This week's controversy over John Kerry and his medals is, of course, really about John Kerry and his morals. Can we trust this man? Citizens with lives to live are too busy to endure the discovery of the details, the elaboration of the distinctions: Did Kerry throw away his medals or someone else's in 1971? Did he claim that he had thrown away his in 1971? Did he insist that he hadn't in 1984? Did he, as he now says, throw away his ribbons but not the medals? And if so, does that mean the ribbons are or are not symbolic equivalents of the medals?
Mickey Kaus summarizes what's at stake:
For years, the one thing everyone thought they knew about John Kerry was that he'd dramatically thrown away his medalsa dramatic impression he fed, as the ABC tape [of his 1971 interview] proves. Only later did we learn he played it safe by keeping his medals and tossing his ribbons and someone else's medals. He then falsely denied that he'd fed the false impression. . . . The issue, again, isn't what he threw over the wall. It's whether or not even in 1971 he was a . . . er . . . straddling, ambitious phony.
There is a name for Kerry's credibility problem: Bill Clinton. Like Al Gore before him, Kerry works in the shadow of the master. Clinton's gift, or affliction, for making everyone he spoke to believe he had heard what he wanted to, never quite caught up with Clinton himself the way it did with Gore during the 2000 campaign and, now, with Kerry. The feeling, by journalists and voters, that they had been burned by Clinton's evasions has made it harder for subsequent Democratic nominees to get away with similar maneuvers. From "I didn't inhale," during the 1992 campaign to "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is," during the Lewinsky deposition in 1998, Clinton left Gore and Kerry with empty reservoirsanyone who gave them the benefit of the doubt felt certain of being set up.
On the question of trust, Kerry is like Clinton in some ways and unlike him in others. Unfortunately for his campaign, both the similarities and the differences work to Kerry's disadvantage.
The essential similarity is that both men are lawyers more than they are liars. With Kerry, as with Clinton, the truth is always subject to further revision. Additional details are provided grudgingly after they are withheld. Hairsplitting distinctions are employed to frame every damaging revelation. Partial answers are justified because the questioner didn't ask specifically and presciently for the exact details the candidate didn't really want to provide. Mutually exclusive alternatives are simultaneously embraced.
In a minor but representative episode, Kerry interrupted his advocacy of cars with better fuel economy and lower emissions to tell reporters that the SUV at his Idaho home isn't his, but his wife's. "The family has it. I don't have it." It may not make as good an ad for the GOP as, "I voted for the $87 billion…before I voted against it," but it's one more dot for the voters to connect when deciding who John Kerry is.
The fundamental difference is that Clinton, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, was a real phony, where Kerry, like Al Gore, is just a phony phony. The late Michael Kelly took the measure of Bill Clinton in a 1994 article and concluded that he wasn't dishonest, exactly, but ahonest. Clinton would tell one person one thing on Monday, and really believe it, then tell another person the opposite thing on Tuesday, and really believe that, too.
Clinton inhabited his lies. So many people believed them because they believed that Clinton believed them. And in the moment he was telling them, he probably did. (Probably because, ultimately, there is no way to know.) Kerry, like Gore, doesn't have this thespian talent to induce the suspension of disbelief. Their efforts in the Clintonian direction leave us, like the squirming audience at a community theater production, aware only of the artifice.
Kerry's growing reputation for slipperiness brings to mind not only Bill Clinton, but the other great fibber of the 1990s, George Costanza. On one "Seinfeld" episode Jerry asks George to help him pass a lie detector test. George demurs from trying to convey so much of his life's work in a just few lessons. But he does leave Jerry with one crucial piece of advice: "If you really believe it . . . then it's not a lie."
According to a new biography of Kerry by three Boston Globe reporters, "He is trailed by a reputation for political opportunism. . . . Unlike many who are driven to succeed in public life by a core belief system, the arc of Kerry's political career is defined by a restless search for the issues, individuals and causes to fulfill a nearly lifelong ambition" for the White House. So, what is it that John Kerry really believes in? John Kerry. Anything else is subject to further clarification.