John Leo
No journalist is better than Mickey Kaus at cutting quickly to the heart of an issue. Here is his comment about Bob Kerrey last week on his Web site ( "There is already entirely too much respectful attention being paid to the moral and psychological agony of Bob Kerrey, and to the 'healing' process. ... The question is what happened to the people who haven't had the luxury of agonizing for 32 years because they've been dead. Kerrey's agony is a distraction."

Exactly. Ex-senator Bob Kerrey is undoubtedly feeling a lot of stress after finally admitting that his squad killed unarmed women and children during a Vietnam raid in 1969. And his three decades of silence (or cover-up, if you like) obviously took a toll. But his feelings are not the issue. In an Oprahfied culture, important moral and political issues are always in danger of being obscured by huge clouds of media-generated empathy.

This process is now so common that we hardly notice. After Janet Reno drew heavy criticism for the Elian Gonzalez raid, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said: "I held the attorney general in my arms and she wept. She did not want this to happen." But whether she wept, fled into the arms of a subordinate or simply sat at her desk playing solitaire is irrelevant. In politics, we properly judge actions, not emotional states, especially ones retailed to the media to generate empathy and deflect criticism.

The Kerrey case is already a classic example of a serious moral issue propelled before the public almost entirely in psychological and therapeutic terms. "How hard this must be to stand up and tell the world your secret," one network reporter told viewers. Kerrey "is baring his soul about a 32-year-old mission in Vietnam," burbled a sympathetic CNN talk-show host. "We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through," said the trustees of Manhattan's New School University, whose new president is Bob Kerrey.

The ex-senator kept issuing statements that encouraged a close focus on his psychological struggle. "Now I can talk about it. It feels better already," Kerrey told the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times said Kerrey spoke of the military's need to provide psychological training in how cope with killing.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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