Biography, like life, is unfair. It relentlessly documents the deeds of the past, but it's selective in interpretation. Biography is kind to some and merciless to others, but biography is not necessarily destiny for men who would be president.
John Kerry became a glamorous star to the glitteries when he used his credentials as a combat veteran to speak against the Vietnam War, but he became more celebrated for throwing away his medals - what we now learn were someone else's medals and only his own ribbons - than for what he did to earn them.
Now, no matter how he looks from today's perspective, he has tarnished his image among both those who supported and those who opposed that war. He put his life on the line in an act of genuine courage, but his public rebellion turns out to have been synthetic. The phoniness reinforces his flip-flop image.
George W. Bush was neither hero nor dissenter in those days. He learned how to fly a Delta Dagger F-102 fighter for the Texas Air National Guard by day and sowed (and drank) his oats at night.
He wasn't a drunk, but he drank enough to play a silly game called "Dead Bug," friends tell U.S. News & World Report: "When someone shouted 'dead bug!' everyone had to drop to the floor, belly up, twitching their arms and legs." The last man on the floor bought the next round of drinks. (Fighter pilots are not like you and me.)
Americans are likely to be more forgiving of George W. than John F. Kerry because the president, like the Prodigal Son, reformed and became a resolute teetotaler. He's the stuff of Prince Hal, who in Shakespeare's King Henry V cuts himself loose from the life he had led.
Kerry is more in keeping with his old self, reinforcing the image of a Hamlet, a man who could not make up his mind. The senator concedes that an idea he expressed in a 1971 interview, that American troops should be sent into action "only at the directive of the United Nations," was "stupid," but his contemporary rhetoric suggests that he still overstates the role the United Nations should play in Iraq.
"Biography," the Spanish essayist Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote, "is a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified." But that's not always true. The times and "personality" have a powerful influence on how we interpret the biography of a leader. So do Venus and Mars. Bill Clinton dodged the draft and still was elected president twice. He caught a little slack because Americans figured he wouldn't have to oversee a war as commander in chief.
He wove a scandal of sexual infidelity once in the White House three decades after John F. Kennedy notoriously took harem's bounty of women into the same house, and without a murmur in a docile media.
In her forthcoming "Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House," Sally Bedell Smith devotes whole chapters to JFK's philandering, some of the details of which are only now coming out. Helen Chavchavadze tells how he pursued their affair immediately after his inauguration. He acted like a "free man," she says. No Secret Service was going to stop him.
Some historians argue that JFK might have been thrown out of office if he had lived to see his affair with Judith Campbell, the Mafia moll who was having a simultaneous affair with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, cast into the public eye. That's not at all clear. Fred Dutton, a White House aide, noted wryly at the time: "There are more votes in virility than fidelity." Maybe, but he was nevertheless courting disaster as well as the moll.
JFK came to power on the curl of the wave of sexual liberation and Bill Clinton came to office on the ebb of the wave. The tide, in fact, was turning. Politics is hostage to public events and attitudes, after all, and determines whose biography ends in triumph and whose ends in failure.
Theodore Roosevelt, ashamed of his father for having hired a substitute to fight for him in the Civil War, led his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill to redeem the family honor as well as for the honor of God and country. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty but it was the Vietnam War that so sapped his energy that his Great Society collapsed in ashes. The consummate legislator failed as commander in chief.
Great leaders must be endowed with an exquisite balance between vision and pragmatism, idealism and realism, born with Venus and Mars in perfect alignment. Biography is in our stars as well as in ourselves.