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Election 2004: John Kerry


By Mark London Williams
One of the more interesting charges made against John Kerry in Iowa as he was working to pull off his upset win, was that he tried to hide an upper class background—this Massachusetts native is descended from Puritan John Winthrop and once dated a half-sister of Jackie Kennedy. Indeed, his admiration for things Kennedy propelled him, in his youth, to spending a little social time with the Camelot clan in the early ’60s heyday of their political ascendancy.
And—on the elitist charge —Kerry was not only a Yalie, but a member of the secret “Skull-and-Bones” society, which also produced not only the current White House occupant, but his father, as well. But unlike the current inhabitant of the Oval Office, when it came to face the question of serving in Vietnam, Kerry promptly signed up for the Navy upon college graduation —where he was wounded, and won several medals. No “AWOL National Guard” stint for him.
Kerry’s time in Vietnam morphed a vague political stance on that war to public condemnation as one of the leaders of Vietnam Veterans against the War. From there, he switched eventually from activist politics to the electoral kind, and after a failed run for congress, eventually captured statewide office in Massachusetts, and in 1984, the U.S. Senate seat he holds today.
The background is important, because as the Democratic frontrunner du jour, an eventual “story” about him will be agreed to in the mainstream press—see “Al Gore is a fibber” and “Howard Dean is angry”—and the question then is not whether Kerry’s an elitist (so’s the current President, who’s been allowed to pass himself off as some kind of folksy Texan) but whether he’s willing to look at all sides of an issue, change when he has to, and make the best possible decision. That used to be desirable in leaders.
Below the Line readers may hope that Kerry, as a potential nominee or President, might change his mind about NAFTA, for example; Kerry is a staunch free-trader when it comes to global economic issues. But he also maintains—as do most of the Democratic candidates—that environmental and labor safeguards need to be built in to such agreements. Would he follow through as President?
Union members in Iowa found something they liked about Kerry on the stump; more Union household votes went to Kerry, and North Carolina Senator John Edwards, than to heavily union-endorsed candidates Richard Gephardt and Howard Dean.
But then again, “impressions” may play a bigger role in this campaign than specific issues. Bush won—though the word must be used advisedly—last time by giving the impression that he was a reasonable, moderate man. Democratic voters in Iowa and the early primaries may be marking their ballots not based on Kerry’s NAFTA vote, or even his vote to authorize Bush’s war in Iraq (Kerry now says he was misled), but rather, because of the sense that Kerry could win a general election.
This gets us full circle to Vietnam. Kerry has bona fide war veteran credentials, while Bush does not. In a year where Republicans give every indication they will demagogue the national security/terrorism issues as much as they possibly can, Kerry can neutralize the “national security” hot button by speaking authentically of his experiences in war.
So rank-and-file union voters are perhaps willing to be a little flexible about a NAFTA vote in order to get somebody elected to the White House, somebody who can say that the GOP attempt “to take away overtime pay is to destroy many individuals’ ability…to make ends meet, to pay the mortgage, send the kids to school…be able to live a decent life. And it is to dumb down, push down, squeeze down the quality of life in America.”
John Kerry said that in a radio interview last summer. The AFL-CIO’s International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed him early on, but other unions—burned by the Iowa showings of Gephardt and Dean—are expected to wait until a nominee becomes obvious, before taking the endorsement plunge again.
And depending how he fares in the next few rounds of primaries, this Skull-and-Bones man may be labor’s eventual choice. Because, labor’s reasoning will go, at least he is our Skull-and-Bones man.

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