Wednesday, October 27, 2004
New York Times > JOHN KERRY'S JOURNEY | THE SENATE YEARS
October 27, 20042 Kerry Votes on War and Peace Underline a Political EvolutionBy TODD S. PURDUM
ASHINGTON, Oct. 26 - On Jan. 11, 1991, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts took the Senate floor to make a clear, impassioned speech against passage of a resolution authorizing the first President Bush to use force to eject Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
"Are we supposed to go to war simply because one man - the president - makes a series of unilateral decisions that put us in a box, a box that makes war, to a greater degree, inevitable?" Mr. Kerry asked.
On Oct. 9, 2002, Mr. Kerry rose in the Senate chamber to make a very different speech, a tortured, 45-minute argument reluctantly supporting George W. Bush's request for authority to disarm Mr. Hussein, almost certainly by force.
"By standing with the president, Congress would demonstrate our nation is united in its determination to take away" Iraq's arsenal, Mr. Kerry said, "and we are affirming the president's right and responsibility to keep the American people safe."
Those votes on war and peace, out of the thousands Mr. Kerry has cast over nearly 20 years, have come to seem a kind of metaphor for his career in the Senate, a study in the conflicts between conviction and calculation, clarity and confusion that have marked much of his public life.
There were many differences between those two moments, 11 years apart. In 1991, the United Nations had already voted to authorize military action; the Senate vote came four days before an international deadline for war. In 2002, the Bush administration was still awaiting U.N. support: the vote was seen as important leverage. Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 attacks had "changed a lot" about American thinking, as Mr. Kerry put it before his vote.
But for Mr. Kerry personally, the most potent change may well have been that by 2002 he had all but publicly resolved to run for president. He was thinking about presidential power, and his own two-decade record as what Mr. Bush calls "a liberal senator from Massachusetts," in new and more defensive ways. The vote came two weeks before the midterm elections, and the White House was happy for the chance to put Democratic senators on the record - and on the spot.
As it turns out, Mr. Kerry has spent much of his current campaign on the defensive over both votes: against authorizing force in a war that turned out to be short and popular, and for backing it in one that has proved longer and far more divisive.
Mr. Kerry's entire Senate career has been equally complicated. While The National Journal ranked Mr. Kerry the Senate's most liberal member based on his roll-call votes in 2003, his career voting -and speaking - record is more eclectic and less predictable than that rating would imply.
Mr. Kerry has been a reliable advocate of environmental regulation, gay rights and gun control, but he also joined with Republicans to press for reduction of the federal deficit in the mid-1980's, long before that was popular with most other Democrats. He questioned the idea of raising the minimum wage when the Clinton administration advanced that as one of its few initiatives in the newly Republican-controlled Congress of 1995, and two years later he voted in favor of requiring well-off older Americans to pay a higher share of Medicare premiums.
Like many other politicians, and maybe more than most, Mr. Kerry has changed positions with changing times, prevailing political winds and his own electoral interests. But perhaps above all else, he has been a cold-eyed realist, and he describes his vote on Iraq in those terms.
"I did not think the president would be quite so arrogant, or quite so na?ve, as to ultimately put America in the position of almost unilaterally invading a Middle Eastern country," Mr. Kerry said in an interview late last year, when his campaign was floundering in the face of a challenge from former Gov. Howard Dean, the antiwar Democrat. "If there's any kind of mistake at all, it's in judging that these guys were subject to some kind of basic rule of common sense at some level. The vote itself was the correct thing, in terms of the United States should have proceeded to hold Saddam Hussein accountable.''
"And were I president of the United States," he added, "we wouldn't be at war with Iraq."
Mr. Kerry was hardly alone among Democrats in voting against the use of force in 1991 and for it in 2002. In 1991, 45 of 54 Democratic senators voted against authorizing force, while in 2002, 29 of 50 voted to allow it. Many who, like Mr. Kerry, were in office for both had become convinced that their votes against the Persian Gulf war turned out to be wrong as well as politically damaging.
"We didn't trust the old man," Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, recounted in explaining why even some hawkish Democrats, including former Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia , voted against the first President Bush in 1991. They were worried about where such a war would stop, what would happen in Kuwait, whether the conflict might spill into Iran.
"When it was over," Mr. Biden recalled, "I said, 'Well, we should have voted for it, if we'd known he was going to do it that way.' "
By 2002, Mr. Biden said, the choice was complicated other ways. International sanctions that had been imposed against Iraq after the Persian Gulf war were eroding, and many of the chemical and biological stocks that Iraq had possessed could not be traced. Far from crumbling after his 1991 defeat, Mr. Hussein remained a thorn, and a perceived threat. The administration's demand that Congress and the United Nations force him to comply with a raft of U.N. resolutions and allow weapons inspections hardly seemed unreasonable.
