Hail, Kerry: Senator Facing-Both-Ways
Farewell, Clark: "Dude, Where's My Candidate?"

by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair

February 12, 2004
First Published in Counterpunch

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We await Michael Moore’s concession speech after his hero, General Wesley Clark, tasted the ashes of defeat in Tennessee and Virginia and sensibly threw in the towel.

If Dean was the hero of the dot coms, Clark was a creation of the Arkansas-Hollywood axis embodied in Clinton-era stage managers such as Harry and Linda Thomason, Mary Steenbergen and Ted Danson. It was supposed to be The Man from Hope: The Sequel, this time with a genuine military officer, rather than Bill the Draft Dodger. The roll-out for the Clark campaign was Linda Thomason’s Native Son, alluding to Clark’s early years in Little Rock. At Clark’s elbow was Bruce Lindsay, former law partner of Bill Clinton and later his White House counsel. Lindsay put it about that Clark’s mission was to stop the meteoric surge of Howard Dean and Clark told reporters that the Clintons had urged him to get into the race. In the weeks before the Iowa caucus Clark was the only Democratic candidate who was able to get Clinton to appear in a campaign commercial. Rep Rahm Emanuel, former Clinton White House staffer, declared for Clark. Further glitzy support came from the Detroit-Hollywood axis of Michael Moore and Madonna who, in the wake of her hero’s withdrawal, has now said she’s moving to France. Additional liberal backing came from the New York Review of Books, which ran an entire chapter of Clark’s unreadable campaign bio.

Tottering under the burdens of such sponsorship, Clark was soon sprawling in a heap of contradictions. He had supported the attack on Iraq, but now he opposed it. The war was launched under fraudulent pretences but yes, he had agreed with Bush and Rumsfeld about the menace of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. It wasn’t long before his campaign was dead in the water as ordinary voters couldn’t figure what Clark was all about. Virginia was meant to be his big state, and he didn’t break into double figures.

Moral: get Bill Clinton or Al Gore throwing you their support and you sink like a stone to the bottom. At least Gore’s support of Dean was an honest bet on a man Gore thought was the likely winner and a good opponent to put up against Bush. As always, the Clintons were playing a selfish game. For them Clark’s function was to merely stop Dean, thus preserving their power within the Democratic National Committee. Day after day Clinton Mafiosi like McAuliffe, Carville and Begala worked the phones and the talk shows, deriding Dean and their onslaught was very effective.

Dean made his own mistakes and spent much of his $40 million foolishly on lousy campaign ads but it’s clear that in Iowa and New Hampshire he was up against the Democratic Party machine and lacked the experienced operators who might have saved the day. It was the party machine that pulled it out for Kerry, and once Kerry had got those two crucial victories, the overwhelming eagerness of Democratic voters to anoint an uncontested champion to go up against Bush carried him forward.

Across the last thirty years it’s hard to think of a Democratic candidate seemingly assured of his party’s nomination who has had less of a baptism of sewage in the primaries than Senator John Kerry. Normally a front-running candidate can expect a roughing up from his sparring partners. But Dean drew all the fire, with Clark as prime diversion and Kucinich as the small white hope of the progressive crowd. So Kerry’s dismal record has been allowed to remain in decorous seclusion.

Most Democrats consider Kerry’s record as irrelevant and view those with the bad taste to excavate it as active subverters of a righteous cause. But Karl Rove, Bush’s political commissar, will not be so polite.

Kerry reminds us of no one such as Mr. Facing-Both-Ways, in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Unlike Bush, who sensibly took a vacation from the perils of conflict in the National Guard, Kerry enlisted for combat in Vietnam and shuttled up and down the Mekong river commanding a Swift Boat, deployed for the sort of counter-insurgency missions that had Kerry’s former senatorial colleague, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, slitting the throats of Vietnamese villagers.

