Kerry's quagmire

Posted: Aug 14, 2004 12:00 AM

What if the single pivotal event of one's life - the moment that altered one's entire course, illuminating the path ahead, providing that critical psychological turning point - turned out to have been an invention of one's very own?

I realize that's a convoluted question, but it's hard to discuss today's political events any other way. Convolution defines the story of Sen. John Kerry as told by voices from a haunted past Kerry doubtless now wishes he'd left behind. Instead, he made his four-and-a-half-month tour of duty in Vietnam 35 years ago the centerpiece of his campaign against self-declared "war president" George W. Bush.

To follow the "he said/he said" bouncing ball of Kerry's military career, one needs patience and a strong dose of Dramamine. One group of veterans applauds Kerry's bravery and leadership, citing his three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

Another group, Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, claims in a new book, "Unfit for Command," that Kerry exaggerated his acts of heroism, fabricated some events and sought Purple Hearts for minor wounds, at least one of which was self-inflicted. Some have questioned the latter group's credibility given its financial backing by a prominent Texas Republican, while others have praised the authors' careful documentation.

Like many Americans, I'm reluctant to second-guess anyone's wartime performance. None of us knows how we'd perform under the unique stress of battle. Whether Kerry was indecisive or heroic so long ago doesn't much interest me. Stories get told about war; details get lost or distorted by time and memory.

There's something near tragic about this latest political turn of events - brother warring against brother - but also revelatory on a level that even Kerry critics might not have anticipated. What is revealed isn't so much Kerry's lack of consistency in reporting personal history as his studious pursuit of power and an insatiable need for attention.

The pivotal moment in Kerry's life, according to his many testimonials on the subject, was Christmas of 1968, when, he has said, he was in Cambodia. This experience was central to his later becoming a war protester and to his lighting out on a political path destined to culminate in a rise to the U.S. presidency.

Speaking on the Senate floor in 1986 and in interviews through the years, Kerry reiterated how compelling his Cambodia experience was, how it illuminated his vision and guided his insight on foreign policy.

"I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia," he told his fellow senators. "I have that memory which is seared - seared - in me."

Well, as it turns out, Kerry wasn't in Cambodia (at least not then), and the president wasn't lying (at least not then)/ Depending on whom you believe, Kerry was in a boat either five miles away or 50. In Douglas Brinkley's biography, "Tour of Duty," based in part on Kerry's diary, Kerry was at Sa Dec, 58 miles from Cambodia.

A few days ago, Kerry campaign adviser Jeh Johnson tried to clarify for Fox News, "... I believe he (Kerry) has corrected the record to say it was some place near Cambodia. He is not certain whether it was in Cambodia, but he is certain there was some point subsequent to that that he was in Cambodia."

If Kerry didn't fabricate, he exaggerated. Or misspoke. Or got confused. Or something. But whatever the differences among versions, the story is part of a larger narrative that may matter more than the details.

It is a story of naked ambition and grandiosity, the narrative of a self-absorbed man who always needed to be best and first, whether captain of the boat in Vietnam or winner of the debate in school. Who, when accidentally knocked off his snowboard as an adult fumed, "I don't fall down."

He's the sort of man who thinks to take a movie camera to war to document himself for uses now known to be political; who willingly exploits his heroism in ways real heroes never do; who builds a career on disgust toward a war he later characterizes as the crowning achievement in a life that seems more r?m?han real.

While it may be extreme to say that Kerry "lied," as some of his comrades claim, he has created a story and an image of himself that surely are too good to be true.

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