The Vietnam effect in 2004

When Jim Rassmann popped up at one of John Kerry’s campaign stops days before the Massachusetts senator’s surprise Iowa caucus victory, it couldn’t help but give Kerry a boost.

Kerry had saved Rassmann’s life back in 1969, when the candidate was a Navy lieutenant skippering a Swift boat through the hazardous waters of the Mekong Delta and Rassmann was a Green Beret. The two hadn’t seen each other in 35 years, but Rassmann — a Republican — decided to support his fellow Vietnam vet. The tearful reunion sparked positive news coverage for Kerry, providing yet another push to his Iowa surge.

Historian Douglas Brinkley’s new book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, appears at an opportune time — for both Brinkley and Kerry. A glowingly positive biography, it focuses on Kerry’s service in the Navy and his activities in the immediate post-Vietnam years, when the winner of a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts became the leading spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Brinkley paints a portrait of a politically driven young man. “Instead of hiding his ambition under a rock, Kerry embraced it, creating the John Winant Society debating club, discussing quite frankly his hope of going into public life and perhaps being a congressman or senator someday,” the author writes of the teenage Kerry, then a student at St. Paul’s School. Kerry also comes through as intellectually introspective; the book quotes at length from his letters and journals from Vietnam, which explore his growing discontent with U.S. policy.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Brinkley’s book is his virtual day-by-day portrayal of the perilous life of a Navy Swift boat crew. Many more Vietnam books recount the experiences of troops operating on land, and while there are elements in common — the danger, the ambushes, the inability to tell who was a Viet Cong supporter — Brinkley delves, intriguingly, into less-chronicled aspects of the war.

Kerry, now 60 and in his fourth Senate term, has his share of detractors — including those who fault him for highlighting his Vietnam experience throughout his political career, those who accuse him of being too aloof, and those who charge that he has molded himself too consciously on an earlier Massachusetts JFK (Kerry’s middle name is Forbes). Brinkley clearly does not align himself with those critics.

Tour of Duty raises anew the question of how much a military record helps a presidential candidate. Dwight Eisenhower, a political novice, swept into the presidency in 1952 on the strength of his service as the Allied supreme commander in Europe during World War II. The late Robert Donovan chronicled John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 experiences in the Pacific. And George Bush the elder, known for his daring World War II exploits, benefited from the campaign scorn heaped on his 1988 Democratic rival, Michael Dukakis (who served in the Army from 1955 to ’57), for his ill-advised tank ride.

Once the Vietnam generation reached presidential age, however, the calculus shifted. Bill Clinton, who never served in the military and whose draft status became an issue early on, won two terms — the first against Bush Sr., the second against a wounded World War II vet, Bob Dole. George W. Bush, who spent his Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard, narrowly bested Al Gore, an Army journalist in Vietnam — after first defeating former Vietnam prisoner of war John McCain in the primaries. Now, pundits are pondering what all this means for Kerry — and for another presidential hopeful, retired Gen. Wesley Clark: Have the events of Sept. 11 created a yearning for a commander in chief with military combat experience?

On CNN the night of Kerry’s Iowa caucus victory, commentator Jeff Greenfield remarked upon the twin impact of Rassmann’s appearance and that in a Kerry TV ad of Del Sandusky, a member of the candidate’s Swift boat crew. Kerry, Greenfield noted, “saved [Rassmann’s] life 35 years ago. And three days ago, this gentleman called the Kerry campaign, said, Can I help? … There was a very emotional reunion the other day. And that event, combined with that ad we’ve been seeing all over Iowa and New Hampshire, of Mr. Sandusky, who’s another person whose life John Kerry saved, is the kind of message that began to penetrate, that this guy who had a number of combat decorations … in Vietnam was not some aloof, patrician rich guy but a guy who had actually saved lives. It was the kind of thing that … helped John Kennedy overcome the idea of a rich man’s son by sacrifice.”

On the victory stage with Kerry in Iowa was former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a Vietnam vet and triple amputee. Brinkley ends his book with a poignant anecdote, in which Cleland presents Kerry with a family Bible at Kerry’s presidential campaign kickoff. “You’ve got to keep it, brother,” Brinkley quotes Cleland as saying. “You’ve got to win. It’s your duty.” To which Kerry responded: “I know. … I will. I won’t let us [Vietnam vets] down.” Today’s primary in Kerry’s neighboring state of New Hampshire should provide additional clues about his chances to keep that promise.

The past few decades of Kerry’s career are glossed over in the book, although Brinkley does discuss the senator’s work on POW-MIA issues and U.S.-Vietnamese relations in an epilogue about Kerry’s presidential race.

Although the first JFK came to like the book, he initially chose not to cooperate with Donovan, who had written a favorable biography of Ike in 1956.


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