Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Only a few short weeks ago John Kerry was enjoying the temperate climate and familiar old stones of his native Boston. But now, as if in a Twilight Zone nightmare, he finds himself stumbling about, half lost in the steamy jungles of the Mekong Delta. It’s 1968 again, or is it 1969?

The Doors blasts from the radio: “This is the end, beautiful friend, This is the end My only friend, the end.” He wakes up: “Saigon, damn. I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing … I hardly said a word to my wife until I said yes to a divorce. When I was here I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” (opening voice over of Martin Sheen’s character Capt. Willard from “Apocalypse Now”)

“On more than one occasion, I, like Martin Sheen in ‘Apocalypse Now’ took my patrol boat into Cambodia. In fact, I remember spending Christmas Eve 1968 five miles across the Cambodia border being shot at by our South Vietnamese Allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. But nowhere in ‘Apocalypse Now’ did I sense that kind of absurdity.” (Sen. John Kerry, Congressional Record, March 27, 1986)

He is either in Cambodia or somewhere damn near. He is either exchanging fire with the Khmer Rouge — which would make it no earlier than 1972. Or it’s 1968, and he is being shot at by drunken South Vietnamese soldiers celebrating Christmas Eve (a fine old Buddhist holiday). He was either there inadvertently without orders or on special assignment dropping CIA agents and SEALs behind enemy lines.

Last week the Kerry campaign released a statement asserting: “During John Kerry’s service in Vietnam, many times he was on or near the Cambodian border and on one occasion crossed into Cambodia at the request of members of a special operations group operating out of Ha Tien. Mr. Kerry’s was not the only United States riverboat to respond and inadvertently or responsibly cross the border.” In any event, he was, as his campaign spokesman said last week, somewhere on the Mekong River, which separates Cambodia from Vietnam. Except that the Mekong does not separate those two countries; it crosses perpendicular to their border.

Then it was announced in the London Daily Telegraph by Douglas Brinkley — Mr. Kerry’s biographer, confidante and enabler — that Mr. Kerry was mistaken about being in Cambodia in Christmas of 1968, but “Kerry went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions. He had a run dropping off U.S. Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA guys.” The missions were not armed attacks on Cambodia, Mr. Brinkley informed the newspaper, and he had not included these secret missions in his biography of John Kerry. “He was a ferry master, a drop off guy, but it was dangerous as hell.”

Sort of like the patrol boat captain who took Capt. Willard on a mission to “proceed up the Nung River in a Navy Patrol boat. Pick up Col. Kurtz’s path, and terminate the colonel with extreme prejudice. You understand Captain that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.” (Col. Lucas in “Apocalypse Now”)

Did John Kerry’s mission ever exist? Was it known only to the CIA and God — or not even to them? Is John Kerry dreaming of being Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard in “Apocalypse Now” or Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett in “West Wing”? That is the thing about dreams: They merge and twist and generally lack linear reality.

It may now be dawning on John Kerry that he is living out Col. Kurtz’s Cambodian nightmare: “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor and surviving.” So far, John Kerry continues to slither and survive.

But the American political jungle is every bit as disorienting and suddenly lethal as the one he emerged from 30 years ago. John Kerry’s tangled memory and war braggadocio have been mismanaged by him and his campaign team. They have given too many inconsistent answers, thus forcing the hand of major media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, Knight-Ridder and the Boston Globe to start reporting the story.

Even self-admitted Kerry supporter Joan Vennochi wrote in her Boston Globe column this week: “Kerry’s statements about Cambodia do have traction for opponents. [His spokesmen’s] answer aren’t good enough. He should answer every question voters have about it — and he should answer himself.”

I love the smell of political lies in the morning. The smell, you know … smells like … defeat.

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