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John Kerry: From Vietnam Hero to Antiwar Activist, From Iran-Contra Investigator to a Leading Voice on Capitol Hill

StoryJanuary 28, 2004
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We examine the life of John Kerry with Michael Kranish, reporter for the Boston Globe, who co-authored an extensive seven part series on John Kerry for the Globe. [includes transcript]

  • Michael Kranish, political correspondent for the Boston Globe. He co-authored a seven part series on Senator John Kerry for the Globe, entitled John F. Kerry: Candidate in the Making. He joins us on the phone from Nashua, New Hampshire.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As we turn now to take a look at the life of John Kerry. From Vietnam hero to anti-war activist, to a leading voice on Capitol Hill, we’re going to look at Kerry’s life with Michael Kranish, a reporter with the Boston Globe. He was involved in a seven-part series that was published in the Boston Globe on Senator John Kerry. He joins us from Nashua, New Hampshire. Welcome to Democracy Now! Michael Kranish.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. How was the victory event last night? Were you covering Senator Kerry?

MICHAEL KRANISH: I was not in the ballroom. I was covering a couple of other stories, but watched it on TV, as did most of the people interested in politics. And I must say he seemed to be really enjoying himself. He is a man who really, it takes him a while to get going as far as rollicking and he seems to be really feeling the victory.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of where Senator John Kerry was born, where he grew up? In fact, he might have been comfortable in New Hampshire, given that’s where he went to high school, spent those teen years.

MICHAEL KRANISH: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Start at the beginning.

MICHAEL KRANISH: He was born in Denver, but didn’t live there. His father was there because he had tuberculosis, which prevented him from combat in World War II. John Kerry spent most of his very early years in Massachusetts where his parents lived. But his father was in the Foreign Service and they moved around quite a bit. He moved almost every year or so, and he lived in Europe. He lived in Switzerland. He lived in Germany, quite a few places. By the time he was about thirteen or so, his family decided the thing to do for John Kerry was to send him to preparatory schools. He went to a prep school in Massachusetts called Fessenden and then spent five years at a very beautiful school, very elite school called St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire, the state capital. So, he did live here for five years and, in fact, I wrote a piece a couple of days ago that he rarely, although, not many candidates can say, hey, I lived in your state for five year, it is not something he talked about very much. He mentioned it at one event I was at. He did spend five very, very important, informative years at St. Paul’s. He graduated St. Paul’s, which is the equivalent of a high school, but a private school that at that time was extremely closed. Today it is more integrated and so forth and you have people from different backgrounds. At the time, it was that much more elitist, as you can imagine, and he graduated in 1962. So, we’re talking about 42 years ago. And when I worked on this project last year on the life of John Kerry, which was in essence a 14-page series, an awful lot of space for a newspaper for which I’m grateful I had that much time and space. I got a chance to walk around the campus and talk to his former teachers still living and fellow students who are still living. You really got a sense about how much he was thinking about, how much he was thinking about this even back then. In fact, he had in 1960 when he was in 10th grade, he had participated in a debate where he took the side of J.F.K. advocating the election of John Kennedy. The school was basically Republican so he was in the minority. Of course, his candidate won. He had gone down while he was still a student he’d gone down to volunteer to participate in the campaign for Edward Kennedy. It is not clear that Edward Kennedy knew who this young kid was. But he did meet him at the time. Back then he was in politics. It’s something to see. Back here in Nashua where I am, they had Ted Kennedy come in and he played a big role in helping John Kerry win elections. Knowing the background, 42 years ago, it was vice versa. John Kerry wasn’t that much of a factor, if anything in the Edward Kennedy election.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, didn’t John Kerry found the Debating Society at St. Paul’s?

MICHAEL KRANISH: He did found a debating society at St. Paul’s. He was big in debate at Yale university where he went after St. Paul’s and has been preparing for debates you might say since he was about, I don’t know, 14 years old. It is a little tough. It doesn’t make a difference how good of a debater you are, it’s tough to shine in an eight or nine person debate. You got a sense of that this is a person who’s been preparing for debates all his life. In fairness, Wesley Clark at West Point also was on the debate team there and he was known as one of the best debaters at West Point. Even so, he didn’t do as well Thursday. Sometimes it’s a different stage you’re on. But it’s interesting both had a deep background in debates.

