John Kerry’s elite jour­ney from Viet­nam to pres­i­den­tial bid to sec­re­tary of state

The Nation - - NEW CHAPTERS -

THERE ARE many rea­sons to write a mem­oir. Some au­thors re­veal in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ences in the hope that the sub­tleties of one life will have res­o­nance for many. Oth­ers seek to tell whop­ping good in­sider tales or sim­ply to set the record straight. John Kerry’s mem­oir tries to do a bit of all three. At about 600 pages, it of­fers a de­tailed, blow-by-blow ac­count of Kerry’s life from birth to the present, re­count­ing his path from naval of­fi­cer to anti-war ac­tivist to lo­cal politi­cian and fi­nally to Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and sec­re­tary of state.

This could have been a com­pli­cated tale, spiked with insight about the dilem­mas of power or the chal­lenges of le­git­i­macy now fac­ing Amer­ica’s lib­eral elite. But Kerry mostly skims along the sur­face, of­fer­ing sto­ries of board­ing school and Viet­nam and the cam­paign trail in an even, con­ver­sa­tional tone. Many of those sto­ries – es­pe­cially about Viet­nam and Mas­sachusetts pol­i­tics – are in­ter­est­ing, but the whole never quite man­ages to be greater than the sum of its parts. The book’s ti­tle, “Ev­ery Day Is Ex­tra”, hints at a cer­tain latelife hu­mil­ity, yet the mem­oir suf­fers from a lack of self-scru­tiny on some fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal ques­tions.

This be­gins in the first few chap­ters, which fo­cus on Kerry’s an­ces­tral his­tory and upbringing. Like any fam­ily, the Kerry clan has had its share of heart-rend­ing tragedies, in­clud­ing his grand­fa­ther’s sui­cide at the Co­p­ley Plaza ho­tel in Bos­ton, a fam­ily se­cret hid­den for decades. As a rule, though, Kerry came of age in a blessed world of ease and beauty and pleas­antry, a gen­tle float from St Paul’s prep school to Yale. Fam­ily va­ca­tions were spent on a pri­vate is­land off the coast of New Eng­land. He learned to ski in – of all places – Davos, Switzer­land, now a fa­bled gather­ing place of the cos­mopoli­tan elite. His great­est child­hood dif­fi­culty was be­ing sent off to Swiss board­ing school at the ten­der age of 11, a story that evokes real sym­pa­thy for the anx­ious lit­tle boy but hardly un­der­mines the stereo­type of Kerry as a man of priv­i­lege.

Kerry ap­pre­ci­ates his good for­tune. Yet he has lit­tle to say about what it all means: about the con­tra­dic­tions of con­cen­trated wealth in a demo­cratic sys­tem or about the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the elite in­sti­tu­tions through which he came to know the world. Re­call that this is a man who spent much of 2004 fac­ing down ac­cu­sa­tions that he was out of touch with the peo­ple, wind­surf­ing while the world burned. In his mem­oir, he re­mains sur­pris­ingly un­trou­bled by this pop­ulist cri­tique – if not un­aware of it al­to­gether. In re­call­ing his first child­hood trip on a trans-At­lantic steamer, he tells of his amaze­ment at dis­cov­er­ing “a gate marked with sec­on­dor third-class signs”.

“It seemed weird,” he con­cludes. “Oc­ca­sion­ally, I found a way through them, but mostly I ex­plored the com­plex of decks and sa­lons that made up first class.” The same might be said about many other chap­ters of his life.

One ex­cep­tion was his ser­vice in Viet­nam, the most dra­matic sec­tion of the book and ul­ti­mately the launch­ing pad for his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Yale, Kerry vol­un­teered to serve as a naval of­fi­cer and fa­mously ended up as­signed to the Swift boats, lum­ber­ing river pa­trol ve­hi­cles whose loud en­gines and dif­fi­cult con­trols never quite lived up to the ag­ile prom­ise of their name. Kerry evokes the te­dium, thrill and fear of Swift boat ser­vice, along with the an­guish of los­ing close friends in an un­winnable war. To­day, he comes at the story with right­eous out­rage, not only about the poor de­ci­sions of US lead­ers but also about the dis­tor­tions and false ac­cu­sa­tions made by fel­low vet­er­ans dur­ing the 2004 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “What still sticks in my craw is the way these men who served on Swift boats them­selves turned the words ‘Swift boat’ into a pe­jo­ra­tive.”

Even here, though, he shies away from some knotty ques­tions – in­clud­ing his de­ci­sion to sup­port the Iraq War more than three decades af­ter de­nounc­ing Viet­nam as a mis­take and a na­tional tragedy. Kerry ends up blam­ing Ge­orge W Bush for fail­ing to de­liver on com­mit­ments to diplo­macy and mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism, but he re­serves his great­est um­brage for the anti-war ac­tivists who split with him over Iraq.

“I was naive and overly op­ti­mistic to think that the ac­tivists would judge my record since 1971 ... and stick by me rather than get be­hind some­one who had never bled with them,” he writes with indig­na­tion, with­out quite ad­dress­ing whether Iraq, in the end, turned out to be a re­peat of what went wrong in Viet­nam.

Kerry is at his best not in wrestling with such ex­is­ten­tial dif­fi­cul­ties but in de­scrib­ing the dilem­mas of on-the-ground pol­i­tics: how to choose a vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, how to de­cide whether to ac­cept pub­lic money. He har­bours a cer­tain nos­tal­gia for the lost world of bi­par­ti­san Wash­ing­ton, where politi­cians of dif­fer­ing views tol­er­ated one an­other at din­ner or prayer break­fasts or in the Se­nate gym. When Kerry name-drops, it’s of­ten in homage to this by­gone cap­i­tal, where men like Ted Kennedy and John McCain could give as good as they got and still shake hands at the next cock­tail party.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Kerry aims most of his hos­tile fire at Repub­li­cans. While he can’t help but ad­mire the party’s strate­gic suc­cess, he wor­ries about the de­cline of truth, virtue and democ­racy that seems to have ac­com­pa­nied Repub­li­can rule. He views him­self as the ca­nary in the coal mine.

“It was amaz­ing how low their party stooped,” he writes of the 2004 cam­paign. “I had vol­un­teered to go to Viet­nam. Bush didn’t. Cheney didn’t.” He con­cludes that “pol­i­tics had clearly en­tered a dark, new chap­ter” by then and has been grow­ing dim­mer ever since.

For all of this par­ti­san hos­til­ity, though, it’s worth keep­ing in mind what Kerry and Bush have in com­mon: Both came from wealthy, elite fam­i­lies with long-stand­ing po­lit­i­cal ties; they even went to Yale at the same time. In re­cent years, Repub­li­cans have been adept at sell­ing their high-born can­di­dates as cham­pi­ons of the com­mon man. Democrats, by con­trast, have al­lowed them­selves to be cast as in­su­lar elites, preach­ing to the masses while talk­ing mostly to each other. De­spite its value as the record of a life in pol­i­tics, “Ev­ery Day Is Ex­tra” will do lit­tle to dis­pel that myth.

Ev­ery Day Is Ex­tra By John Kerry Pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter Avail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt1,021 Re­viewed by Bev­erly Gage

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