Kerry’s Medals: The Photograph

We’ve seen it, but we can’t show it.

Two months ago, there was a dustup about whether John Kerry changed his story concerning the famous incident in which he threw some of his military ribbons, along with some medals that, Kerry says, belonged to others, over a fence at the United States Capitol during an anti-Vietnam protest in 1971. The Republican National Committee dug up a 1971 interview in which Kerry seemed to be suggesting that he’d thrown his medals over the fence, although the person who used the word “medals” in connection with Kerry’s actions wasn’t Kerry, but his interviewer.

The medals episode has drawn interest not because it may show that Kerry lied, but because it nicely encapsulates Kerry’s conflicting Vietnam imperatives. On his left flank, Kerry seeks to dispel any notion that his antiwar gesture was counterfeit. On his right flank, Kerry seeks to dispel any notion that his antiwar gesture wasn’t counterfeit. Kerry has refused to clear any of this up by showing the media what medals he possesses today. “They’re private,” he told NBC News.

Hoping to pierce this veil of ambiguity, reporters and photo editors across the land have combed the archives to find a photograph showing Kerry actually pitching the stuff over the fence. Alas, to no avail. But now, Chatterbox is pleased to report, such a photo has been found. It was spotted this past weekend in Chicago by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who was attending BookExpoAmerica. Happening by a booth for Bulfinch Press, Weisberg noticed a preliminary galley of John Kerry: A Portrait, a book of photographs taken by George Butler, an old Kerry friend and former press secretary who is also preparing a documentary about Kerry’s Vietnam service. (Butler is best known for making Pumping Iron, the 1977 documentary that helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood career.) Butler’s book is due out in September. Flipping through the galleys, Weisberg saw the fateful photograph.

It was black and white, and grainy. It showed Kerry facing a chain link fence with the Capitol dome visible behind it. Kerry’s right arm was extended, and he was pushing something through or over the fence. He wasn’t throwing anything; the gesture wasn’t violent at all.

And? And? And? You can’t see exactly what it is he’s pushing through.

Chatterbox would like to display the photograph here, but Butler declined to provide it. Although it was, he told Chatterbox, published in more than one magazine at the time, he has not granted reproduction rights more recently. “When I took the photo,” Butler said, “there were at least 50 other photographers standing next to me.” But none of these photographs has been found.

“I’m not even sure the photo will appear in the book,” Butler elaborated. For political reasons? Butler wouldn’t say, although an editor at Bulfinch Press suggested to Weisberg that Kerry’s campaign might not allow it. One possibility, Butler said, is that he will use the photograph in his forthcoming Kerry documentary. “I have a lot of photographs,” he said. “Only so many are going to be published in a book”