AMY GOODMAN: There are a number of links to the Kennedy family, aside from they’re both J.F.K., John Forbes Kerry and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was close friends with Janet Alkencloth.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Right. He dated the half sister of Jackie and, in fact, in, I think it was 1962, he went down to Hammersmith farm in Rhode Island, which is where the Kennedys stayed sometimes in the summer and met the President, this was 1962. So, John F. Kennedy was President at the time. He went down there, talked with him, and actually went sailing with President Kennedy. As part of our research, we asked the John F. Kennedy library, “Can you find any photos of Kerry and Kennedy together?” Initially we’d been given the impression that it was a very quick meeting and they didn’t spend a lot of time together. But lo and behold, the Kennedy library came up with some wonderful, wonderful photos of Kerry and Kennedy on a boat together in 1962. This guy is just a kid. He is about 17, 18 years old and here he is on a boat with the President who really was his hero for all of his life. You know the initials are one thing, a lot of people talk about the thing that they’re both senators from Massachusetts, same initials. You can go on and on. But certainly many people that I interviewed said from the time they met him he was interested in running for President. In fairness, I have to say if you ask John Kerry that question, he’d probably say no. No, they’re exaggerating or coloring their thoughts with what I’m doing today and so forth. I have to tell you, many people I talked to certainly believe that that was the case.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for sixty seconds and then come back to continue talking with Michael Kranish, Boston Globe reporter, in Nashua, New Hampshire, who’s involved in a seven-part series for the Boston Globe, chronicling the life of John Kerry. When we come back, we’ll look at his life at Yale and then going off to war in Vietnam, though he expressed anti-war views even before leaving. What he did in Vietnam and then particularly what he did when he came back as a Vietnam veteran taking on the likes of President Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Stay with us. ?

AMY GOODMAN: “The War and Peace Report,” I’m Amy Goodman. We’re joined by Michael Kranish, who has been covering the primaries in the Boston Globe, and did a mini part series on the life of John Kerry. He wrote a number of those pieces. So, you have taken us through St. Paul’s, John Kerry then went on to Yale. Can you talk about how formative his college years were in his political and emotional life?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Sure. His father had gone to Yale and he had told his friends at St. Paul’s that his dream was to go to Yale. I don’t believe he applied to Harvard. He though it was a wonderful place and Yale is broken up into what they call college, meaning dormitories in a sense, not the typical meaning of the term. He stayed in a place called Jonathan Edwards College, something you’d see if you’d seen the certain movies of Elizabethan buildings, it looks like that. And he lived in a room with a couple of good friends. One was Harvey Bundy, who was behind the Vietnam War effort of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. And basically, what you asked regarding Vietnam, he did write an oration for the class of '66. Initially he wrote a class oration, which was a rampant exercise in saying the future is ahead of us and it was published in the yearbook. But when he delivered the oration, he delivered a different one. He questioned why the country was getting involved in Vietnam, was it something that would affect U.S. interests and so forth? But nonetheless, at the same time, he'd already signed up to be going into the Navy. So, I thought that was interesting, especially when you think about what’s gone on with Iraq. He did vote obviously to give the President authority to go to war and yet he says he didn’t intend for the president to do this as a last resort and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was interesting, Michael, how he changed that speech. He was a member of the secret society Skull and Bones at Yale and you talked about how he went off with his closest friends right before graduation for a weekend, and one of those friends died in the Tet Offensive. His Skull and Bones friends. And it was there that he rewrote that speech on this holiday they had together.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Yes. It’s really quite cinematic. When you look back at his time in Yale, he had a number of friends, somewhat well known. One of his very best friends was a guy named Richard Pershing, the grandson of the famous World War I General Blackjack Pershing. You go around Washington, there are monuments to the guy and this was his close friend. And as you say later on, as it turned out, Pershing did die in Vietnam. I’ll get to that in one second if we have time. He had a number of friends who were going off and Kerry, there is no question about it, he felt a sense of public service and duty. I mentioned his father was in the Foreign Service. And also at this time, this was before the big era of protests. He had joined and he went into the Navy in, like, 1966. So, as he puts it, he says people were not burning draft cards on the steps. But that was a year or two later. This was 1966, sort of the last semi-innocent class at Yale, according to Kerry and many of his classmates. So, you have to put yourself a little bit in that time frame. We know the history now. Even at that time, he and others were having questions. But not big enough questions to say no. He volunteered. He went to the draft board, felt he probably would be drafted, wasn’t sure. But he did volunteer. He did join the Officer Corps. He thought, “If I’m going to go, I want to go as an officer, not an enlisted man.” That’s what he did and he had numerous friends from Yale. Some of his closest friends did the exact same thing. In fact, at Yale, there is quite a history at that time of people going right into Military Officer Corps and so forth into the service. He did give that speech. But nonetheless, he was committed to go and he did go.

