Now that John Kerry is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, some Slate readers may unwisely be wondering if civic duty demands that they wade through Tour of Duty, Douglas Brinkley’s account of Kerry’s “Vietnam War odyssey.” “Even when he was an eleven-year-old boy, there was a feeling that John Forbes Kerry was touched with destiny,” Brinkley writes on Page 19. And even on Page 19, the reader has a feeling that this is going to be a long slog.
As a public service, here’s all you need to know.
On Kerry’s war heroism:
Flip to Page 148 for the first Purple Heart, Page 287 for the second Purple Heart, Pages 290-96 for the Silver Star, and Pages 303-18 for the Bronze Star and the third Purple Heart.
On Kerry and Kennedy:
Brinkley likes Kennedys. Brinkley likes Kerry. And he wants you to know that they share more than just initials—though he points that out, too. Here’s a small sampling of the Kerry-Kennedy comparisons:
Page 19: Kerry’s father, Richard Kerry, possessed “a fierce family belief, not unlike that which Joseph Kennedy imposed on his four sons, that the Kerry boys—John and Cameron—could accomplish any feat, no matter how difficult.”
Page 33: As a prep-school student at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., Kerry “was driven like a Kennedy.”
Page 35: In 1960, Kerry attends a Kennedy rally, which “heightened” the “natural bond he had felt with Kennedy.” The next day, Kerry portrays Kennedy during a mock presidential debate. In the subsequent election at St. Paul’s, Kennedy loses.
Page 36-37: As a high-school senior, Kerry dates Janet Auchincloss, Jackie Kennedy’s half-sister. He gets to go to the first lady’s childhood summer home, where he meets President Kennedy. Later, the 18-year-old Kerry watches the America’s Cup with the president and his entourage.
Page 40-41: Kerry yammers endlessly about Kennedy to uninterested Yale classmates. He and a fellow student, Harvey Bundy, watch President Kennedy speak to a rally. “Kennedy gave a political-hack speech,” Bundy says. “Kerry was all enthused about it; I wasn’t.”
Page 51: President Kennedy is assassinated. “As it did for so many Americans of his generation, John Kerry’s youth came to a cruel end on November 22, 1963.” Kerry weeps and watches TV news.
Page 62: Kerry speaks to his Yale graduating class, and even Brinkley gets tired of Kerry’s Kennedy fetish. “The address groaned, for example, with nods to John F. Kennedy’s call to public duty.” But despite the antiwar message of his address, “as a duty-bound Kennedyite, Kerry was now ready to serve his country.”
Page 65: Kerry enters Officer Candidate School. He no longer resembles “the Kennedyesque Yale debater he had been.” Instead, he becomes a Kennedyesque Navy man.
Page 102: Brinkley refers to Kerry as “John F. Kerry.” “Just as the shallow-draft wooden PT boat had appealed to John F. Kennedy, the shallow-draft aluminum PCF boat inspired John F. Kerry’s dreams of adventure twenty-five years later.”
Page 255: “Kerry did look vaguely like a lankier young John F. Kennedy, in his Navy khakis and thick-thatched officer’s haircut.”
Page 345: A Vietnam Veterans Against the War leader tells Kerry’s sister Peggy, “Whoa, man, whoa!! Your brother looks like Abe Lincoln and sounds like Jack Kennedy.”
Kerry’s reading habits:
Page 66: When he’s not being Kennedyesque, Kerry plows through books a Clintonesque rate. At Officer Candidate School in Newport, “While his barracks mates played cards and traded scuttlebutt, Kerry would often be off in a corner reading William Styron or John O’Hara.”
Page 145: “Only on occasion did Kerry opt to regroup via alcohol at the O Club; more often he used his time off to study history and to read recent bestsellers such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and John Hersey’s Under the Eye of the Storm.”
Page 209: Reads Cambodian history.
Page 238: Polishes off This Side of Paradise.
Page 348: During the “winter soldier investigation” in Detroit, Kerry “read Jonathan Schell’s The Village of Ben Suc (1967), a brutal account of how a Vietnamese community was destroyed by U.S. armed forces.”
Page 424: After losing a congressional race in ‘72, “Kerry read novels and built model airplanes and ships to distract himself from thinking about the immediate future. He also painted a little.”
