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William Rivers Pitt: Introducing John Kerry

Introducing John Kerry

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 30 September 2004


Everyone knows John Kerry by now, right?

He's the tall guy who went to Vietnam and then wounded himself three times to get his medals, while simultaneously conning the bureaucracy of the Navy into giving him citations for valor. Or he's the guy who volunteered for Vietnam, and then volunteered for Swift Boat duty, and then was wounded three times while serving with distinction. He's the guy who opposed the war upon his return and thus became a traitor, or he's the guy who opposed the war upon his return and thus became a hero.

The John Kerry people know is a fellow of wealth and privilege, a rich man who married richer, a silver-spoon type of guy who lives in the most expensive neighborhood in Boston when not gallivanting from one townhouse to another. The John Kerry people know is a Forbes, and a Winthrop. The John Kerry people know isn't all that trustworthy because of his wealth, because despite notions to the contrary, we are still a society based upon class struggle. It is an article of faith among the 90% of Americans who aren't rich that those with money aren't to be trusted. That this same measure of distrust isn't extended to George W. Bush is a triumph of 'regular fella' marketing.

That is the Kerry people know, or think they know, thanks to this brainless campaign season. This is the Kerry created by commercials, by inane debate on the national cable news channels, by reporters who believe the shortest way to the truth is a straight line in the other direction.

There is another John Kerry to whom America deserves to be introduced.

The story of any person begins with their parents. John Kerry was born to Richard Kerry and Rosemary Forbes, who met in Paris just before the war. Richard Kerry, marked early in life by the suicide of his father and the death from polio of his sister Mildred, became a student of the law who eventually distinguished himself in the Foreign Service during the Eisenhower years. Rosemary, despite her Forbes and Winthrop heritage, was not spared her own deep trials. When the Nazis invaded Paris, Rosemary had to flee the city on a bicycle. She spent weeks foraging for food, hiding in barns and cellars, avoiding German soldiers and falling bombs, until she finally reached Lisbon and boarded a ship bound for Boston.

How do the ordeals of parents affect the fate of the child? Because of his father's government service, John Kerry saw the world, and came to know the art of diplomacy. He learned very young that there is much beyond the borders of America to value. His time abroad with his father shattered the quiet xenophobic tendencies many Americans get with mother's milk.

Because of his mother's narrow escape from the Nazi armies, John Kerry learned that there is indeed evil in the world which no amount of money or privilege can deflect. Living in post-war Berlin during one of his father's diplomatic postings, Kerry saw the bombed-out buildings, the refugees who were everywhere, and the tens of thousands of people who left everything behind to flee the Soviet sector. Kerry learned that such evil must be confronted. In the experiences of his parents, John Kerry developed the nuanced, intricate and informed view of the wider world that has since defined his life.

Of course, he came from privilege. Educated at the exclusive Fessenden School, and then at the super-exclusive St. Paul's School, and then at Yale University, Kerry was surrounded by the scions of wealthy families and was afforded an education available to only the richest few. In order to fit in with his fellow students, Kerry should have adopted the attitude of world-weary condescension, of laid-back expectancy, which marked children of the wealthy Eastern Establishment in that time and place.

He didn't. Inspired by teachers like Reverend John Walker, who taught those privileged children at St. Paul's about the realities of race in America, and later by President John Kennedy, whose call to service motivated millions, and always by his father Richard, who taught by word and example that service to country is the highest calling, John Kerry became a man of action and of ambition. Here was no callow youth marking time until his family's money became his money. Kerry became active in politics, and augured his life towards government work.

John Kerry served in the Navy from 1966 to 1970, volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, and earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts, two Presidential Unit Citations and a National Defense Medal. Upon his return from the war, he became centrally involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, helped to create Vietnam Veterans of America, and brought the realities of Vietnam into living rooms all across America. He served as a prosecutor in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, beginning in 1976. From 1977 to 1982 he served as First Assistant District Attorney, during which time he successfully battled organized crime, prosecuted and jailed the number two crime boss in New England, fought for victims' rights, and organized rape counseling programs.

From 1983 to 1985, John Kerry served as Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor, and transformed what had been a symbolic position to one with muscle. He organized Governors all across the country to combat a new and disturbing reality - acid rain caused by industrial pollution that was destroying lakes, rivers and the country's water supply. This activity began what has since become a lifetime of activism to protect our environment, a lifetime of activism that has made John Kerry perhaps the most effective fighter for environmental protection in American government.