AMY GOODMAN: You say his closest friends, that core of Skull and Bones, among them was Fred Smith, who is the founder of Federal Express.

MICHAEL KRANISH: That’s right. If you look at the people who were there, and I did talk to Fred Smith and, you know, there is a story that is a little bit apost cal about how Fred Smith wrote a paper, this is a side, Amy, but he wrote a term paper suggesting that there would be something known as Federal Express and got, like, a C-plus on the paper. I asked him about that. And he said it wasn’t exactly that way, but close. He didn’t get a great grade on the paper, but he turned it into one of the most successful companies in this country. The thing about Kerry and Smith is they both love to fly. Kerry told me that his senior year he goofed off and, in his words, he said he majored in flying his senior year. He really is and still is quite a pilot. He did aerobatics, which people who aren’t familiar with him might be a bit surprised to think of this guy doing loopdey loops and so forth. We use the phrase “on the edge”, which he may not thrilled about, but that’s very much John Kerry. So he did do loopdey loops, and when Kerry and his friend, David Thorn, were in military training in California and took a flight up to San Francisco, they’re in this two-seat plane and heading right towards the Golden Gate Bridge. And there was a story of a Yale professor who had actually loomed over the bridge so you can imagine what Kerry’s good friend, David Thorn is thinking as Kerry says, “Let’s head toward the bridge.” And they’re heading towards the bridge and all of a sudden there’s this whacking sound on the, thwacking sound on the plane, and they saw that they hit a seagull. The feet of the seagull were sticking out of the wing and the plane was not entirely stable and there was a gaggle of them around them so they quickly left the area heading towards the bridge and went to land. But that’s the kind of story that tells you a lot about Kerry. A, that he does do things a little bit edgy and, b, very calm under fire when there is a dangerous situation.

AMY GOODMAN: And so Michael Kranish, John Kerry heads off to Vietnam, a turning point in his life. He did not join the Air Force. He went into the Navy, some say influenced by John F. Kennedy. Can you talk about what happened there? It was just when he got there that he learned of one of his closest friend’s death.

MICHAEL KRANISH: I asked him why he didn’t go into the Air Force, his father was a flyer himself, and he said his dad had told him not to fly in the military, it will take away your love of flying. Every time you’re up in the air, you’ll think of what you did in combat and that is one of the reasons he didn’t join the flying as far as military service is concerned. Certainly he could have flown in the navy as well. But he also loved the sea and loved to ride in boats and so forth and that was certainly something he loved to do. But that’s what he decided to do and he was going over to Vietnam in the first of his tour, he was only in one tour. He was over there twice, though. The first tour, he went over on a ship called the Gridly and halfway over to Vietnam, someone came to him and said that they had a telegram for him. This telegram told him that his very, very close friend Richard Pershing had been killed and you can imagine, you’re at sea, you want to go to the funeral, but you can’t turn around. You yourself are heading to the same war where your buddy was killed. Unless you’ve been there, and I haven’t, I can’t imagine what that’s like. But he gets very emotional whenever I’ve heard him talk about it because he still feels such a closeness to this guy who was really his soul mate. So, he got over to Vietnam and his first tour was on this ship the Gridly. Basically he never saw combat. I don’t even know that he saw much of the enemy. He did see some things. But it just wasn’t a distinctive tour in that way. So, he came back and then he went over for the second tour on what they call a swift boat, which is a small boat. They basically want small, fast boats to go up the coast of Vietnam and the thinking was at that time these boats were off the shore. It wasn’t terribly dangerous, but when he was about to start this particular tour, the people running that operation said, “We’ve changed the operation of the swift boat. No longer are we just going off the coast. We want you to go inland on the rivers.” So, he went from a relatively safe assignment overnight to one of the most dangerous in Vietnam. You’re going down a very narrow river, hard to turn around in the canals and rivers. The shores are lined with vegetation and the enemy can basically hide in there “in spider holes”, as we now relate the term more to Saddam Hussein. “In spider holes” was a phrase I saw time and again in the combat reports about the enemy hiding “in spider holes” in the vegetation, popping up, shooting rocket-propelled grenades at the swift boats and then getting back in and so forth. Extremely dangerous. A lot of people died. This is one of the reasons they started spraying Agent Orange, to help protect the swift boats because it was so difficult from running up and down those rivers.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t you write that seventy-five percent of the people who took on these assignments were killed?

