Last night I watched C-SPAN’s broadcast of John Kerry and John O’Neill on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. Both O’Neill and Kerry came across as very sharp, very good debaters. Both scored rhetorical points. O’Neill was effective at putting Kerry on the spot about his generalizations about U.S. soldiers committing war atrocities. Kerry was smoother, more polished, more confident, and on some occasions was able to use his confidence to make O’Neill look like he was pushing too hard. (Nice trick.)
I was struck by the substantive differences between Kerry and O’Neill’s worldviews, and by the extent to which their respective arguments have held up since. O’Neill cautioned that precipitate withdrawal of American forces and support from South Vietnam could lead to a bloodbath — a suggestion that Kerry scoffed at. The passage of time reveals that O’Neill was prescient and Kerry was naive.
Kerry also seemed confident that the Vietnamese communists could be counted on to negotiate in good faith about the return of U.S. prisoners. Again, Kerry looks naive from the vantage of history. And he seemed to miss the big picture: that South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — imperfect but relatively open societies — were under attack by communist imperialists determined to impose totalitarian rule. Where O’Neill was leery of handing victories to our enemies, Kerry talked as though he believed the communists would stop bothering everyone if only the United States would withdraw from the region, and if only the South Vietnamese government would take some civics lessons. In Kerry’s view it seemed to be all about us. Needless to say, the 1970s and 1980s, with Vietnamese boat people, the horrors of reeducation camps and the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, the communist expansion into Africa and Central America, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the failure of “detente” in U.S.-USSR relations, were not kind to Kerry’s view.
I don’t know what O’Neill’s like now, but my impression of Kerry is that his worldview hasn’t changed significantly since 1971. He still sounds like that old broken record from the Dick Cavett Show — confidently posturing, making sweeping negative generalizations about the U.S., assuming good motives of other countries, avoiding specifics, and trying to be on both sides of an issue when someone calls him on one of his generalizations. This kind of behavior may be tolerable in a debate, where all that matters is scoring points, but a president has to be able to understand the big picture and make decisions. Kerry didn’t, and still doesn’t, appear able to do that.
UPDATE: Jim Miller has related thoughts.