February 27, 2004,
Why does Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) talk incessantly about Vietnam?
Obviously, it has given him a great political advantage in past campaigns and he hopes it will do the same in his race for the White House. But there might be another reason. Perhaps more than any other presidential candidate in recent memory, Kerry seems to be living in another time, playing a movie of Vietnam over and over in his mind.
In fact, he is often playing an actual movie of Vietnam over and over on his television. Consider this scene from a remarkable profile of Kerry published in the Boston Globe in October 1996, when Kerry was in a tough reelection battle:
Kerry told reporter Charles Sennott the oft-repeated story of the February 1969 firefight in which Kerry attacked the Viet Cong who ambushed his Swift boat. Kerry won the Silver Star, as well as a Purple Heart, for his efforts. But the story wasn't just the firefight itself. It was also Kerry's reaction to it.
The future senator was so "focused on his future ambitions," Sennott reported, that not long after the fight, he bought a Super-8 movie camera, returned to the scene, and reenacted the skirmish on film. During their interview, Kerry played the tape for Sennott.
"I'll show you where they shot from. See? That's the hole covered up with reeds," Kerry said as he ran the tape in slow motion.
Kerry told Sennott that his decision to reenact the fight on film was no big deal "just something I did, no great meaning to it." But it's clear that the old movie is a huge deal. "Through hours of watching the films in the den of his newly renovated Beacon Hill mansion, it becomes apparent that these are memories and footage he returns to often," Sennott wrote.
"Kerry jumps repeatedly from the couch to adjust the Sony large screen TV in his home entertainment center, making sure the picture is clear, the color correct. He fast forwards, rewinds and freeze frames the footage. His running commentary vivid, sometimes touching, sometimes self-serving never misses a beat."
In John Kerry's home-entertainment center, it's always 1969.
It's sometimes that way in his campaign, too. Is Kerry's the only campaign to play Jimi Hendrix specifically, "Fire" from the 1967 album Are You Experienced? at rallies? Other candidates like John Edwards, with his theme song, John Mellencamp's "Small Town" aren't exactly cutting edge, but they have chosen somewhat newer stuff.
And what about the music on Kerry's bus? Before the Iowa caucuses, Washington Post reporter Ceci Connelly described the candidate hanging out on the bus with Peter Yarrow, his old friend from Peter, Paul, and Mary. "Pedro, sing us a song," Kerry ordered one day. Yarrow picked up a guitar and began to play and sing and later waxed nostalgic about the antiwar rallies he attended way back when with Kerry and Eugene McCarthy.
Earlier, Connelly wrote, when Yarrow sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" at an event in a private home in Ames, Iowa, "Kerry lifted his fingers to his mouth for a quick toke on an imaginary joint. You can almost see his thick mane of silver hair returning to the shaggy brown do of those days."
Even Kerry's latest soundbite, the speech in Ohio Tuesday in which he described President Bush as a "walking contradiction," was apparently a reference to the old days. In this case, it was Kris Kristofferson's "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33, " from 1970, with its line, "He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."
This man is living in a time warp. No wonder Kerry sees any conflict Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II as a potential Vietnam. In Kerry's world, Vietnam is running on a continuous loop on that big screen TV with Jimi, Kris, and Peter, Paul, and Mary singing in the background.
Some people become stuck in the time period in which they had their most intense experiences. Others, perhaps with more mental or emotional flexibility, move on. Kerry seems to be one of the former.
At 60 years old, he appears obsessed with the past in ways that the 57 year-old George W. Bush isn't. And Kerry seems far older than, say, the 71 year-old Donald Rumsfeld a man who is always moving ahead, not inclined to lecture about the way things were 30 or 40 years ago.
Kerry's penchant for looking back would not be a good trait in a president who will have to deal with a distinctly 21st century, post-9/11 world. America faces threats that were unheard of in Kerry's formative years. While those threats build, Kerry is turning on Hendrix, toking on an imaginary joint, and telling you about Vietnam.
And just imagine the inauguration. The new president delivers his speech, waves to the crowd, and cries..."Pedro, sing us a song!"
Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.