Ballot Box

The Worst of John Kerry

A troubling tale from his past. Is it true?

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, and claims to fame. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his worst. Here’s the one told by critics of John Kerry—and what they leave out.

Charge: “Kerry, who understood well the importance that the media placed on imagery, put an exclamation mark on [a 1971 anti-Vietnam protest] by lining up with veterans to return their medals to the military on April 23. Kerry said he suggested that veterans place their medals and ribbons on a table and return them. But he said other members of the antiwar veterans group wanted to throw the medals and ribbons over a fence in front of the Capitol, and Kerry went along with the idea. … Some press reports say that Kerry ‘threw his medals.’ But Kerry has long maintained he threw his own ribbons but someone else’s medals. In an interview, he said that he had previously met two veterans … who had asked Kerry to return their medals to the military. Kerry said he stuffed them into his jacket. He said that when he prepared to throw his ribbons over the fence, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the medals from those two veterans. He said his own medals remained in safekeeping” (Boston Globe, June 17, 2003).

“[Massachusetts] Republican State Committee Chairman Andres S. Natsios … accused Kerry of ‘duplicity’ in tossing away another veteran’s medals, rather than his own” (Washington Post, Oct. 24, 1984).

Defense: In December 2002, The New Yorker reported that “Kerry had never implied” the medals he threw were his. “Indeed, the protesters that day had tossed all sorts of things—dog tags, photographs, discharge papers, insignia.” Kerry’s only mistake was that “he had complicated the story with an excess of honesty, recalling that he’d also tossed several medals that had been given him by veterans who were unable to make the trip.”

In 1984, the Post reported that Kerry said “he had disagreed with the decision to throw away medals but agreed to toss those of another veteran at the man’s request.” In 1985, Kerry told the Post, “It’s such a personal thing. They’re my medals. I’ll do what I want with them. … People say, ‘You didn’t throw your medals away.’ Who said I had to? And why should I? It’s my business. I did not want to throw my medals away.”

In sum, Kerry seems innocent of duplicity but guilty of an extremely nuanced moral code, according to which it’s OK to throw away your ribbons and somebody else’s medals, but not your medals. As to the broader question of Vietnam, there’s no dispute that Kerry fought honorably in the war and spoke out clearly against it upon his return.