BOSTON – It wasn’t a main event in front of thousands on the convention floor. It was a small function orchestrated for the press, of whom little more than a handful showed up. And the story wasn’t so much in what the participants said but how they said it, uncorking genuine feelings that trumped the prosaic platitudes far more often heard this week.
The seven fellow swift boat members who served with then-Lt. John Kerry in Vietnam and spoke on his behalf Thursday played their role well as a workingman’s counterpart to seven ranking generals who endorsed the candidate on the main stage the day before. In their remembrances, six crewmen and a commander recalled the young lieutenant whose dering-do has been repeated ad nauseum in the party brass’s attempted remake of PT-109.
But some things can’t be staged, and when the Navy men were asked about the veracity of Kerry’s exploits leading to his medals, the severity of his wounds, and whether Kerry participated in re-enacting war footage after real firefights so he could capitalize off it in the unforeseeable future – such as its inclusion in the Steven Spielberg-produced biographical short screened in the 17,565-seat FleetCenter last night – their emotions turned raw.
"We never had time for that garbage," said Drew Whitlow, a crewmember aboard Kerry’s swift boat. "We flat out did not have time to be a John Wayne, producing down the Mekong River."
The movie flap is the latest reincarnation of a 1996 story written by Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott and replayed front-and-center by Republicans in the current campaign. In it, Sennott describes watching home movies with the senator and quotes longtime Kerry friend and fellow veteran Thomas Vallely saying, "John was thinking Camelot when he shot that film."
Yet the men who were on the jungle waters with him insist there were no theatrics.
"We didn’t have time to play with cameras during a firefight. There was nothing staged," crewman Del Sandusky said angrily. "If he took some movies it was on a peaceful mission."
Fellow swift boat commander Wade Sanders choked back tears as he described their unheralded return to America, shortly after which Kerry began mobilizing against the war.
"We kept an awful lot of stuff inside. We dealt with our own demons," he said.
Of the veterans’ decision to aid Kerry’s campaign, he added, "We didn’t come here to celebrate. We came here to back up a friend."
John Herily, the campaign’s veterans coordinator, fought off similar self-perpetuating notions that hold Kerry was actually only slightly hurt in battle and didn’t deserve the three Purple Hearts and Silver Star he received.
"If they want to compare John Kerry’s record to George Bush’s record, we’ll take it any day of the week," he said, offering an unapologetic about-face from the presidential campaigns of 1992 and 1996, when Bill Clinton faced World War II heroes George Bush the First and Bob Dole.
Herily also pointed to veterans in every state as testament of the honor of Kerry’s service, though obviously George Bush too could find 50 souls to satisfy that quota.
The crewmates’ talk was brief, getting none of the worldwide attention that Kerry’s own words would command a few hours later. And whatever Kerry did a half a world away more than three decades ago probably says little how he will guide the world's more powerful military machine in a era where the rules are made by machete-weilding terrorists.
But in hundreds of mentions of the name John Kerry in dozens of speeches for four days straight, seven men exhibited strong and, from all appearances, sincere emotion toward the candidate who for many is good enough just to be anybody but Bush. Maybe they didn’t stick to their script, but for the sake of their friend and comrade, and perhaps all of us should he become the most powerful man on earth, thank God they did not.
Robin Washington is the News Tribune’s editorial page editor.