MICHAEL KRANISH: No, wounded or killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Wounded or killed.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Some kind of casualty. Not just killed, no. But there were a lot of people killed. There were a number of Kerry’s friends that were killed. And there’s no question it was a very dangerous assignment. You’re on a very small craft with a very loud engine. You can imagine the last thing you want to do is go up a small river and announce a mile away that you are coming with this incredibly loud, distinctive engine, and tell everybody ahead of time “Here I am.” You couldn’t putter up like you’re patrolling for a fish.

AMY GOODMAN: This was General Zumwalt’s idea?

MICHAEL KRANISH: He was very much in favor of it. But they were trying to make a difference and some of the people running the Navy were concerned. At this time, the Navy wasn’t making that much of a difference in the Vietnam War. Like I mentioned, they were off the coast. The army was basically there on the ground and there were other operations going on. And they wanted to put the Navy in the thick of it. As it happened, Kerry arrived just as they made that that decision.

AMY GOODMAN: To jump forward so we can get to what happened when he came back, and we only have a few more minutes, he actually protested the assignment to the general, is that right, with a group of other people while he was in Vietnam, not wanting to continue?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Very briefly, what he saw was this — you could shoot in certain free-fire zones, not even knowing absolutely for certain whether the enemy was the one you were shooting at because it was a so-called free-fire zone. While he was there, he was involved in combat, and listeners should know that he won the silver star, and was wounded three times, and won the bronze star. He was in a lot of dangerous action where he was, a very, very aggressive river. And then he did go up, and he questioned the policy. I wouldn’t call it a protest, I would call it more of a Q&A, he raised questions. He then went back and continued with what he was doing. He didn’t leave after that. After he won his third purple hear, there was a policy that enabled him to go home if he wished, and he did wish. He left six months early. He left his crew behind and he went back home and he was still in uniform, he was still in the service. He was an aide to a military officer in Brooklyn for a number of months. Later, several months later, he did start getting involved in deciding to protest. When he came back he didn’t protest right away, it took a number of months. Like I say, he was still in uniform. Gradually, you know, he certainly turned against the war, no question about that. But he was still in uniform. Finally, when he was basically allowed to be discharged, he became more active and he did help found this organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. And because a lot of people who were in that group were viewed by a lot of people in this country by the way they looked or they had long hair or they had certain a kind of reputation. Kerry spoke in a sort of Kennedy-esque accent, which, by the way, he no longer uses, and he was very well spoken, obviously St. Paul’s and Yale. He had been an officer there, whereas most were enlisted men. And he was very well spoken and some in the organization said this is a guy we can use and Kerry thought, “This is what I want to do.” And he did, as people know by now, appear before the Senate in the famous hearing in 1971 where he asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the questioning, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” He became a very, very well known figure overnight. He was profiled on 60 Minutes. This is 1971. He was just on 60 Minutes again, profiled last Sunday. He was first on 60 minutes in 1971. He was a better known figure in 1971 than he was until just a few minutes ago when you look at the national note righttism of course, now he is well known. In 1971, he became a very well-known figure because he was an officer against the war. So, the Nixon White House was concerned about him and I went over to the national archives and listened to the Nixon tapes. Most of them had not been transcribed from that periods and if you go into the time around the time Kerry was there, very fascinating to listen to Richard Nixon talk to his aides, all the men and Kissinger and so forth talking about concerns about this young guy, Kerry, and concerns that he was dealing with a well-spoken opponent and what that would mean.

AMY GOODMAN: He gave a very powerful address when he spoke before Congress in addition to saying, “How can you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?” This was just several weeks after Lieutenant William Callie was convicted of killing 22 civilians in what became known as the Mai Lai massacre. Nixon ordering Callie released on appeal. But the statement he made about what U.S. soldiers were doing… Maybe, at this point, we’ll end with that and then I’d like to have you back for part two of Kerry’s life with other reporters from the Globe. He said, 'How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? This administration has done us the ultimate dishonest. They've attempted to disown us and the sacrifice we made for this country.” But almost forgotten in that famous speech, were Kerry’s controversial assertions that Vietnam veterans had, quote, “…personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human general tassle, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians in fashions reminiscent of again, guess cocaine, poisoned food stocks and 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.” We’re going to leave it there. Those are the words of John Kerry, addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 22, 1971, soon after he had returned from Vietnam. President Nixon is seeing him as one of the greatest threats to his war effort, as a decorated Vietnam veteran. We’ll hear tomorrow about how he threw his ribbons along with many hundreds of other Vietnam veterans, protesting the administration. That does it for the show.

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