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Past Perfect: Beware of Candidate Bios

John Tarleton Feb 4, 2004

Howard Dean likes to remind audiences that he was a family doctor before becoming governor of Vermont. John Edwards fondly recalls how he was a mill worker’s son before becoming a millionaire trial lawyer and a senator. Al Sharpton was ordained as a minister at the age of 10 and later worked as James Brown’s road manager. John Kerry campaigns alongside the buddies he fought with in Vietnam while retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark busts Kerry’s chops for only being a lieutenant.

The modern American presidency is shrouded in awe and mystique. But the biographies of this year’s candidates raise an interesting question – what on earth prepares someone to hold such a job?

The past offers no certain guide. The current president is a failed businessman (many times over) and a recovering alcoholic. Bush’s father was an oilman and a former CIA director. Ronald Reagan was a B-movie actor while Jimmy Carter was a nuclear submarine captain and later a peanut farmer. John Kennedy was our last “war hero” president, and Dwight Eisenhower the last general to sit in the Oval Office. Harry Truman – the man who dropped the first atomic bomb – was a bank clerk, a farmer and a failed haberdasher before going into politics in his late thirties.

Being a war hero didn’t help presidential candidates much in the quiet decade after the end of the Cold War. Just ask Bob Kerrey (1992), Bob Dole (1996) or John McCain (2000). But now, war heroes are back in full vogue. While Bush prances around in his flight suit, Democrats say they have the real thing in John Kerry.

Is this healthy? And will Kerry’s military reputation (silver star, bronze star and three purple hearts) even survive a run through the Republican shredder?

In most electoral democracies (Israel being a notable exception), a candidate’s past military service is of little or no interest. After all, what does fighting in a war in your late teens or early twenties have to do with administering an enormously complex and confusing bureaucracy or guiding foreign relations with over 190 nations in an increasingly interconnected world? Interestingly enough, Kerry wasn’t always so enthusiastic about his military service.

Testifying before Congress in 1971, Kerry called the Vietnam War a “filthy, obscene memory” in which soldiers had “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”

With hard-earned knowledge like that, you would think Kerry could be counted on to oppose sending young men and women off to kill and die in a brutal neo-colonial war. Instead, he was one of 30 Democratic Senators to support the congressional resolution that gave Bush the green light to invade Iraq. Go figure.