"We were in a very unhappy circumstance" Mr. Biden said. "We sure didn't trust this president's judgment, and we knew he didn't know much. We weren't sure who he was going to listen to. Was he going to listen to the three-quarters of his administration that agreed with Colin Powell, or the one-quarter that had his ear?
In neither 1991 nor 2002 did Mr. Kerry make the bolder political choice, but two years ago he would have had more cover from fellow Democrats had he chosen to oppose President Bush than he would have had he opted to support Mr. Bush's father.
In 2002, 21 of Mr. Kerry's Democratic Senate colleagues voted against authorizing force, more than twice those who voted to allow it in 1991. They included Bob Graham of Florida, who was also weighing a presidential campaign. He voted against it on the grounds that Mr. Bush had not proved the case, and that an invasion of Iraq would be a diversion from the hunt for Al Qaeda - the very points Mr. Kerry makes today.
But Mr. Kerry did not make those arguments two years ago, and the contrast between how he handled the first and second Iraq wars is particularly striking.
In 1991, his arguments were passionate, personal, rooted in his Vietnam service. He began his speech by asking, "Are we ready for another generation of amputees, paraplegics, burn victims, and whatever the new desert war term will be for combat fatigue?" and ended it by reading from the antiwar novel "Johnny Got His Gun."
Published on the eve of World War II, the book, by Dalton Trumbo, tells the story of a World War I soldier, who has lost all his limbs, much of his face, his eyesight, hearing and speech. Alone in a veterans' hospital, he finally figures out how to tap his head in Morse code. His one demand: to be put on exhibit in a glass case in the world's parliaments as a barely living argument against war.
Mr. Kerry read the soldier's words: "I want to be there when they talk about honor and justice and making 'the world safe for democracy' and Fourteen Points and the self-determination of peoples. I want to be there to remind them I haven't got a tongue to stick into the cheek I haven't got either. But the statesmen have tongues. The statesmen have cheek. Put my glass case upon the speaker's desk and every time the gavel descends, let me feel its vibration through my little jewel case."
In 2002, Mr. Kerry's arguments were dispassionate and impersonal, and rejected any suggestion that the legacy of Vietnam had left him and fellow veterans ambivalent about using force.
He began by saying "I wish for the sake of the country we were not here now at this moment," and adding that there were "legitimate questions" about the administration's timing. But, he said, the threat of Saddam Hussein and his weapons was too real to ignore any longer.
"In the wake of Sept. 11," he asked, "who among us can say, with any certainty, to anybody, that those weapons might not be used against our troops or against allies in the region? Who can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction even greater - a nuclear weapon - then invade Kuwait, push the Kurds out, attack Israel, any number of scenarios to try to further his ambition to be the pan-Arab leader?"
At one point, Mr. Kerry declared, "Let there be no doubt or confusion about where we stand on this."
Then he seemed to sow some, saying he would "support a multilateral effort to disarm" Mr. Hussein "by force, if we ever exhaust those other options as the president has promised, but I will not support a unilateral U.S. war against Iraq unless that threat is imminent and the multilateral effort has not proven possible under any circumstances."
He concluded with President John F. Kennedy's stern vow, in the Cuban missile crisis, that "the path we have chosen is full of hazards, as all paths are," and that there was "one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission."
The resolution was structured so as to be Congress's last word on the subject, and to allow Mr. Bush to take whatever action he saw fit. But four days after his vote, Mr. Kerry told a Democratic audience in Arizona: "Don't for an instant believe the president has some great free hand. He has a free hand to make a catastrophic mistake."
Some advisers warned that it was Mr. Kerry who had made a mistake, that his support for the resolution would spell trouble with the Democratic base. Indeed, for many months, as Dr. Dean's antiwar candidacy flourished, Mr. Kerry's vote did cause problems with party liberals. Later, trying to explain a subsequent vote against financing for the occupation of Iraq, he faced more problems, and charges of inconsistency.
But just as Mr. Kerry believed his service in Vietnam gave him special credentials to criticize that war when he believed it went wrong, he seems to have regarded his vote to authorize Mr. Bush to use force in Iraq as both a test of his toughness on national security matters, and a reflection of the flexibility that he himself would want from Congress were he commander in chief.
"Look, my Iraq position has been and is very simply, It was right to stand up to Saddam Hussein," Mr. Kerry said in the interview in his study in Boston last November. "Any president should have. It was wrong to do it as arrogantly, stupidly as George Bush did it. Simple. Very simple position. But when you explain to people greater details about how you did this or that. ..." His voice trailed off in an unfinished thought.
A Senator Apart
On both votes, Mr. Kerry ended up siding with the bulk of his Democratic colleagues. But he has not always been a team player, and from the moment of his arrival in the Senate in 1985, he gravitated more toward investigative and oversight activities that he could control himself than to the faceless, compromising grind of legislation.
Mr. Kerry suffered by comparison with his senior Massachusetts colleague, Edward M. Kennedy, one of the Senate's most skilled and influential legislators. He struggled to make a mark of his own.
