John Kerry came to national attention not because he was a war hero but because he was a dissenter. In 1971, he appeared on "The Dick Cavett Show," testified before Congress, and electrified anti-war rallies with his message that the war was wrong. His phrase, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" was used for years to define his commitment and eloquence.
On Saturday in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, Kerry stood tall and proud and came to terms with what seemed so right in the 1970s and so wrong in 2004. He gave a speech about the American tradition of dissent and his own and others' disagreement with Bush administration policies on both Vietnam and Iraq.
Thirty-five years to the day that he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was introduced by the widow of a Swift Boat buddy, Don Droz, who emotionally recounted how her late husband told her how he and Kerry were planning to come home after Vietnam and "tell the truth about what was going on." Judith Droz Keyes, who spoke out in her husband's name in the seventies, described Kerry as a man who "has once again become the voice of moral opposition."
One of the Kerry supporters who packed the hall asked afterward "Where was she at the convention?" a reference to the fact that Kerry's military experience and not his anti-war activities were showcased in 2004.
The Kerry campaign took pains to downplay his anti-war activities, a tactic which angered a number of veterans — especially those who launched the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Once when another producer at CBS and I spoke to the campaign about a profile we were thinking about which would juxta-play both facets of his biography, they greeted us with dismay. "Would you have to go into the protests?" they asked. They decided against letting Kerry be interviewed for that profile.
On Saturday, Kerry's dissent on Vietnam dovetailed completely with his current position on Iraq and he spoke eloquently about why he was opposing the administration and what they should do to end the conflict. After the tortured explanations during the presidential campaign and the ad which played over and over about "being for the $87 billion [for Iraq] before he was against it", Kerry's clarity and confidence were even more startling.
His speech was laced with patriotic language and filled with historical examples. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were both attacked for opposing the government, said Kerry, who quoted Jefferson: "Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism."
Kerry may be reflecting a new boldness on the part of liberals to come out and say what they believe and to reclaim the moral high ground on patriotism.
Sociologist Todd Gitlin in a new book, "The Intellectuals and the Flag" argues that the intellectual left must take back the flag in order to reclaim power. He argues that especially since 9/11, what intellectuals must make clear is that they are patriots. Gitlin also says intellectuals must do more than dissent and should sharpen values and "sketch visions" for the public on where American democracy should go.
Kerry presented a plan and exit strategy for Iraq. He said the Iraqis only respond to deadlines and so he would have the Iraqis "demonstrate an effective unity government by May 15" and "agree to a schedule for withdrawing the American combat forces by the end of the year."
The Faneuil Hall crowd was his crowd but the standing ovations were more than perfunctory. Kerry disappointed many Democrats in 2002 by voting to give the President the authority to go to war and kept frustrating them during his campaign with tortured answers on what the policy should be. But Saturday, he knocked it out of the ballpark as he brought his life and the two wars which define him into sync.
Kerry has the opportunity to lead a movement once again - not by using this as a campaign jumpoff, but by rallying a very angry public to force a change in policy. Richard Nixon worried about Kerry's potential as a leader back in the 70s; maybe the new Kerry will finally prove him right.