The risks of 20-20 hindsight

Posted: Aug 12, 2004 12:00 AM

We live in a world where the second guesser aspires to be king. Everybody has brilliant 20-20 hindsight. It's worse in political campaigns. Those who weren't in positions of power know exactly what they would have done if they had been.

The most telling question and answer to date turns John Kerry into Third Grader-in-Chief. Asked what he would have done when he got the news about the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers while he was reading to schoolchildren in a Florida classroom, Mr. Kerry replied: "I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that the president of the United States had something that he needed to attend to. And I would have attended to it."

Condi Rice is right. She can't imagine how anyone could know exactly what he would have done. Should the president have jumped up in panic, alarming the children and the world while the cameras rolled? That would have made a dramatic show, but what counts is what the president did subsequently - the firm, fierce, resolute statements to the American people, inspiring them to grim task at hand in Afghanistan.

Images in our visual age frequently reveal politicians in an unflattering light, and when these images are shown repeatedly on television, like disastrous outtakes from a movie, they make a difference though adding only incrementally to an impression already taking hold.

Teresa Heinz telling a reporter to "shove It" reinforced a sense of her as an "opinionated woman," which is fair enough and not particularly damaging in a vast population of opinionated women. But when she lied about the confrontation, saying that she didn't say what the tape recorders heard her say, she played us - and herself - for fools.

Michael Moore's unflattering images of the president feed the frenzy of Bush haters, but they don't reach those who respect his forcefulness in the fight against terror. Even those who don't like the president recognize such contrived images as cheap shots.

Polls, as any pundit will tell you, are merely snapshots capturing collective impressions at a particular moment. They're images in a kaleidoscope, constantly changing patterns and colors, sometimes dramatically and other times with subtle nuance. The final pattern won't be frozen into place until Election Day. In a country as polarized as ours, we have a long way to go before we can begin to predict how this election will turn out.

That's why the strategy at the Democratic convention to paint John Kerry as a war hero more than three decades ago, with little more to define him since unless you count the rescue of his daughter's drowning hamster, was risky business. It makes questions of his heroism much more crucial than they would have been if he had talked more about issues and his Senate votes. But those Senate votes, as we all now know, testify to his weakening rather than enhancing national defense. If John Kerry had been the president directing the Cold War, we would have lost it.

The controversy over what he did - or did not do - in Vietnam says less about his heroism than about his need to have it both ways, always. John Kerry becomes a character in "Rashomon," a story told through conflicting testimony of witnesses with opposing points of view. Some of the veterans who served with him testify to his courage and others call him a fraud. Even if it's possible that both groups of men are telling it exactly like they saw it, how can we, from this distance, judge what he did?

John Kerry took a great risk making Vietnam heroism the dominant theme of his campaign after his history as antiwar protester. He had every right to speak out against a war he saw as wrong, but many veterans are enraged still that he testified to Congress that the men he left behind were serial murderers, brutal rapists and wanton despoilers of the countryside.

There's something tasteless and vulgar about Kerry's bragging about himself as war hero. But in politics you use what you've got and he has a good story, if true. It's possible, however, that he has tried to exploit the best of two opposing images - war hero and antiwar hero. This is a paradox that may be catching up with him. Heroism in this sense may be in the eye of the beholder with 20-20 vision now.