon Johnson said about the place where Lt. Kerry won his medals.

On the chance that a media conspiracy has been suppressing nobler utterances, I typed i-m-m-o-r-a-l into the search box at http://www.JohnKerry.com: up came one mention, a speech on March 22 criticizing the “immoral” institutional bias of Medicaid.

“Conscience” was tried next. Six hits: a speech commending black mayors for being on the “frontline of America’s conscience” (Marion Barry presumably excepted); an address to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in which Mr. Kerry reported that his own had been pricked meeting workers on “the short end of the stick”; an affirmation of belief, in his announcement of candidacy, that the “conscience of Americans” would preserve liberty forevermore; repeated injunctions that any woman who’d consulted hers should be guaranteed the right to terminate a pregnancy; condemnation of the Environmental Protection Agency for lacking one; and a pledge to repair that deficiency once President.

The odds of finding “atrocity” seemed slim, given all the flak Mr. Kerry’s been taking for having cited bona fide instances of it during Senate testimony 33 years ago. Turns out, though, Mr. Kerry’s used the term twice: once, to characterize the terrorist beheading of Nicholas Berg (whose father was infinitely gutsier identifying the ultimate culprits); the other, in a statement marking the 1915-1923 genocide of Armenians. (So as not to offend the sensibilities of Turkish-American voters, the butchery was laid at the feet of the “old Ottoman empire.”)

When Mr. Kerry, the self-proclaimed “entrepreneurial Democrat,” talks about the dollars-and-cents aspects of the war, it’s a different story. He suddenly becomes a veritable Billy Sunday of moral indignation, branding as “disgraceful” the $200 billion and change invested in the enterprise thus far.

With George Bush ringing up a lowest-ever approval rating of 42 percent, Mr. Kerry sees no need to recalibrate his ethical compass. He’s content to proclaim his “sense of moral justice” only when it’s not quite a matter of life and death; he did it last week, touring Arkansas, flanked by those ubiquitous props, the buddies from ‘Nam: The topic was V.A. benefits.

The strategy, as Newsweek ‘s Howard Fineman sums it up, “is pretty straightforward: to be the guy people have no choice but to vote for on Nov. 2. Not because he has such a stirring new vision (he doesn’t); not because he’s such a darned likeable guy (he isn’t); but because circumstances are such that fair-minded ‘swing’ voters have no choice but to pick him.” The cynicism of this calculation is positively Clintonian, and were Mr. Kerry a Republican, it might work.

Alas, Mr. Kerry’s stuck being a Democrat, an eccentric breed that actually believes-Bill’s experience notwithstanding-there are things larger than winning, especially when a war’s on. Nowhere is this fantasy more deeply inculcated than among tender-age party members, whose inexhaustible doorbell-ringing, stamp-licking and envelope-stuffing can be-remember “Clean for Gene”?-the difference between victory and defeat.

For a taste of the youngsters’ mood, consider this open letter from Megan Tady-a budding freelance writer in western Massachusetts-posted on the Common Dreams Web site:

“Dear Mr. Kerry,” she wrote. “You don’t represent me. Who am I? I am a young voter, like the millions of young voters across the country who have been revved up by someone other than you. We have been aching for a candidate we can really get behind. We found it in Kucinich. We found it in Dean. We found it in Sharpton. We haven’t found it in you.

“You may think this doesn’t matter. After all, we’ve vowed to vote for ‘Anyone but Bush,’ making your job rather easy. You can throw a few things our way-an MTV interview and a youth link on your Web site-and then stretch out your arms and vacation in Idaho. The consensus is we’d vote for Mickey Mouse if he was running against Bush (and some of us will, writing him onto the ballot just to say we did).

“But there’s a danger in the fact that we’re still having Meetups about defeating Bush in 2004, not electing you. And while young people are mobilizing to vote … there’s a catch to our enthusiasm: we’re flippant, unpredictable. We lose interest easily. We don’t vote for just anybody. If you don’t start picking up where Dean and Kucinich and Sharpton left off, we either won’t vote, or we won’t vote for you. We still have Nader/LaDuke bumper stickers on our Hondas, if only because we couldn’t get them off. Still, it’s a reminder of all the things we want in a candidate, but don’t have.

“Mr. Kerry, you are at great risk of losing thousands of voters to disillusionment and disappointment. This is not meant as a threat, but as a reality …. We need you to start being our candidate, too. And that means more than telling us to ‘Choose or Lose.’”

It’s not just the Megan Tadys who are fed up. Plenty of old foggy Democrats are panicked, bewildered, frustrated or plain furious at being stuck with such a conviction-free dud-when Mr. Bush is all but presenting the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a platter.

Polls aren’t required to understand the dismay, though a growing bunch attest to it. John Kerry captured hearts by being a Silver Star–winning, three-times-wounded hero. Since clinching the nomination, though, he’s acted like a member of the Texas Air National Guard downing brewskies in the PX. It’s bait-and-switch, like being admitted to Harvard and finding yourself enrolled at Northeastern.

Various explanations are offered for Mr. Kerry’s transformation. There’s the pure-cravenness theory; the brainwashed-by-Bill hypothesis (visiting Arkansas, Mr. Kerry even mimicked his drawl); the this-is-what-happens-to-liberals-when-they-hear-”Hail to the Chief”-playing-in-their-head construct; and the latest-offered by The Times this weekend in a report on Mr. Kerry’s social discomfiture while attending boarding school-the making-up-for-not-being-liked-as-an-adolescent syndrome.

Onto the mounting pile, let’s toss another: Call it “the combat disconnect.”

When 7.62-millimeter metal starts flying around, you see, either you got it, or you don’t. The choice is instant. Only it’s not really a choice. It’s a reflex, born of who you inexplicably are or inexplicably ain’t. The red badge of courage is pinned on by such caprice. It’s only when the shooting stops and you have time to think of the deadliness of what you just did, that the fear sinks in and you want to throw up.

Face a crisis as a politician, and the equation’s stood on its head. You have all the time in the world to debate consequences, commission focus groups, listen to advisers, get petrified of making the wrong move. That’s why there are only eight characters in Profiles in Courage : After examining every political figure since the first George W. was President, Jack Kennedy-a man with experience on both sides of the hero divide-couldn’t come up with No. 9.

There is a way for Mr. Kerry out of this fix: He could go to Iraq. Last week Donald Rumsfeld demonstrated the usefulness of the trip if you’re trying to keep a job, and since Mr. Kerry’s already imitated Republicans so often on Iraq, he might as well do it again in order to get one. Stylistically, his hegira would have to be different, however. Instead of barreling through, like Rummy, in an armor-plated bus, as gunships circle overhead, Mr. Kerry ought to get behind the wheel of one of those 14 year-old, cheesecloth-skinned Humvees the Pentagon thinks perfectly adequate for grunt use. Then, without the shadow of bodyguards (we don’t have enough to go around, anyway), he should tool down to Najaf or Karbala for a front-lines look-see, just like our guys are doing every day.

Yes, a lot of really bad dudes will try to kill him. But that’s the whole point: He’s at his best when he’s being shot at.

Who knows? If the crack of a near-miss AK round jogs old memories, John Kerry might return to being our hope.