THE RIGHT FLANK
BY WALTER CRONKITE
EDITOR'S NOTE: IN EIGHTH GRAPH, SECOND SENTENCE, THE WORDS "DID IT" SHOULD BE IN ITALICS.
It almost seems as though John Kerry came out of hiding Sunday in his hour-long appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." He invigorated what had seemed a strangely diffident campaign and sharpened his attack on President Bush -- especially on Bush's Iraq policy, calling it "stunningly ineffective." And he noted that Bush had finally done what Kerry and other critics had long urged him to do -- he had allowed the United Nations to choose members of an interim government that will accept the hand-over of sovereignty scheduled for June 30.
The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate also provided more detail on his plan to create 10 million jobs, improve health care, save Social Security and Medicare and reduce the budget deficit. For instance, he explained that job creation would be paid for by halting tax breaks for companies that "outsource" jobs abroad and by giving tax breaks to companies that keep their jobs here. To ensure his promised deficit reduction, he said that if he couldn't find a way to fully pay for something, he would cut it back. It sounds good. Of course, whether it will work or not is another matter.
But in many ways, it seemed to me, Kerry managed to advance his cause under some tough grilling by host Tim Russert. With detailed, forceful explanations, he attempted to explain apparent contradictions in his record, such as voting for the war resolution but against the $87 billion supplemental appropriation for which Bush asked to finance his Iraq policy.
But there was something else Kerry did on "Meet the Press" that he has done throughout his campaign: He favors his right flank. Sometimes it is forced upon him, prompted in one instance when Russert told him some people feared he would turn over American security to the United Nations. Russert then quoted something Kerry had said when he first ran for Congress back in 1972: "The United Nations should have control over most of our foreign military operations." Kerry disowned the comment as the words of an angry young man. He then hastened to add that no country would have a veto over our right to defend ourselves. I have no doubt of Kerry's sincerity on this score. I also do not doubt that he felt in the spring of 2004 it was politically necessary that he take this strong position on U.S. sovereignty.
But I wonder if the cause of a new American attitude toward the world body did not suffer at least a small dent in the exchange. Someday -- better sooner than later -- this nation must clarify its relation to the United Nations and help strengthen its peacekeeping role.
For many, the big surprise of the hour came when, in response to a question, Kerry unequivocally backed George Bush's support for Ariel Sharon's unilateral decision to pull out of Gaza and redraw the borders of Israeli and Palestinian territory himself.
So, though Kerry has long been a strong supporter of Israel, as are most Americans, his apparent unconcern for the rights of the Palestinians seems remarkable. One might say he has outflanked Bush on the right and seemed to foreclose a Kerry administration role as a Mideast peacemaker.
Kerry had sidestepped Russert's very first question: Whether he thought the Iraq War was a mistake. He said he thought the way Bush did it was a mistake. With his background of opposition to the Vietnam War, the vote against Bush's financing of the Iraq War and the additional fact that a large part of his base opposed the war, we voters can be pardoned if we believe he was against it. But to preserve any chance of victory in November, he cannot fly in the face of the majority who, polls show, support the war.
So, if my assumptions are right, here is Kerry in a classic case of political courage giving way to political reality.
It is unfortunate that democracies are blighted by this necessity that all politicians must get elected before they can serve, and that this practicality of getting votes stands ahead of the idealism they might prefer to promote.
Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)cronkitecolumn.com.
(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite
Distributed by King Features Syndicate