Early in Mr. Kerry's first Senate term, though, he drew the scorn of some senior members with brash, high-profile investigations into the Iran-contra scandal and other matters. In response, he declared, "I came to do a job, not join a club."
To this day, longtime associates say, he remains driven more by his own restless, shifting interests than by the chummy log-rolling and vote-swapping common on Capitol Hill.
He is personally close to just a handful of senators, including John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom he sounded out about joining the Democratic ticket this year. He is politically close to others like Mr. Biden, with whom he discusses foreign policy and campaign strategy. But his best friends are mostly outside politics, roommates from college, colleagues from his earliest days as an antiwar protester and Congressional candidate.
Even the man who may bear more responsibility than anyone else for Mr. Kerry's current political career remains puzzled by his lack of personal connection. In 1982, Mr. Kerry had spent 10 years in the political wilderness - attending law school, working as a prosecutor - after a bruising 1972 defeat for Congress, and he was not the party establishment's favored candidate for lieutenant governor.
But Raymond Flynn, a popular Boston councilman on his way to becoming the city's mayor, saw something he liked.
"I didn't know any of the candidates, to be honest," Mr. Flynn recalled recently. "But the one thing I could say I admired was his service to our country in Vietnam.''
"I grew up in a community here in South Boston, my brother spent a significant period of his time in the Army in Vietnam," Mr. Flynn continued. "I figured, here's a rich kid from Yale who could have got out of this if he wanted to, and chose not to. That was good enough for me. I had no idea what his positions were on the issues."
Mr. Flynn backed Mr. Kerry, who won the lieutenant governor's job, and he backed him again two years later in his Senate campaign, when prominent party regulars favored someone else.
But to this day, Mr. Flynn said, "I never had a beer with him. I never went out to dinner with him. Of course, if John had called me and said, 'Let's get together and discuss this issue. '
"I just assumed, 'Look, he's the United States senator. He's got bigger fish to fry than I do as mayor of Boston.' "
In fact, the two have split over Mr. Kerry's support for abortion rights and Mr. Flynn's opposition to abortion; Mr. Flynn, who was President Bill Clinton's ambassador to the Vatican, has run advertisements criticizing Mr. Kerry's stance this fall. "I don't hold anything against him," Mr. Flynn said. "I just disagree with his position."
If Mr. Kerry's lack of camaraderie is unusual in a presidential candidate, his difficulties in translating his Senate record into a campaign platform is hardly exceptional. More often than not, sitting senators have a terrible time getting to the White House, in part because it is hard for those who are not legislative leaders to compile a record that is easily summed up on the stump. For half of Mr. Kerry's time in the Senate, Republicans have controlled the chamber.
"I think he's been effective, given the fact that he's been in the political minority for much of the time," said Darrell M. West, a Brown University professor who has followed Mr. Kerry's career. "He hasn't passed major legislation, but he wasn't usually in a position to do that. When you're in the minority, you just can't move things.''
"So I always thought part of the reason he concentrated on oversight is that that's something you can do things about," Professor West added. "But the problem is it's a lone-wolf type of activity, one person out there spearheading the investigation. That has just reinforced the image of him as a loner."
Mr. Kerry has often seemed to play down his Senate record on the campaign trail and at his nominating convention, in favor of his Navy service in Vietnam or his years as a prosecutor, and Mr. Bush has accused him of running from his record. Mr. Biden, for one, thinks that not talking much about it may have been a mistake, declaring, "If the election came down to comparing what did Bush do for the last 20 years and what did Kerry do, give me a break."
The last senator to move to the White House directly was also a junior senator from Massachusetts: John F. Kennedy. He was an indifferent senator, regarded as excessively ambitious and facing some of the same criticisms that Mr. Kerry has endured, as an exchange in Thurston Clarke's new book, "Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America," (Henry Holt) shows.
"As you know, one thing holding back many liberal Democrats and sensitive people of some influence," Harris Wofford, an aide to Kennedy, wrote after he announced his candidacy, "is to see some sign of passionate courage on your part, or, to state these separately, courage and passion."
Mr. Kerry's friends say he has displayed such qualities on the issues that most concerned him, including his investigation in the early 1990's with Mr. McCain and others that concluded there was no evidence that American prisoners of war were still alive in Vietnam, an inquiry that paved the way for normalization of relations a decade ago.
"He and John McCain provoked outright hatred with the P.O.W. commission," Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said. "I heard people say to both McCain and Kerry, 'You are killing people over there.' People just didn't get over it."
Mr. Kerry is proud of that investigation, but is quick to insist that is not all he did. In another interview last year, he insisted, "I've done a hell of a lot more legislatively than meets the eye." But he also acknowledged that he might have an executive temperament, not a legislative one.
"I think there is a lot of me that is more about moving people, and setting goals," he said. "I think I'm good at it. When the going gets tough, I'm pretty clear about where you're going."