War Stories

John Kerry did not have to think all that hard about joining the military and going to Vietnam. He had doubts about the wisdom of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, which was rapidly escalating during 1965-66, his senior year at Yale. But Yale leaders were expected to serve, as the school song went, "for God, for Country, and for Yale." His closest friends in Skull and Bones, the Yale senior society for the best and the brightest, were signing up. Fred Smith, who would go on to found Federal Express, was joining the Marines. So was Dick Pershing, grandson of World War I Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing. There wasn't a lot of anguished debate, recalls Kerry's fellow Bonesman David Thorne, who, like Kerry, joined the Navy. But, he added, "if it had been '68, we might have made a different decision."

What a difference two years makes: 1968 was the year George W. Bush graduated from Yale. By then, virtually no Yale graduates were going into the military, if they could possibly avoid it. The war and the counterculture it spawned had transformed Yale. Preppy boys in coat and tie were rapidly giving way to long hair and angry protesters. The prom was canceled for lack of interest; marijuana was replacing beer. A throwback, good-time frat brother, young Bush had little use for the antiwar movement. On the other hand, he didn't want to go to Vietnam. Draft deferments for graduate school were ending that spring of 1968. The Texas Air National Guard offered another way. "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada," Bush explained to The Dallas Morning News back in 1990. "So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."

The two men were still fighting the Vietnam War last week. Kerry was defending himself from conservative radio talk-show hosts who accused him of siding with "Hanoi Jane" Fonda to undermine the war effort when he came home as an angry vet. The White House was showering reporters with documents attempting to show that Bush had not gone AWOL from the National Guard, as some Democrats allege. But flaps were mostly side-shows based on sketchy facts (Kerry barely met Fonda; Bush apparently did his time in the Guard, if a bit sporadically). The Vietnam era was critically important in the lives of both men. But the vastly different outcomes for the two men were the product of a subtle interplay of class and character and of small but critical differences in time and place.

It is a curiosity of the 2004 presidential race that both candidates, barring some major surprise, will be Yale graduates and members of Skull and Bones. Both Bush and Kerry are, by American standards, bluebloods with roots in old-money aristocracy. Yet the two men, so close in age and background (Bush is 58, Kerry is 60), stand on opposite sides of the ideological and cultural divide that splits America today. Kerry, urbane and liberal, is pure Blue State. Bush, with his cowboy twang and disdain for the Eastern elitist press, is the champion of the Red States. How did two sons of privilege come to represent such different worlds?

Preparing for Power

Despite their status as insiders, both Kerry and Bush saw themselves, at important moments, as outsiders. Their sense of rejection and isolation served as a powerful motivation. Kerry, in particular, was driven to show up his detractors, to excel no matter what others said about him.

Kerry's lineage, on his mother's side, includes some old New England names, including the Winthrop family, perhaps the purest of Brahmin stock. As a boy, Kerry played on the rolling greenswards of Winthrop estates outside Boston. His father, however, was a somewhat threadbare and gloomy Foreign Service officer who kept uncomfortable secrets. His own parents had been Jewish; they had changed their names from Kohn to Kerry before emigrating from Austria to America and converting to Roman Catholicism. Kerry's grandfather, in debt, had shot himself in a Boston hotel.

It is not clear how much of his family history Kerry knew. He claimed to be surprised when he was told the details by Boston Globe reporters just a few years ago. He was, in any case, a stiff and somewhat joyless boy when he arrived at St. Paul's, the most exclusive of the New England prep schools, in Concord, N.H., in 1957. "He was born old," says his one true friend at school, Danny Barbiero. Neither Barbiero, an Italian-American from New York's Long Island, nor Kerry fit in at St. Paul's. As a Catholic at an Episcopal church school, dominated by a huge Gothic chapel, Kerry had to take a cab into town to mass on Sunday. Barbiero recalls sitting with Kerry in the study of the school chaplain, painfully talking about what it was like "to be excluded by the in crowd."

At St. Paul's, a "reg"--regular guy--would never show off his ambition. Kerry exuded desire to get ahead. His hero and model was John F. Kennedy. Most St. Paul's boys, echoing their Republican parents, regarded JFK as an Irish parvenu. Kerry was thrilled to court Janet Auchincloss, Jackie Kennedy's niece. He was even more excited to be invited to go sailing with his hero, President Kennedy himself, in Newport in 1962, the summer he graduated from St. Paul's. Kerry was teased by his schoolmates about his initials (JFK), but he wanted Kennedy's voice and accent and haircut, too.

George W. Bush was also an outsider when he arrived at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from Houston, in 1961. He came as a 10th grader, a year later than most boys, and his Texas education left him another step behind. But Andover was a more democratic school than St. Paul's, and Bush had a quality prized by Andover boys of that era: sarcastic humor. Everyone had a nickname at Andover; Bush's was "Lip." Bush felt the pressure to live up to his father, who had been a great student-athlete at the school. Bush was neither. But he could capture an audience of jaded schoolboys. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK during the 2000 campaign, Bush recalled the moment he realized he had true political gifts: when he stood up at morning assembly at Andover to announce, with a series of japes and jokes and props, the formation of a stickball league. Bush even named the teams (like the Nads, so that fans could cheer, "Go Nads!"). Bush was the class cutup, but he was learning a style of leadership and cajolery--bestowing nicknames, mugging for the crowd, knowing how to tease but not too harshly--that he would use to disarm reporters and win over reluctant moneymen and legislators in later years.

