The Night Kerry Surged

Still heated by John Kerry’s performance in Coral Gables, Fla., the night before, a couple of hundred people jammed the Asia Society’s auditorium on Oct. 1 to see a movie glorifying Mr. Kerry and then walked four blocks through the tranquil Upper East Side to the Council on Foreign Relations for dinner. The movie was put together by Mr. Kerry’s Yale friends to celebrate his Vietnam-era heroism, and the whole evening harked back to the 1970’s.

Back then, the elite of New York was something you could hold in your hand, like a ball made of rubber bands. John Lindsay had defeated William Buckley, and people actually cared what Norman Mailer was saying to Lillian Hellman at a party on the Upper West Side. It was before the Big Bang: Donald Trump was still in Queens and the Newhouses were in Jersey. On Friday, Oct. 1, it felt that way again. A Kennedyesque Democrat from good family was maybe going to become President, there were candles up and down the grand staircase of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the elite was something you could hold in your hand. William F. Buckley and Leonardo DiCaprio. Jeff Greenfield and Mark Green. Daniel Menaker and Mike Wallace. Hamilton Fish and Samantha Power. The paparazzi were out. It was either a nostalgia trip or the future foretold. Cross your fingers.

The movie was called Going Upriver, and it was directed by George Butler, who was at Yale with Mr. Kerry and later made Pumping Iron, about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The movie was set in the years 1968-1971: Mr. Kerry as war hero, before he comes home to oppose the war. The story is of course mythic, and Mr. Butler told it in mythic terms. Something out of the Iliad, as Ben Affleck intoned in the voice-over, “the story of a soldier committed to duty—and sometimes that duty is not to fight.” The only problem in the film was the Kerry role, grand and elusive, impossible to embrace.

People cried and applauded throughout the film. They cried at the faces of the soldiers devastated by Vietnam, they applauded Coretta Scott King and Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug. That was the nostalgia trip. Liberalism was once so righteous—we yearn for that clarity and simplicity. How relevant are those images to our time? That is the big question. The film footage of Vietnam vets now looks as ancient as Civil War footage. When the ragtag soldiers threw their medals over the fence in protest, it seemed like something out of Stephen Crane. “I see Leonardo there and I realize how old we’ve become,” said executive producer Bill Samuels, before introducing the film’s director.

Mr. Butler has an impish and refined charm. He wore a British-cut suit, double-vented, in tan, and as he spoke, he bounced on his tiptoes in cadence with his rising eyebrows. If Tom Wolfe narrated the 70’s pantheon in the original, Mr. Butler was offering himself for the regurgitated 00’s version. Cross your fingers.

“We couldn’t pay attention to the Swift-boat controversy of July and August,” Mr. Butler said apologetically, because the production staff was too busy, working 20-hour days to get the movie finished for its Oct. 1 release. From a marketing standpoint, this was a questionable decision: Mr. Butler could have gotten a lot of play during that bogus controversy. His movie has real footage of the afternoon on which Lieutenant Kerry killed a fleeing V.C. soldier. The movie shows Mr. Kerry waving around a rifle with a rocket-propelled grenade on the end of it. That would have been a good answer to those who said that Mr. Kerry killed a “kid” that day. And anyone who doubted that there was action on the river that day, a real firefight, would have been silenced by the dramatic memories and film of the encounter.

But Mr. Butler is an auteur. So he ignored the controversy. And maybe he will get his way in the end. The Swift-boat controversy is thankfully forgotten. Mr. Kerry was reborn at the debate the night before, reborn in Baghdad, and Mr. Butler’s image of Lieutenant Kerry waving a rocket-propelled grenade in February 1969 resonates because we have now seen so many images of “insurgents” in Iraq with R.P.G.’s.

The biggest nostalgia trip of all is the hope that John Kerry will serve the same function in the Iraq war as he did in Vietnam, that public opinion is as perfectly balanced on his long chin as it was in 1968-1971—or that the Establishment is balanced there. For here is what Mr. Kerry did in Vietnam: First he believed in a war that no one in the liberal intelligentsia believed in then. He fought for it; he gained honor by killing Vietnamese and wiping out villages. Then, coming home, he switched sides. He said his change was based on what he’d seen, the wrongs he’d seen. The real reason was that the Establishment needed to change and needed someone to follow. After all, most people who were against the war were incensed and enraged; they’d seen plenty long before John Kerry even went over. John Kerry was the Establishment’s anti-war figure. He spoke eloquently and grandly, with a Victorian fustian. He pronounced “after” as J.F.K. did, “ahhf-tah,” and he became heroic.

