I disagree with those who believe that George Bush's National Guard record, or John Kerry's 1970's anti-war statements, should not be considered by the voters in 2004. In fact, the voters should know about drunk driving records, marital relations, college cheating, war records, old resume enhancements and all the other bric a brac of a life about two-thirds lived -- if the man is running for president of the United States. Intelligence, judgment, character and personality -- as well as political philosophy and policy positions -- are all needed predictors of how a man will perform as president. American voters have a right to know -- and a duty to find out -- as much as they can about the man they would elect to the office, because an American president is not only the most powerful man in the world, he is potentially the most dangerous.
All people, but politicians especially, try to hide their weaknesses and shortcomings from public view. Thus, an election is not only a contest between two candidates, but a contest between each candidate and the public over a search for the full truth of the candidate's nature. Each piece of information, positive and negative, is probative (but not necessarily dispositive) of determining that true nature.
While self-consciously high-minded people condemn even honest negative campaigning, it is only through such efforts that hidden and embarrassing facts or conditions are revealed that may well be needed to properly understand the nature of the man and his fitness for the presidency.
While we will surely find out more, we already know a lot about George W. Bush. As a well-born son of a famous family, he performed adequately, but not exceptionally, in his youth and early adulthood. He fell away from his faith, came to drink and party too much and drifted from one job or venture to another. Then, his life changed completely. He sought out and refound his faith, gave up his sybaritic ways, returned to the fold and focused his energies and abilities. We know this story well -- it is the parable of the prodigal son. And he ended up as president and headstrong leader of a great nation at war.
But what is John Kerry's story? It has not yet come into public focus. We need to find out what makes John Kerry tick. I have a suspicion that we will not truly know him until we understand what happened to him in the jungles of the Mekong Delta. Did the jungle, and what happened there creep permanently into his psyche?
Grass and vines quickly reclaim ground despoiled by human warfare. Slower to heal are the bodies, and sometimes the minds, of the warriors. Some men are actually strengthened and made wiser by battle. Others leave the traumas of warfare on the battlefield. Yet others hide it deep in their minds and, upon returning home, go on about a regular peacetime life -- seemingly neither worse nor better for wear.
Then there are those for whom the war becomes the great, personally defining event of their lives. It not only shapes, but also distorts, their perception of the world. Often this sort of man entered combat as an idealistic youth. Shocked by the brutality of war, they spend the rest of their lives failing to come to intellectual and psychological terms with the disparity between their youthful expectations and grim battle. These were good men, once. But they become spiritually damaged. Sometimes the more intelligent of these traumatized former soldiers turn to ideas, rather than liquor or opiates, to numb their troubled souls from their painful memories. World War I produced many such examples -- from the pacifist poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, to the sensitive cultural scholar and novelist Robert Graves, all the way to the demented ideologue Hitler.
Is John Kerry one of these types? Certainly he is not a Hitler. But is he one of the others? Did his experience with the horrors of war breed in him not a healthy caution before turning to military force, but an irrational obsession to never use force -- even when it is necessary for our national security?
Certainly Vietnam never seems far from his lips or his mind. Of course he is not the first politician to take advantage of a good war record. Other than being a little unseemly, if his constant references to Vietnam are merely a pragmatic exploitation of a political asset, so be it.
But if his experience in Vietnam has deranged his capacity to make rational judgments about the use of military force on behalf of national security, then, while he was an excellent junior officer 30 years ago, he would be unfit to be commander and chief today. John Kerry should help us better understand his true nature by permitting the government to release his full military files. We can't afford to elect a pacifist president in a time of war.