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Kerry & Edwards: The Right Stuff on the Write Stuff

Nancy Sundstrom - August 5th, 2004
In early July, as something of a primer for last week’s viewings of the Democratic National Convention, I finally got around to reading two books that had been on my nightstand for the past few months: “Four Trials” by John Edwards and “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.”
Though the former is a biography and the latter an autobiography, both had been recommended as a means to learn more about two of the frontrunners for the nomination of President for the Democratic Party. As we know, the pair ended up on the ballot together.
These two books, released in early 2004, are interesting not only in terms of effective personality profiles that give the reader insight into private men in the public eye. They also concentrate on two very distinct chapters in each one’s life that played a key role in preparing them for public service and, potentially, to be elected as the next Vice-President and President of the United States, respectively.

Four Trials by John Edwards
Before being elected in 1998 to the North Carolina Senate, Edwards worked as a lawyer for two decades. He was a small- town boy who toiled in local mills before putting himself through school and going on to become a highly successful and respected attorney. He earned a national reputation for taking on cases for people “whose lives had been shattered by corporate recklessness and grievous medical negligence.” Some, in fact, were landmark cases with results achieved over what seemed to be overwhelming odds.
“Four Trials” is about exactly that – four major battles Edwards waged where victory seemed slim, mainly because his opponents were backed by the kinds of powerful financial and corporate interests that seem intimidating and undefeatable to many, including his clients. Edwards learned much – personally and professionally - from each one of these cases, and he came to see juries as a “microcosm of democracy,” as he explains here:

“It was in the courtroom that I learned how, when you build a case, every detail matters and every bit counts. And I learned that you can never for a moment forget the big picture or the broad ambitions of justice... I came to genuinely understand how smart and decent all kinds of regular people are -- even at the worst moments in their lives. And I learned how our great system can often discount the hardships and genuine suffering of such people -- and how it can sometimes seem to forget their struggle almost completely.”

At its best, “Four Trials” reads like a good Grisham thriller, though when it veers from the heart of the tome, which are the engaging portraits he sketches of his clients, and gets into the crusading, legal eagle, man of the people thing, it sometimes feels a bit pedantic. The cases, however, are moving stories of people who have been wronged and choose to fight back with courage and decency. It is their tale as much as it is the author’s, and as that, it’s a great testament to the spirit of what’s right about our country.

Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War by Douglas Brinkley
Acclaimed historian Brinkley spans more than four decades to deliver this exhaustively-detailed saga of John Kerry’s trek from war to peacetime. The thumbnail sketch of Kerry’s naval career goes as follows. Kerry enlisted in the Navy in February 1966, months before he graduated from Yale, and in 1967, he was assigned to the frigate U.S.S. Gridley in the Pacific. After a brief stop in Vietnam, he returned to the United States and learned to command a Swift boat, a small craft used in Vietnam’s rivers. He earned more promotions, more tours and more Swift boat commands. Along the way, he won the Purple Heart three times and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Navy’s Silver Star for gallantry in action.
To make this as full-scale an account as possible, Brinkley conducted extensive interviews with virtually everyone who knew Kerry well in Vietnam, including all the men still living who served under him. The subject also gave the author access to a never-before published cache of treasured letters he sent home to America and to his voluminous “War Notes,” which were journals, notebooks and other reminiscences written during and after the war.
The following is a brief sample from a letter home, which not only reveals Kerry to be a writer with a knack for turn of phrase, but shows a growing questioning of the conflict with which he was engaged:

“Every so often, there would be an open field where there were a few huts and people working in it with their pant trousers rolled up and their large hats covering up expressionless faces. How could these people really believe we are helping them? It seemed so utterly crazy -- the idea of all this modern equipment fighting for an ideal that meant nothing to those whom the fighting was supposed to be for... I can’t help getting the feeling that their faces seemed to say, ‘Go away and let us alone.’”

When Kerry returned home for good from Vietnam, he joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and became an antiwar spokesperson, something that has become a point of controversy for some. He challenged the Nixon administration on Capitol Hill, and when his profile and public popularity grew circa spring 1971, the FBI considered him a subversive. Brinkley even shows how White House aides Charles Colson and H. R. Haldeman tried to discredit Kerry, something that ironically spurred him on to running for public office and eventually becoming a senator in Massachusetts.
When President Clinton officially recognized Vietnam in 1995, the author says that Kerry’s three-decade-long tour of duty finally ended. It is apparent, though, that while you can take the man out of Vietnam, you can not take Vietnam out of the man. As others have pointed out, Americans are again dying in a controversial war halfway around the world, and words Kerry posed to a Congressional panel 30 years ago feel even more relevant now: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Brinkley’s account is well-written and documented, and should Kerry become our next President, it will certainly stand as a definitive work on a crucial part of his life. If he doesn’t, the work still stands on its own merit as a chronicle of war, and how it impacted a man many believe has the right stuff to hold the highest office in the land.
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