FLASHBACK: May 22, 1971Kerry's Credibility Gap

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the pages of HUMAN EVENTS on May 22, 1971.)

This is the tale of two Viet Nam veterans who came to Washington to lobby for an end to the war. One is John F. Kerry, 27, of Waltham, Mass. The other is Melville L. Stephens, 26, of Hanford, Calif.

Both are ex-Navy lieutenants and saw combat as river patrol commanders in Viet Nam. Both hold the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Both wear their hair long. Both profess a kinship with all the other war-weary young men who came here to Washington with their Medals of Valor and peace symbols.

But the resemblance stops there.

Kerry is wealthy, a product of the best Eastern schools. Stephens grew up in Akron, Ohio, and is out of work.

Kerry had the help of a well-known Kennedy speechwriter in preparing those phrases which rang so eloquently over television when he testified before Sen. J. William Fulbright.

Stephens wrote his own statement for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and never made TV.

Kerry emerged as the recognized leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), a very dramatic figure by day during the demonstrations. But, after dark, Kerry did the Washington social scene and slept in a clean bed at one of Georgetown’s most fashionable addresses.

Hardly anybody has heard of Stephens, but Kerry has become one of the hottest young political prospects on the anti-war scene. His oratorical flair, good looks and Kennedyesque manners have marked him as a man to keep an eye on.

Indeed, he is already considering running for public office in Massachusetts, according to word passed to friends by his wife, the former Julia Stimson Thorne, daughter of a socially prominent Long Island family.

Kerry is not so uptight about Viet Nam as to be militant or radical. He calls himself “an angry young man,” but he neither tossed his medals over the Capitol fence nor stayed around for the recent disruptive demonstrations.

On May 1, Saturday night, when the big Capitol demonstrations of 200,000 dwindled to a folk-rock concert at the Washington Monument, Kerry chose another scene.

Clad in guerrilla togs, he attended a posh black-tie dinner party at the Federal City Club put on by the “Five-ers,” a quintet of Washington’s top socialites. One of them was Mrs. Robert Charles, better known as Oatsie Leiter, at whose home the Kerrys stayed during the Viet Nam Veterans’ encampment on the Mall.

The high point of Kerry’s week in Washington took place before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee April 22, when he delivered an impassioned plea for ending the war. As the TV cameras zeroed in on him, the thrice-wounded Viet Nam veteran asked the senators:

“How do you ask a man to be the last to die in Viet Nam? How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?”

Reached in New York, where he is now dividing his time between law practice and speech-writing, former Robert F. Kennedy staffer Adam Walinsky acknowledged he had helped Kerry put together his eloquent presentation.

Walinsky said Kerry, the 1966 Yale class orator, was “pretty darn good” with words all by himself, but added that he had a hand in drafting those parts of the Kerry address “which were on TV.”

That kind of expert wordsmithing was not available to Stephens, who made his pitch to the same committee a few days afterward.

Speaking just after a group of radicals had berated the senators, Stephens conceded his views “are not very popular these days.” But drawing on more than 30 months’ experience in the Viet Nam theater — many times that of Kerry — Stephens argued that the United States could not morally pull out so fast as to endanger the lives of those thousands of South Vietnamese who had trusted the American promise of deliverance from the Communist enemy.

Stephens made no defense of the allegedly corrupt members of the Thieu-Ky regime (“Frankly, I am sure that they will take care of themselves.”)

Nor did he buy President Nixon’s argument that the United States should not be made to look like a “pitiful helpless giant.” Rather, argued Stephens, a wounded veteran and former aide to Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, Naval Operations chief, the United States should arrange to quit the war so that peace will help the loyal South Vietnamese. “Peace for us must not come at the cost of their lives.”

Stephens’ testimony might have escaped public attention altogether had not Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Republican floor leader, complained that the TV networks had ignored it.

Kerry quit Viet Nam in March 1968, as was his right as a three-times-wounded serviceman. He also became an admiral’s aide — in New York. Then he left the Navy to run for Congress but withdrew from the race in favor of the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Catholic anti-war priest who was elected last November.

Friends who talked to Kerry said he was not visibly upset about Viet Nam when he first began thinking of running for office. “I thought of him as a rather normal Vet,” one said, “glad to be out but not terribly up tight over the war.”

Another to whom Kerry talked about running for office described him as “a very charismatic fellow looking for a good issue.”

Kerry, with his connections, financial resources and a set of initials that read JFK, may be one of the brightest young political properties to emerge from New England in a long time.

One of those who’ll be watching will be Stephens who is slated to enter Cornell University Law School this fall.