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March 18, 2004

Unqualified Praise For John Kerry

Not from me, of course--but never let it be said that I'm unwilling to cut and paste another man's praise.

The man I'm talking about is Robert Parry, author of the 1992 book Fooling America, which I first ran across while searching for information on Samir Vincent, who is also mentioned.

Fooling America is about the power of the conventional wisdom, referred to as CW throughout the book, and its role in Washington during the Reagan and Bush I administrations. The first person to appear in its pages is, oddly enough, the blogosphere's own Mickey Kaus.

Newsweek's Mickey Kaus chomped into a greasy hamburger at the incongruously named Burger Heaven restaurant on Forty-ninth Street in midtown Manhattan. The two-level coffee shop with fake brown wood and slow-moving waiters may have seemed an odd place to divine what Washington insiders were thinking about the down-and-dirty 1988 presidential campaign. But on many Friday afternoons, a day before Newsweek goes to press, Kaus and his collaborator, Jonathan Alter, would take a break from the magazine's office across the street, order some burgers at Burger Heaven and muse about the campaign's conventional wisdom.

Starting in early 1988, the pair had written a weekly tongue-in-cheek chart for Newsweek's Periscope page that, with arrows up, down, or sideways, kept track of what the insiders were thinking about the campaign. Although partly a spoof showing how often the pundits ended up with egg on their faces, the CW Watch was the first systematic endeavor to follow the periodic twists and turns of Washington's influential conventional wisdom.

Eric Alterman isn't far behind, though he get much shorter shrift than does Mickey in the text.

Parry is an unabashed liberal, as anyone who reads the book or visits his site will soon discover for themselves, but what struck me was his matter of fact description of Kerry as a stand-up guy during the first phase of Iran-contra, and how quickly the Democrats abandoned him.

Even on the left, there's not a lot of enthusiasm for Kerry the man. He seems overshadowed by Candidate Kerry, he of the electability. Electability may be nice, but it damn sure doesn't prime the pump when it comes to creating the type of grass-roots zeal that drove the Dean campaign. One of the reasons I was struck by the Kerry passages in Fooling America was that for the most part, similar stuff about him is so rarely seen.

During this period, on of the few members of Congress with the courage to demand answers from the White House was freshman Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. When those answers were not satisfactory, Kerry assigned members of his own staff to examine the contra drug trafficking and reports about North's secret role in aiding the contras. That staff investigation— headed by Dick McCall, Ron Rosenblith and Jonathan Winer— would be a thorn in the administration's side as the Kerry team followed much the same trail that Barger and I were on. They encountered many of the same obstacles as well. But their authority to press for answers compelled the White House grudgingly to admit some of the problems, including the fact that the Miami criminal probe that the administration insisted had cleared the contras had, in fact, found substantial evidence to support the charges.

Kerry's reward for his political courage and tenacity was to be targeted by the "public diplomacy" apparatus. The battering he would endure for his pursuit of contra corruption would earn him a reputation as a conspiracy theorist. He also was briefly put under a Senate ethics committee investigation over the expenses for his probe. The right-wing Washington Times complained stridently about Kerry's interference with the president's foreign policy. The Moonie-owned newspaper published leaked information that purportedly debunked his investigations.

Even after his suspicions were confirmed with the outbreak of the Iran-contra scandal in November 1986, the CW against him was so strong that no one bothered to go back and correct Kerry's image as a flake. As Kaus would say about the CW, "There's no honor in being right too soon. People just remember that you were out of step and crazy."

Kerry's own party shunned him. Kerry was blackballed by Senate Democratic leaders picking members for the Iran-contra investigating committee. His sin was that he had taken an early position asserting that the North network did exist and that some contra units had helped the drug trade. Although he was right, his CW as a conspiracy theorist would continue to dog his Senate career. One of the best-read political reference books, the Almanac of American Politics, states in its 1992 edition: "In search of right-wing villains and complicit Americans, [Kerry] tried to link Nicaraguan contras to the drug trade, without turning up much credible evidence." In reality, Kerry's subcommittee on narcotics and terrorism had issued a massive report on its findings. The two-volume report contained detailed and documented accounts of contra drug trafficking, a problem that the Reagan administration had belatedly acknowledged. But those facts never penetrated the CW.

