Interview with Douglas Brinkley About John Kerry

Historians in the News

Interview with Douglas Brinkley conducted by Elizabeth Shelburne, in the Atlantic Monthly (March 10, 2004):

Why did you choose John Kerry as your subject? I know you started the project in 2002 before Kerry had announced his candidacy for President. What drew you to him?

I'm the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, and we have a longstanding World War II oral history project. We've interviewed thousands of veterans from D-Day, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Battle of the Bulge, and so on. A couple years ago, we shifted to the Vietnam War. Now we're interviewing Vietnam veterans. Our first project was interviewing 150 veterans of the Battle of Khe Sanh. The second project was interviewing all of the Vietnam senators: John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, John McCain, Max Cleland, Chuck Wild, and Chuck Hegel—and having them talk about how they served in Vietnam and then came back and ran for the Senate as veterans. That's what their main calling card was. I quickly saw that biographies or memoirs had already been written about most of these guys. But nothing had been written about John Kerry's experience—he was sort of a blank slate.

Also, when I interviewed him I learned that he had kept voluminous diaries and war notes—letters home, all of that. So I started thinking about him more and more, and it made perfect sense to do a book on him. With John Kerry, you not only get all the combat action sequences of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta, but you also get the anti-war movement. Vietnam is more than just a battlefield term. It defines an era of both fighting and protest.

Why do you think Kerry granted you the kind of access that he did?

Believe it or not, simply because I asked. He had all this material in his closet that he hadn't looked at for thirty-five years, and I think he had three choices. One was to keep it all in the closet. The second was to write a memoir himself. And the third was to turn it over to somebody else who would write about it.

This was not an immediate thing. I put in a request when I first heard about the existence of the material, and I was stonewalled for month after month. Finally, I went and interviewed him a second time, and I told him that it was killing me to know that those diaries were just sitting there and that I couldn't read them. He reconsidered and one day just said,"Go at it."

You have to remember that Bob Kerrey got completely pummeled for his service as a U.S. Navy Seal in Vietnam. He was run out of the Senate and run out of politics altogether, and lambasted everywhere from The New York Times to The Nation . So it was not clear that opening this vault, which included stories like the one about Kerry accidentally killing a young girl on a sampan, would be helpful to him. When the Atlantic Monthly article about him first came out a couple months ago, Senator Kerry was very nervous about it. Nobody knew how the media would judge it. But the article got a great response. People felt it showed how literate he was, how thoughtful—that it demonstrated a kind of intellectual angst. But you can never predict how these things are going to play in the culture.

By the second page, you have laid out one of the central themes of the book, which seems to be that John Kerry is this Boston Brahmin who often finds himself at a remove from the people around him, both in the military and in public life. But again and again he's able to cross the chasm. How does he manage to do that?

He really cares about the individuals that he befriends. He has a bond with this band of brothers from Vietnam. These guys are like true family to him. For example, in Vietnam, Kerry never liked to go to the Officers' Club. He would just go eat with the enlisted men. That's unusual. Most of the young officers liked getting away from the enlisted men and hanging out in the Officers' Club. Kerry enjoyed being with the enlisted men more. He just functions better with everyday working people—he doesn't condescend to them. He's not trying to wear blue-collar outfits; he'll wear his Hermès tie to go talk to steel workers. At first, it seemed to me like, God, he's dressed in this perfect suit, and he's going to a factory? But ultimately, the factory workers prefer that to his pretending that he's one of them. We can make fun of him for looking stiff, or for wearing a fancy suit, but it's much worse to seem like you're changing your clothes and your attitude just to be something you're not.

In your book, you mention that Kerry fancied himself more of a"liaison between the establishment and the have-nots, than a true member of either." Does he still have that vision of himself now?

Yes. That's very much in the aristocratic, democratic tradition of people like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy who were able to champion the underclass, even though they themselves came from the upper class.

Kerry volunteered for the Navy after Yale. What drove him to do that?

To understand John Kerry, you need to look at his father, Richard Kerry. During World War II, Richard was a test pilot. In fact, he flew planes at such a high altitude that he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a hospital in the Rocky Mountains. John Kerry was born in December 1943 in Denver, Colorado, while his father was thought to be dying of TB. Once his father healed, he was no longer able to fly planes at that altitude. He shifted from working in the U.S. military to working for the State Department.

The Kerry family had been stationed in Berlin, Oslo, France, and all over the eastern seaboard. They had a great sense of public service. Richard Kerry absolutely loved the American armed forces, and there was nothing that made him more proud than for his son to enlist. Richard Kerry was of the WWII generation, which felt that enlisting was how you showed your love for your country. By 1965, Richard Kerry thought Lyndon Johnson was making a terrible mistake in sending mass numbers of troops into Vietnam, and he was violently opposed to U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. But in spite of these feelings, he also thought his son should serve in uniform. People today have a lot of trouble understanding that. When you believe in your country and you want to wear the uniform, you go into the military even if there's turmoil, and you follow your commander-in-chief, even if you don't agree with him. There are plenty of young men and women in Iraq right now who don't think we should be there. But that doesn't mean they're not doing their duty in an admirable fashion every day.

If you were Kerry, how could you not serve? Was he going to live his life as a fraud—as somebody like Dick Cheney who finagled five deferments? Or was he going to try to use his father's influence like Bush to jump over a hundred thousand other people on a waiting list to get a National Guard billet? He couldn't live with himself if he did that. That's how one defines character.

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