The long face:
Page 65: Kerry on seeing himself with a crewcut: “God gave me a strange head shape, and baldness just doesn’t work.”
Page 54: Julia Thorne, who became Kerry’s first wife, nicknamed him “Pterodactyl” at Yale “because his long face made him look like a dinosaur.”
Page 166: Kerry’s radio-call sign in Vietnam was “Rock Jaw.”
Page 302: Bill Rood, another officer, called Kerry “Ichabod,” as in Crane.
This is John Kerry on drugs:
Page 69: “Kerry harbored a fundamental skepticism for the counterculture in general, and its enthusiasm for illicit drugs in particular.”
Page 267: The Doors were Kerry’s favorite band, “and he would blast ‘Light My Fire’ and ‘Love Me Two Times’ while patrolling the Delta rivers. … Kerry, however, never touched drugs in Vietnam. ‘I like the lyrical intensity of The Doors,’ he explained. ‘Morrison was a poet, in my opinion. The drug part didn’t interest me.’ ”
Page 407: After the war, Kerry decides to loosen up a little. “Occasionally during his travels around America in 1971, usually with either Julia or a fellow veteran, Kerry had smoked marijuana. … He never smoked pot while at Yale or in the Navy. But during his stint as a leader of VVAW, he occasionally indulged. ‘Yeah, I smoked pot when I came home from Vietnam,’ Kerry noted in a 2003 interview. ‘I didn’t mind getting high. I certainly enjoyed it. But I didn’t like the out-of-control component. I like being alert. So I tried it a few times, but I didn’t touch it after 1972.’ “
Page 32-33: “It was a hierarchical preppy kingdom with insiders and outsiders—Kerry was among the latter. At St. Paul’s unless you had a lot of money and wore the right clothes and had parents who belonged to the right clubs, you could be made to feel inadequate, born on the wrong side of the tracks. … Although Kerry’s peripatetic father had a 52-foot-long sailboat, for example, the patrician parents of dozens of other classmates had yachts. … His life would have been simpler, in fact, if he had been an African American from Atlanta or an Okie from Tulsa. Such clear anomalies at St. Paul’s would have been accepted as legitimate outsiders, intelligent flukes of nature trying against ungodly odds to join the Eastern establishment.”
Page 63: “As a child of considerable privilege, he could certainly have gone for the easy out, be it joining the National Guard, getting married, or asking a well-placed family friend to finagle him a draft deferment.”
Page 106: At the Naval Training Center in San Diego, “Kerry opted to rent an apartment in Mission Beach, so he could grab his surfboard and run out to catch the waves rolling in whenever the mood struck him, unencumbered by military-housing regulations.”
Rich Kerry, Poor Kerry:
Page 95: “John Kerry honestly fancied himself more as a liaison between the establishment and the have-nots than as a true member of either. … He had felt the hurt of pecking orders and social stratification.”
Page 33-34: Nearly everyone in Tour of Duty finds Kerry to be a charming, likable, thoughtful, and serious young man. The ones that don’t are jealous. “It was at a St. Paul’s School that a cult of envy emerged toward Kerry, one that would follow him throughout his entire political career. The sentiment was that anyone who excelled at anything he tried had to be a phony.”
OK, so he was a little pompous:
Page 31: “He was only eighteen years old and he knew just about everything about politics, particularly civil rights,” says Danny Barbiero, a fellow St. Paul’s student and a lifelong Kerry friend. “That annoyed some people, no doubt about it.”
Page 244: Before a particularly dangerous raid in Vietnam, Kerry in his journal “noted for posterity that in fact he felt optimistic, in the same sense that a young Winston Churchill did when he fought with Britain’s Malakand Field Force in what is now northern Pakistan: ‘Bullets—to a philosopher, my dear Mama—are not worth considering. Besides, I am so conceited I do not believe the gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.’ “
Or even aloof:
Page 299-300: Larry Thurlow, a Swift boat captain from Garden City, Kan.: “John was sharp as a tack. … But he came from a background most of us couldn’t understand. … And he was both distant and foolhardy.”
Page 157: James Wasser, one of the men on Kerry’s boat, concedes: “Some people were suspicious of him because he would talk to himself into a tape recorder.”