When Kerry's persistent investigation into wrongdoing at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International also proved right, Newsweek's CW Watch finally offered some backhanded praise—but combined it with a gibe at his reputation for dating starlets. "Randy conspiracy buff prescient this time, but will it get him dates?" smirked the Watch. When Kerry's aide, Jonathan Winer, protested that capsule comment, CW Watch writer Jonathan Alter defended the put-down. Alter argued that it had been an accurate description of how the Washington in-crowd viewed Kerry, even though Alter acknowledged that the CW assessment was changing and was not supported by the facts. The CW, of course, has little interest in fairness.

Now obviously, how one views Iran-Contra will color one's view of the above, even though that particular scandal is almost 20 years old, but try to be objective. It's not like I expect the above to change how anyone is planning to vote--it certainly didn't do that for me. But considering that the man is now running for president, I thought it a valuable datum.

Interestingly, Kerry seems to have lost his CW inflicted "conspiracy theorist” moniker--perhaps because many of his committee's findings later turned out to be correct.

Postscript: I wonder what Parry thinks the impact of the blogosphere is on the CW. Are bloggers as a whole able to challenge the conventional wisdom that rules Washington, or are we more akin to its foot soldiers?

Posted by Bigwig at March 18, 2004 10:30 PM | TrackBack
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Funny, that's not how I remember it.

What I remember, is a Democrat controlled Congress pillorying the Reagan & Bush officials over the Iran Contra deal from about 1986 onward, using Lawrence Walsh's Ken Starr-magnitude Independent Counsel investigation to generally rake Republican Administration officials over the coals, and a thoroughly discredited, false and foul urban myth arising from the whispering campaign, that Republicans were using the Contras to truck drugs into the ghettos, to kill Black people. This had nothing to do with Kerry beating a drum to warn us about the eeee-vil Republicans. It was a flat out Democrat pile-on, not the march of one brave senator from Massachusetts taking a brave stand and bravely standing up against the awful Republicans.

It seemed to me at the time, that the done thing for liberal Dems was to harrangue the Republicans over Iran Contra and other less fact-based alleged scandals, to grasp onto any straw to vilify the Republican Administration, and to sanctimoniously wave the index finger and wag the head, in mock sorrow for how the Republicans had defiled our noble electoral system and government. And yes, Senator Kerry was one of the leading purveyors of conspiracy theories - even when no evidence had been developed pointing to the existence of such conspiracies. The book gets that part right. But just because you posit a "conspiracy" and a conspiracy later surfaces, doesn't mean a whole lot. Very little gets done in this world without concerted effort, so basically everything is a conspiracy of sorts. What matters more is the facts you base your charges on, and how you get to your conclusion - and Senator Kerry was on the warpath in the absence of facts and made a lot of baseless charges, getting lucky when some were eventually supportable by after-discovered facts. I think when Ken Starr did the same thing, it was called a "witchhunt" - even though Starr was vindicated with the facts that eventually surfaced, (15 convictions) does that make him more of an admirable figure?

No, I'd argue that Kerry is just one more ideological warrior. The fact that he had some good hunches by thinking the worst about his opponents, in the absence of evidence, doesn't make him any better or any worse than the next guy.

And really, have you ever known of any Massachusetts politician run out of office for being too tough on Republicans? Please.

Posted by: Blackavar at March 19, 2004 04:51 PM

I contributed $50 to Ollie North's defense fund in 1987. Iran Contra was just so much crap.

I remember Kerry as the guy with Jane Fonda in 1971. I served 3 tours in Vietnam, Kerry is a self promoter who pulled strings to get himself a bunch of medals in 4 months in Vietnam and then go on to slander the US military with Jane Fonda.

Later he sold out the POWs and the Vietnam refugees to get his cousin a favorable contract with the Viet Cong.

John Kerry is proof of evil!

Posted by: Michael Strickland at March 19, 2004 09:28 PM