It is the same role he would have now. He believed in this war till courageous Howard Dean gave him the news that public opinion was shifting. So Mr. Kerry changed sides—somewhat, anyway. He temporized, he had it both ways. Most people who have opposed this war are long enraged. They were in the streets even as Mr. Kerry was authorizing the war, and they can now look ahead to a crisis in leadership, à la the faithlessness of youth in the 70’s, whose Senate had voted with blind faith, by 98-2, to press a criminal war. The question now is where we are in that curve: closer to faith or faithlessness? John Kerry occupies that middle segment of the arc. Of course he is more against the war now than ever, but he is also acceptable to the Establishment. Richard Holbrooke is on his side, in the movie. One of his rich Yale friends is saying that Mr. Kerry “didn’t have a lot of money,” even collected bottles at grocery stores. Oh, yeah. And comes to dinner at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So John Kerry is having the exact same function in his second act that he had during his first: He’s signaling a turn. His flip-flop is the country’s flip-flop. Cross your fingers.

The movie reveals something cipherish about Mr. Kerry: full of grand language, but unreflective. Hollow and yet strong as the hull of an aluminum Swift boat. The harrowing faces in the Butler film are not Mr. Kerry’s. They’re the faces of men who have been to hell and back, who were forever changed by the experience. They cry, they break down, they are lost and alienated, torn. They remind us of why we hated the Vietnam War. Ask any of those men about Iraq, they would all be against it from the start. They learned their lesson. Did John Kerry? No. He is unharrowed in the movie. He floats through things, heroic and empty, like an actor. Throwing a football at Yale, or skiing, or climbing a tree with ropes, he is skinny and kinetic as any young Kennedy. He gravitated to the flimsy Swift boat because it reminded him of the flimsy wooden P.T. boat that his predecessor J.F.K. piloted in the Solomons in World War II.

“We had a very simple mission,” said Mr. Samuels, the producer. “We wanted you to know him as we know him.” Their John Kerry truly has character: to be heroic to the Establishment when there is a crisis of leadership. To be acceptable to the Establishment when it knows change must come. The Establishment—or certainly the power elite that gathered the other night—recognizes that it made a mistake on Iraq. Many of the people in that auditorium went along with the war plans, after all. John Kerry is the agent that allows the Establishment to accept change. This is not a form of moral heroism that the common man can understand. As Bob Kerrey explains John Kerry’s choice in the film, he was risking a political career by opposing the war. You have to “pick one of the two.”

The Butler movie celebrates Mr. Kerry’s character at the usual expense to John Kerry: He has no personality. There are a million people in the 60’s and 70’s you want to hug. Maybe you missed your chance then—well, you can do it now watching the movie. Shirley Chisholm, that noble, homely, passionate splinter. Bella Abzug, John Lennon. Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan—they were lifted as they deserved to be, they were our voices during a failure of leadership. A lot of the Vietnam vets tear your heart out. Even Dick Cavett makes you smile nostalgically.

But John Kerry is AWOL as an actual human being. He wears a ring on the little finger of his left hand in the movie. That is about the most personable detail I can relate about him. What’s that about? Later, at the Council on Foreign Relations, as we ate short ribs in the Rita Hauser room, the writer Ann Banks said that men sometimes wear the jewelry of a female ancestor on their little fingers. So what seemed a charming idiosyncrasy is actually a conventional aristocratic trait. When he speaks of putting a friend in a body bag, the story feels generic: He doesn’t mention the friend’s name. In the actual climax of the film, when the soldiers cry as they throw their medals over the fence, when they dance at the microphone and twirl and break down, Mr. Kerry is wan and erect as ever. And the truth is, according to Tour of Duty, the Douglas Brinkley book on which the movie was based, Mr. Kerry didn’t throw his medals. Just threw the ribbons, and some other guys’ medals by proxy. Kept his Silver Star securely at home, in the desk.

AWOL on passion. AWOL on personality.

The great thing about John Kerry’s Indian summer is that the country seems at last to have gotten past that. They don’t care. They have managed to accept Mr. Kerry’s negligible personality, to see the issues at last, to accept that he may be hollow, but he is strong. Something is happening, you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Bush?

That pleasure was in the air at the Council on Foreign Relations, a sense of change in the streets—and the elite’s secure place in the near future. Everyone was talking history. “The worst President since Hoover,” general contractor Stanley Snyder said of Mr. Bush. “What Ichiro is doing surpasses Maris,” Hamilton Fish said. I then praised the one incautious statement that John Kerry has made in the last year—saying that former Red Sox manager Grady Little was wrong not to pull Pedro Martinez in the eighth inning of Game 7 against the Yankees. To which the screenwriter Elliot Thomson responded, “Now Kerry is a shoo-in, but the Yankees might be vulnerable.” Mr. Thomson was escorting Samantha Power, the chronicler of genocide, who said she was for the Red Sox: “I saw Gabe Kapler in the locker room. He has a Star of David tattooed on one leg and ‘Never Forget’ tattooed on the other.” Someone else brought up the Dodgers’ Shawn Green and his echo of Koufax at Yom Kippur. Jewish baseball stars. The fall of the Yankees. The fall of Bush. Buckley and Leonardo, together again. Is it a nostalgia trip or a real change? Cross your fingers and hope to die.