In 1985, John Kerry was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he has served for the last 19 years. Coming into the Massachusetts delegation under the long shadow of Edward Kennedy, who had already cornered the hail-fellow-well-met market of Massachusetts retail politics, Kerry worked to the strengths he had inherited from his parents and became a master of national and foreign policy issues. It would take a great deal of ink to detail the committees he served on, the legislation he shepherded into passage, the arguments he championed and the policies he pushed.

The best illustration of the man Senator John Kerry became, the man we now see standing for President, came when he decided to wage war against one of the most far-reaching and dangerous criminal enterprises ever seen in the world. In 1988, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI, was a highly respected international financial institution which catered to the most powerful of the powerful. BCCI had allies all through Washington D.C. and across the world.

The public reality of BCCI changed completely when John Kerry, fresh from his lead role investigating the Iran/Contra scandal, was tasked to run down Iran/Contra drug connections as chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations. Very soon, Kerry discovered damning BCCI connections not only to Noriega and the laundering of drug money, but to a massive international network of dirty cash moving to and from the most dangerous people in the world.

Immediately, Kerry met with opposition from power-players in Washington. Everyone - literally everyone, from both parties, including President George H.W. Bush, whose son George W. had enjoyed BCCI financing for one of his doomed oil businesses - pressured Kerry to back off. Instead, Kerry took the information he had gathered and gave it to New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Morgenthau agreed to begin a criminal investigation into BCCI. By 1991, the investigation had blown up what Morgenthau described at the time as "one of the biggest criminal enterprises in world history."

Journalists David Sirota and Jonathan Baskin, writing for Washington Monthly, published an article titled 'Follow the Money', which chronicled Kerry's work against BCCI. In their article, Sirota and Baskin state, "As Kerry's subcommittee discovered, BCCI catered to many of the most notorious tyrants and thugs of the late 20th century, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the heads of the Medellin cocaine cartel, and Abu Nidal, the notorious Palestinian terrorist. According to the CIA, it also did business with those who went on to lead al Qaeda. And BCCI went beyond merely offering financial assistance to dictators and terrorists: According to Time, the operation itself was an elaborate fraud, replete with a 'global intelligence operation and a Mafia-like enforcement squad.'"

"By July 1991," continued Sirota and Baskin in their article, "Kerry's work paid off. That month, British and U.S. regulators finally responded to the evidence provided by Kerry, Morgenthau, and a concurrent investigation by the Federal Reserve. BCCI was shut down in seven countries, restricted in dozens more, and served indictments for grand larceny, bribery, and money laundering. A decade after Kerry helped shut the bank down, the CIA discovered Osama bin Laden was among those with accounts at the bank. A French intelligence report obtained by The Washington Post in 2002 identified dozens of companies and individuals who were involved with BCCI and were found to be dealing with bin Laden after the bank collapsed, and that the financial network operated by bin Laden today 'is similar to the network put in place in the 1980s by BCCI.' As one senior U.S. investigator said in 2002, 'BCCI was the mother and father of terrorist financing operations.'"

Here is a man who came from a level of privilege most Americans have never known. He could have become what so many children from the upper echelons of money and power become - callow, shallow, lazy, biding his time until he got everything he thought his position granted him, leaning on powerful family friends to make up for the shortcomings that arise from an idle life and the sense that the world owes him whatever he desires, believing that making money and enjoying position are the alpha and omega of life.

John Kerry went in the opposite direction. He was raised to believe that privilege has its duties, that public service is the alpha and omega of life, and has worked every day to fulfill the obligations his parents and his education and his own deeply-held beliefs instilled in him. In his fight against BCCI, he revealed himself to be a man of great purpose, of mission, who refused to bow before the altars of status quo and go-along-to-get-along that are all too worshipped in Washington.

A life of service and study crafted a man of depth, of intelligence, who can see all the sides of any issue and incorporates all available data before making a decision. The opponents he has faced and defeated throughout his career have enjoyed painting him as vacillating, as indecisive, as a man who holds several positions at once in order to cover his political backside. In truth, these incomplete views on John Kerry are born from a modern political landscape that cannot fathom a man who is judicious, contemplative and thorough, because such attributes have been all too absent from our political discourse.

Judicious, contemplative and thorough. In a dangerous world, made vastly more dangerous by politicians who think in violent black and white because simplicity polls better and fits into soundbites, a man like John Kerry may seem out of place. He is, in fact, in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.


Author's Note | This article is dedicated to my father, who was born in a small Southern river town, who heard Kennedy's call, who volunteered for Vietnam, who returned to spend his entire professional life as a public servant in a variety of government positions. He was not born into the same privilege as John Kerry, but the fact that their lives have followed incredibly similar tracks speak volumes on the character of each man.


William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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