The Terrible Wages of War: The Search for Answers in Bob Kerrey's Past Points Up the Moral Ambiguities of Vietnam

Article excerpt

It was early 1992, and I was covering Bob Kerrey's presidential campaign in New Hampshire. At a local high school, someone passed me a fax of a breaking news story about Gov. Bill Clinton's letter thanking a colonel for "saving me from the draft." This should have been a political godsend for Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL who lost part of his leg in combat and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (only 15 were awarded by the Navy during the Vietnam War). I was hardly alone in thinking that Clinton would melt and Kerrey would now surge, possibly to the presidency.

We were wrong. For the rest of the week Kerrey--not a terribly polished candidate that year anyway--completely lost his mojo, wandering aimlessly through his stump speech as if he, not Clinton, had been hit by a two-by-four. Clinton, under great strain but looking relaxed, easily outperformed a jittery Kerrey at a joint appearance on health care, and the press took note of Clinton's grit under pressure. In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to whether Kerrey could handle Vietnam. As Mike McCurry, then a Kerrey aide, remembers, "Every time the subject came up that year, he was ambivalent and uncomfortable. There was always a missing piece to the story."

In 1998, as Kerrey was considering whether to run for president in 2000, Gregory Vistica, then of NEWSWEEK, found out what was haunting him. Kerrey acknowledged to the magazine that his unit had, to his horror, accidentally killed civilians during a 1969 mission in the Mekong Delta. But he adamantly denied the far more sensational account of one of his men, Gerhard Klann, that unarmed women and children had been shot at point-blank range. The other SEALs who would talk sided with Kerrey, but the truth was--and is--elusive.

Many journalists are now arguing that NEWSWEEK should have published the story as soon as we learned of it. (Anecdotal public reaction, which reflects the view that Kerrey is being hounded, is quite the opposite, paralleling the split during the war.) It was a close, difficult judgment call, and it took two years for Vistica to fully develop the story that was published. If it had run in 1998, effectively blowing Kerrey out of the race, the national coverage would have revolved around the shallow cliches of politics: Should Kerrey's career be ruined over a "gotcha" story three decades old? How did the senator "handle" it? What did the "fallout" mean for Al Gore? Three years later the story is still inconclusive. But at least now the focus is where it should be--on the realities of war, particularly the Vietnam War.

The story that ultimately ran in The New York Times Magazine is sad to read, and Kerrey's press conference was painful. But it's important for the country to return every few years to the madness of that conflict. …