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A Generous View of Kerry as a Senator

While looking for something else, I came across an old article that makes the strongest case for John Kerry's Senate career I've read, stronger than anything his own campaign has put out:

This is from an article by Jack Beatty in The Atlantic in 1996, previewing Kerry's campaign for a third term against the enormously well-liked Republican governor, Bill Weld. It's worth remembering that this was thought to be one of the great showdowns of that year, with Weld favored. Subsequent events, however, in which Weld lost interest in the governorship abandoned it in favor of becoming Bill Clinton's nominee to be ambassador to Mexico, had his nomination blocked by Jesse Helms, then retreated to a career of white-shoe lawyering and novel-writing in New York, more than proved Beatty's point that "Weld's is a well-rounded ambition, not the distended mania for office that crazes most politicians."

On Kerry, Beatty has a few critical things to say: "What has he done for the country? What has he done, period? These are the questions people ask about Kerry. For a senator who has been in office twelve years, he's curiously undefined." But the core of the article is this:

Kerry accrued his Lincolnian gravity in Vietnam. ...Combat cost him. What it gave John Kerry was character.

"The guy has guts," Jack Blum, who investigated the drug-contra connection for a subcommittee on terrorism that Kerry headed, told me recently. "So many politicians are in the job so people will love them. Kerry is a throwback to senators like Phil Hart, who, even though he came from Michigan, investigated the auto industry. They run for office not so people will love them but to use the powers of office"--in Kerry's case to expose betrayals of the public trust.

In three investigations during his two terms Kerry has charged targets head on. He is a hero of a new biography of the Washington power lawyer and Democratic pooh-bah Clark Clifford. In Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford, Douglas Frantz and David McKean depict Kerry as the only Democratic senator who was willing to investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and Clifford's role in its mega-larcenies. "What are you doing to my old friend Clark Clifford?" an older southern Democrat asked Kerry in a Senate elevator one day. Kerry made no reply, but told an aide accompanying him, "You should hear what they say to me in the cloakroom." Not in public life to be loved, Kerry pressed on. The evidence compiled by his committee helped to close down a huge criminal conspiracy.

Kerry went after Oliver North more than a year before Iran-contra broke, exposing the connection between the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras and drug trafficking. And when Arthur Liman, the chief counsel of the Iran-Contra Committee, agreed to a White House demand that the committee be permitted to see only edited portions of North's diaries, Kerry refused to go along with the whitewash and persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to subpoena the North diaries. This did not endear him to his colleagues, who above everything were eager to avoid impeaching Ronald Reagan.

Kerry's staff did not want him to address the explosive POW-MIA issue--nor was he eager to touch "the third rail in his life," as one friend put it. Still, as a decorated veteran he had political capital on Vietnam, which brought with it responsibility. After exhaustive and emotional hearings a Kerry-chaired special committee issued a unanimous (12-0) report that laid to rest the harrowing and commercially robust fantasy that U.S. POWs are still being held in Indochina. The report opened the door to the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

Kerry was both a war hero and a war protester, a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He sees his Senate career as continuous with his anti-war activism. Then as now, he says, he sought to hold power publicly accountable. Making government obey the laws and its officials tell the truth, Kerry says, is a precondition to restoring the public trust on which any progressive use of government depends. Kerry's investigations can thus be seen as means to a liberal end: to put government on the side of the governed.

Puzzlingly, Kerry rarely mentions any of this on the campaign trail, preferring to recommend himself as a co-sponsor of the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

This is the defense of Kerry's Senate career that is beginning to appear in the press: He spent it not on ordinary legislative matters, but on the kind of investigations that "put government on the side of the governed." The Senate is really an entrepreneurial institution, and there a lot of ways to make a mark, including investigations.

I've been quite dismissive of Kerry's Senate service, so I can't leave it at that. Two things to add: First, these investigations were getting stale at the time Beatty wrote this, almost eight years ago now. The POW-MIA committee that he did with McCain was a significant achievement, but that's at least ten years ago. As far as I know, Kerry has not undertaken a major investigation like BCCI in a long time, although presumably in a Republican-controlled Senate, its harder to get the staff and resources to expose such scandals.

Second, even more so than other Senate activities, Senators don't do investigations themselves. They are entirely about staff work. Congressional investigators operate more like Assistant U.S. Attorneys than anything else. They interview everyone they need to, set everything up, and then organize a media event -- a hearing -- at which the Senators ask scripted questions and express scripted outrage. The staff has to be extremely good, like Blum, quoted by Beatty, and the Senator doesn't have to do most of the things that a Senator normally has to do: persuade colleagues, understand the intricacies of legislation, sit through meetings, hang out on the Senate floor for a chance to offer an amendment, etc.

Still, it's the people who are best at that aspect of being a Senator, like Bob Dole, who tend to make weak presidential candidates, so Kerry's way of using the institution might be just the ticket.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 31, 2004 | Permalink


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Of course, it was on the investigative committees that Truman made his name as a man of integrity who was capable of being non-partisan in the public interest. But obviously even John Kerry doesn't think John Kerry maps too well onto Harry Truman, or we'd have heard more about it.

Posted by: William | Feb 1, 2004 9:25:37 AM

And what a world of difference between the two Kerry's - the two phases of his life when he was married to two different wives!

Posted by: Name | Feb 1, 2004 2:57:36 PM

The attempts at painting Kerry's Senate career as empty are pretty feeble, as are the insistent claims that he's not "tough" enough. As if you can run a boat straight into enemy fire and take on the Reagan juggernaut of corruption and deceit and not be "tough."

Posted by: Termination Shock | Feb 2, 2004 11:14:51 AM

That last comment, I hope, isn't how Kerry plans to campaign: I was on a gunboat in Vietnam, so my political career is not empty. Kerry's problem is that he seems to have faded over time. It's the recent past that will haunt him, not his accomplishments (which are real) from 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

Posted by: Alex | Feb 4, 2004 5:01:09 PM

It's about the President's character, stupid.

AWOL, shmaywol: why wasn't Bushlet leading either infantry or an angry protest?

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones | Feb 8, 2004 1:19:55 PM


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