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Two wars, two Kerrys

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Thirteen years ago, Walter Carter, of Newton, Mass., wrote to his senator and asked him to support military action to expel Saddam Hussein's troops from Iraq. As a vote neared, Carter faxed his letter to the office of John Kerry and, just to be sure, sent it along by regular mail as well.

A few days later, Kerry wrote back to thank Carter for opposing military action against Iraq and told him he had voted "no" on the resolution to give then-President George H.W. Bush the go-ahead.

"I didn't know what to think," Carter recalls today.

A few days later, Carter got another letter from Kerry. The Senator thanked Carter for supporting Bush on Iraq.

"From the outset of the invasion, I have strongly and unequivocally supported President Bush's response to the crisis and the policy goals he has established with our military deployment in the Persian Gulf," Kerry wrote.

"As I recall they said it was a computer glitch," Carter said. "Possibly it's true. Possibly it's not true. I don't know what to believe."

And therein lies one of the mysteries of John Kerry, a man inclined to split irreconcilable differences, leaving voters confused and Republicans ready to pull out the blunt instrument of his own record and beat him with it.

Kerry's innate sense of triangulation is so widely recognized that President Bush, in the opener to his campaign, simply reeled off a list of contradictions.

"The other party's nomination battle is still playing out," Bush said. "The candidates are an interesting group with diverse opinions: for tax cuts and against them; for Nafta and against Nafta; for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act; in favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it.

"And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."

For Gulf War II, Kerry kept his correspondence in order and voted to authorize armed force, this time layering on so many caveats that, when he changed his mind, he had ample escape tunnels dug. In a debate, he answered a question about whether he felt responsibility for those young men and women dying in Iraq with a statement that veers from one corner to another then finally ascending to midair where it hovers in permanent incoherence.

The candidate who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement now sounds like both senators Smoot and Hawley as he tours industrial states.

"How about some fair trade," he demands.

He helped write the Patriot Act and now explains: "The only thing wrong with the Patriot Act is John Ashcroft." It is as if a man who has written bad law is angry that someone bothers to enforce it.

This betwixt and between existence comes not from innate hypocrisy but from the abundance of caution that transforms honest men into hypocrites. Kerry's heroism in Vietnam, and his later heroism in working to end the war, once spoke to his best side. Absent agreement, he would persuade.

Ted Kennedy, Kerry's senior colleague in the Senate, spoke to me about how Kerry pushed endlessly to normalize relations with the nation whose guerrilla warriors worked so hard to kill him 40 years ago.

"There was no political gain to it," Kennedy said. Kerry pushed to normalize relations with Vietnam because it was the right thing to do.

What happens to men once they have offices to protect -- or, in Kerry's case, an office to gain -- is that they suddenly aim for the great, vast middle where their mistakes can be lost amid the crowd of others. Thus, Kerry was expected to lead Democratic opposition to the latest Iraq war but voted, instead, to approve it. Now he says he only approved it as a last resort.

Kerry's straddle, both now and back then, is likely to make him an easy target for Republican operatives who should not be given such an easy time when their own leader has yet to account for the Iraq mess.

Instead, the Republicans will simply wave Kerry's Senate vote on the current Iraq war every time he criticizes the current mess. He will equivocate so hard the room will shake and votes fall away like loose roof tiles.

How well will it work?

Consider the treatment he was handed when the two contradictory letters to Walter Carter surfaced a decade earlier.

I remember it because it happened at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner of the Allegheny County Republican Party, March 20, 1991, at the William Penn Hotel.

At the time the first George Bush was still flush with victory in the Persian Gulf, and dinnergoers chortled over a videotaped presentation of assorted senate Democrats backpedaling in the wake of a war they'd opposed. Ted Kennedy was shown. News clips were shown. But for Kerry, the speaker simply read the two letters, to everyone's amazement.

"It's like those before-and-after pictures they print in the papers," the speaker said. "If they didn't tell you so themselves, you'd think they were different people."

Kerry has to remember that one. The speaker was Sen. John Heinz. Two weeks later, he would die in a plane crash. Four years after that, Kerry would marry his widow -- a woman who speaks directly and without equivocation and doesn't need two sets of letters to make her mind known.

He might want to ask her for a copy of the speech.


Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist (droddy@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1965).

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