John Kerry said over the weekend that John McCain lacks the judgment to be President, leading the Associated Press to note, quite appropriately, that “it’s probably a good thing McCain rejected overtures from Kerry…to form a bipartisan ticket” in 2004.
But the context of Kerry’s verbal attack is much broader than that.
The story of the McCain-Kerry used to be almost heartwarming, a tale of post-Vietnam reconciliation between two veterans whose experiences led them to remarkably different conclusions about the war and the government that sent them into it. But now it seems like that chapter was never written, and Kerry and McCain are back to being culture war foes, unable to understand one another – and uninterested in trying to.
Let’s go back in time to 1984. McCain, who became the Navy’s liaison to the Senate after returning from his Vietnam imprisonment, had been bitten by the political bug and two years earlier had won a seat in the U.S. House. Kerry had been eyeing a political career much longer (like when he signed his papers “J.F.K” in his boarding school days), but it had been a tough road: a disastrous Congressional bid in 1972 followed by a decade-long exile before his surprise election as Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor in 1982. When Paul Tsongas unexpectedly announced his retirement from the Senate in 1984, Kerry jumped into the race and – in another upset – won the Democratic nomination.
Kerry’s fall race was close. Republican Ray Shamie, who had waged a credible challenge to Ted Kennedy two years earlier, was within a few points of Kerry. Several thousand miles away, the race caught McCain’s attention. Kerry in 1971 had been the leader of a group of Vietnam veterans who had thrown their ribbons and medals onto the White House lawn in protest. McCain had heard about it – when a fellow P.O.W. had tapped the news to him in Morse code. So McCain went to Boston to campaign for Shamie and to blast his fellow veteran Kerry’s sense of patriotism.
"I said he shouldn’t have thrown his medals on the steps, and that I heard about it while I was in prison,” McCain told journalist James Carroll years later.
Kerry won the race anyway, 55 to 45 percent, and the two were forced to coexist as Senate colleagues. But then, in the early ‘90s, the relationship changed – dramatically. Kerry led a Senate select committee that explored the Vietnam POW/MIA issue. McCain was a committee member. They traveled back to Vietnam together and stood, just the two of them, in the same cell where McCain had been held. A friendship, and a bond, was formed. By 1996, when Kerry faced a career-threatening challenge from Massachusetts Governor William Weld, McCain refused to campaign against him
“I simply would not do such a thing. I couldn’t do that,” he explained.
Undoubtedly, it was this strong and intensely personal connection that led Kerry in 2004 to believe that McCain would be receptive to the talk of running together. McCain had been defamed by George W. Bush in 2000 and remained evidently bitter – but also emboldened. In Bush’s first term, he strayed further and further from the G.O.P. line on issues like tax cuts and the environment. To Kerry, the timing surely seemed perfect for the two honest-to-goodness Vietnam vets to team up against the guy who sat it out in the Texas Air National Guard. (Nor did it hurt that McCain had dropped strong hints he’d be open to an offer from Kerry.)
And that’s about when their relationship peaked. For whatever reason, McCain shot down Kerry’s overtures. (One theory: the story of Kerry’s interest leaked first in the press, forcing McCain – who still wanted to run for President in 2008 – to shoot it down unequivocally in an effort to preserve his standing in the G.O.P.) McCain did offer condemnation of the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry that summer, but he emerged as a relentless campaigner for Bush in the fall.
Since then, they’ve only grown more distant. A decade ago, they regularly teamed up on legislation and appeared together in public frequently, one offering effusive praise of the other. No longer. Last week, the McCain campaign used Bud Day, who was part of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in ’04, to attack Wesley Clark. Kerry was irate. Every time he’s asked about the ’04 overtures, McCain strains harder to make clear his low regard for Kerry’s presidential potential.
Kerry and McCain used to be living, breathing symbols of just how far America had come since the most divisive days of Vietnam. It doesn’t seem that way now.