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JEFF JACOBY

A question of character

IF YOU were to choose just one vignette to illustrate John Kerry's worst character flaw as a public official -- his lack of political courage -- what would it be?

You might pick the speech on "Race, Politics, and the Urban Agenda" that Kerry gave at Yale in 1992 -- the first, he said, of a series on race and urban issues. His speech drew attention because of its mild criticism of affirmative action, which had led, in his words, to "a reality of reverse discrimination that actually engenders racism." For uttering the obvious, Kerry was instantly condemned on the left. One Boston paper accused him of having "embraced tactics that . . . widen the country's racial divide." Because of him, a journalist wrote, blacks felt "stabbed in the back."

Kerry could have stuck to his guns. But he backed down. He delivered no more speeches on the subject and has obediently endorsed affirmative action ever since.

Another episode involved the questionnaire Kerry answered during his first Senate race in 1984. The questions came from Freeze Voter '84, an antidefense group whose endorsement Kerry sought in the Democratic primary. To get it, he said he would vote to cancel a host of weapons systems: the B-1 and Stealth bombers, cruise and Pershing missiles, many others. He excepted only the Trident submarine, whose development he supported. Then he was told that if he stood by the Trident, the endorsement would go to his main opponent, who had come out against all the weapons on the questionnaire.

So Kerry changed his answer. He agreed to oppose whatever Freeze Voter '84 opposed -- including the Trident. The group got the answers it wanted, and Kerry got the endorsement he craved.

But my choice for most telling vignette would be the one about the Gulf War letters.

On Jan. 9, 1991, as the crisis over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was building to a climax, Kerry received a letter from a constituent, Walter Carter of Newton.

"Dear Senator Kerry," it began. "I urge you to support President Bush's request that Congress approve the `use of all necessary means' to get Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. To deny the president's request would encourage further aggression."

On Jan. 22, Kerry replied.

"Dear Mr. Carter," he wrote. "Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition to the Bush administration's additional deployment of US military forces . . . and to the early use of military force by the US against Iraq. I share your concerns. On Jan. 11, I voted in favor of a resolution that would have insisted that economic sanctions be given more time to work and against a resolution giving the president immediate authority to go to war."   Continued...

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