"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Monday, February 23, 2004

Vietnam War hero's platform lacks detail

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America

By John Kerry

Viking, 202 pp, 24.95 dollars

Written as a campaign book by the four-term senator from Massachusetts, A Call to Service is unlikely to win any awards for the quality of its prose. Simply put, this book is a short but dull read that seems to be compiled from fleshed-out campaign speeches. Imagine a 200-page campaign leaflet without any gaudy photos or distracting colors.

While it might be naive to assume that John Kerry's incessant mentions of his Vietnam service have nothing to do with comparing his impressive record (four years of combat duty, one of them commanding a 50-foot river patrol boat, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with combat V and three Purple Hearts) to the somewhat dubious wartime record of his Republican rival, it is clear from reading A Call to Service that Kerry's war service and subsequent time as a leader in the antiwar movement were the defining experiences of his life.

Those hoping to read the nitty-gritty details of Kerry's Vietnam exploits will be disappointed as the author only alludes, albeit often, to his adventures there. Policy wonks seeking a chance to examine the senator's proposals on education, health care, environmental protection, energy, defense and the economy also will come away virtually empty-handed. The second most frequently used phrase in the book--after "When I was in the Navy in Vietnam"--seems to be "While the proposal is too detailed to explain, let me give you the basics."

This is paraphrasing of course, but Kerry seems to start every explanation of his presidential platform by telling the reader that the proposal is very detailed and has been carefully worked out, but that we don't really need to know the details, just what the result will be.

On the surface, the proposals contained in A Call to Service seem reasonably progressive: increased funding for education while ensuring schools remain accountable, a return to legislation and budgeting to provide for the general welfare of the nation as opposed to aiding special interests, tying international trade treaties to human rights and environmental protection, and making the U.S. federal government's employee health insurance system accessible to uninsured citizens. The lack of nuts and bolts details provided is a little frustrating and makes it harder for Kerry to prove such policies are viable.

As mentioned earlier, Kerry constantly alludes to his service in Vietnam, but rarely dwells on it and never attempts to make it the basis for his credibility. It is simply that his service seems to be the crystal through which he views his life since then. Kerry says "when I was in Vietnam" much the way a newly arrived expatriate is apt to start sentences with a phrase like "back home" or a recent graduate might say "when I was in college."

An interesting aspect of the book is the number of times he stresses his personal friendship and good working relationship with former Republican presidential candidate and fellow Vietnam veteran, Arizona Sen. John McCain. The introduction to the book is such a ringing endorsement of McCain that it seems to belong at the front of McCain's Faith of Our Fathers instead of Kerry's campaign manifesto.

Such a lack of real substance is sadly typical of most campaign books, which seek to present an attractive picture of the candidate without providing too much detailed policy for opponents to attack. In this regard the book, like the candidate, is standard Washington issue.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun

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