Kerry returned to the US, thrust himself forward as a leader of the antiwar movement, but made a point of distancing himself from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Like Clinton trying to figure out how to dodge the draft respectably, Kerry was zealous to preserve his political viability within the system. “The agenda of some of the folks within the veterans’ movement ultimately became confused and went way beyond trying to end the war,” Kerry later told the Boston Phoenix. “There was a lot of rhetoric about every social ill and evil there was.” The media got the point. Morley Safer of CBS applauded Kerry as “a veteran whose articulate call to reason rather than anarchy seemed to bridge the gap between Abbie Hoffman and Mr Agnew’s so-called Silent Majority.” From Abbie to Agnew, now there’s a leap!

Distaste for anarchy notwithstanding, when the VVAW forced a senate hearing on the war, Kerry pushed himself to the front to deliver the high-profile testimony before the tv cameras and, later, at a Vets’ demonstration at the White House similarly took advantage of the heavily covered event to join other vets in throwing war medals over the White House fence. The ones tossed by Kerry actually belonged to someone else, thus permitting the prudent Kerry to preserve his own for later proud display in his various offices and for their ultimate deployment as blazing reproaches to Bush.

Like many a political aspirant eager to buttress viability, Kerry the gap-bridger then became a prosecutor in Middlesex county, then lieutenant governor in 1982 in the regime of governor… well, you can search high and low on Kerry’s campaign bio but you will find it difficult to detect the name of Michael Dukakis. Kerry was elected to the US Senate in 1984.

In his first term Kerry ventured onto some interesting and politically perilous terrain, with hearings into the scandal-ridden CIA-linked bank BCCI, and into the arms-for-cocaine contra scandals in Central America. In the end he lost his nerve and the hearings ultimately floundered to an inconclusive close. It was the last spark of vigor in a senatorial career of singular blandness and timidity.

Already in the 1980s this supposed Massachusetts liberal (always an oversold species) supported the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act, a dagger in the heart of social programs. Kerry later renewed his commitment to the war on the poor by backing Clinton’s successful onslaught on aid to poor mothers and their children and more recently still, voting for the Bush tax cuts. In the Clinton years Kerry positioned himself as one questioning the efficacy of affirmative action.

When the Reagan administration launched the full might of US power against the island of Grenada (population, 80,000) in 1983 Kerry criticized this imperial excursion. These days, with his medals out of the closet, he says “I basically was supportive. I never publicly opposed it.”

With the first Gulf war at the start of the 1990s Kerry changed positions so rapidly his staff grew dizzy with the effort of keeping up with their boss’s gyrations. He finally voted against authorizing the war, but almost immediately issued a press release supporting the invasion. The 2003 war finds Kerry voting with the Bush administration, only to cast himself in the early primary season as an opponent.

Kerry voted for Clinton’s crime bill and for Clinton’s Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act which set the template for Bush’s Patriot Act, which Kerry, who now loses now opportunity to belittle the insipid John Ashcroft, also saw fit to support.

Kerry has indulged himself in some dutiful populist rhetoric against Big Oil, the drug companies, the HMOs and “the influence peddlers. Given his overall record, these burbles are not to be taken seriously, as anything beyond campaign insurance against the occasional populist talk of John Edwards, his sometime rival on the primary trail.

The Kerry campaign has the enduring benefit of the vast fortune of Mrs. Kerry, the former Teresa Heinz, the tumultuous child of Portuguese empire. Mrs. Kerry can use her inheritance to run issue ads. Her interest in environmental issues has been mostly expressed through her Heinz Foundation whose board until very recently was adorned by that hero of free-market enviros, Ken Lay of Enron.

The Heinz Foundation put Ken Lay in charge of their global-warming initiative. When Enron went belly up, the Foundation stuck by their man: “Whatever troubles he had at Enron, Ken Lay had a good reputation in the environmental community for being a business man who was environmentally sensitive. When someone does wrong in one past of their life, it doesn’t mean they can’t do good in another part of their life.”

It’s the kind of sublime indifference to the messy realities of politics and life that is now inspiring Democrats to rally behind Kerry, under the vacant banner, Anybody But Bush.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, where this article first appeared. They are editors of the recent book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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