One of the biggest problems that John Kerry has is that he is still an enigma to most people. We all know more than we want to about his service in Vietnam, but very little about what he has done between then and now. In particular, his 20-year Senate career is a blank.
For this reason, I found of great interest the new book by former Senate staffer Winslow T. Wheeler, "The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security" (U.S. Naval Institute). He spent 31 years working on national defense issues for both Republican and Democratic senators.
Wheeler's main point is that the defense budget is no less prone to pork barrel spending than any other part of the budget. He writes about his frustration at having spent so much of his time working on pet projects for his bosses that added nothing to our national security, but served solely to advance their re-elections. Unfortunately, in many cases, these pork barrel projects came at the expense of critical defense needs, such as operations and maintenance.
Toward the end of his book, Wheeler makes some very interesting observations about Kerry that are relevant to the presidential race.
Wheeler starts by noting that there were certain senators that he always knew would be major players on defense issues. Whether he agreed with them or thought they were dreadfully wrong, the views of certain senators always commanded respect. They came to the Senate floor well prepared for serious debate, commanded facts and analyses supporting their positions, and always contributed something meaningful to every issue they engaged in.
"But then," Wheeler writes, "there was also another type of senator I would run across in the elevator or see in the chamber -- the ones I could never associate with any deed or even articulated thought that had any lasting effect. The thought would dash through my head, 'Oh, yeah, he's a senator too; forgot that he was even still around here.' John Kerry was such a senator."
Kerry should have been a major player on foreign policy and defense issues, Wheeler thinks. He is a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the most prestigious in the Senate, and he clearly has the intellectual ability to understand the nuances of complex issues. But instead of being a player, Wheeler calls him a "ghost senator."
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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