Kerry was dead serious when he walked around the campus his first day at Yale with his St. Paul's friend and now freshman roommate, Barbiero. Kerry looked up at the gargoyles atop Harkness bell tower, totems to the qualities Yalies were supposed to strive for: Pen Wielding, Proficient Athlete, Tea-Drinking Socialite and Diligent Student. Kerry announced that he would be all four. At Yale Kerry was "the definition of a Big Man on Campus," recalls retired professor and Yale historian Gaddis Smith. He played soccer and JV hockey and ran the Yale Political Union. He was, inevitably, tapped by Skull and Bones.

Ostentatiously secret (its members were supposed to leave the room at the mere mention of its name), Skull and Bones claimed to be--and to a remarkable degree was--an incubator for future leaders. At the time, two Bonesmen were acting as architects of America's role in the Vietnam War. McGeorge Bundy, the national-security adviser, and his brother, Bill, the assistant secretary of State for East Asia, were pushing a policy of gradual escalation. Kerry happened to be rooming with their nephew Harvey Bundy. From time to time, on visits to New Haven, Conn., Bill Bundy would go to their dorm room to drink beer and talk. The boys had a duty to serve, the elder Bundy told Kerry and his roommates. Their country needed them. "It was pretty heady," Thorne recalls.

In his class-day oration in June 1966, Kerry criticized American intervention in Vietnam. But, Kerry emphasized, "we have not really lost the desire to serve," and no one recalls that the speech caused much of a stir. Kerry was regarded as sober and responsible by the faculty. When Yale made a promotional film, entitled "To Be a Man" (coeducation was still three years away), it showed Kerry earnestly discussing the meaning of commitment with a professor.

War Zones

When George W. Bush entered Yale in 1964, he thought his biggest burden was living up to his father, who had been captain of the baseball team, Phi Beta Kappa and Skull and Bones. Bush's father, a wealthy oilman, ran for the U.S. Senate from Texas that fall against a liberal populist, Ralph Yarborough. Bush Senior lost. Bush recalled that the Yale chaplain, William Sloan Coffin, told him, "I knew your father, and your father lost to a better man." Young Bush was "shattered," according to his mother, Barbara.

Coffin was part of the new Yale, a more meritocratic place that took Jews and blacks, and turned away from the school's WASPy, upper-crust past. Young Bush was still very much old Yale. He joined Deke, the jock fraternity, and became rush chairman, handing out the nicknames and pounding down beers at "the longest bar on campus." But fraternities were fading at Yale; the red-brick buildings on fraternity row were beginning to shut down for lack of interest. Their members were becoming figures of ridicule to the more liberal, intellectual breed of student. Bush attracted the attention of the school paper, the Yale Daily News, only once, when the paper ran an expose on "branding" initiates at Deke. DISGRACE ON THE ROW was the headline. Bush had to explain defensively that initiates were not really branded but just sustained small cigarette burns. Even the sainted secret societies were under attack for their elitism. Bush considered joining a frivolous one called Gin and Tonic, before following his father and grandfather into Skull and Bones.

In later years, Bush would complain about the "heaviness" of his Yale years, the thick doses of liberal guilt and condescension that he felt all around him. He disdained the strident longhairs who were demonstrating against the war his senior year. But it was 1968; the Vietnam War was beginning to turn into a quagmire. Even Bush's father, a Republican congressman, was having his doubts. In a newsletter sent to his constituents in the fall of '67, Congressman Bush wrote, "I frankly am lukewarm on sending more American boys to Viet Nam. I want more involvement by Asians." Bush wanted to be a flier, like his father, a decorated World War II naval aviator, so he joined the Texas Air National Guard. It was an option more available to the well connected than to others; Bush reportedly jumped ahead of others on a long waiting list to get in. His entering group included the sons of two U.S. senators and seven Dallas Cowboys.

As Bush was heading back to Texas to, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once wickedly wrote, "help defend Texas from Oklahoma," Kerry was going into the Mekong Delta. After a year aboard a destroyer, Lieutenant Kerry wanted to be the captain of a Swift Boat, like his role model JFK, who had first gained fame by getting his PT boat cut in half by a Japanese destroyer in World War II (and then rescuing his crew). Kerry originally thought he'd have relatively safe duty patrolling off the Vietnamese coast, but the orders changed, and the Swift Boats were sent upriver to draw fire and engage the enemy.

Kerry, who has always loved physical risk (he spent his senior year at Yale learning how to pilot planes and still flies and windsurfs), was an aggressive warrior. He famously beached his boat, jumped off and shot a Viet Cong before he could aim his grenade launcher. Kerry's JFK act was a little off-putting at first. "I thought, Jesus Christ, Audie Murphy just walked onboard," Jim Wasser, Kerry's No. 2 on Swift Boat PCF-94, recalled to NEWSWEEK. But his crew trusted him. "I don't think he was overly risky," says Mike Madeiros, the rear gunner aboard PCF-94. "He never was 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead'." There was some grumbling among Kerry's fellow officers that he was medal hungry. Kerry received three Purple Hearts for minor shrapnel wounds that others might shake off, though no one doubted that he had bravely faced enemy fire. Anyone wounded three times could ask to be transferred home, and Kerry did after four months of combat duty. But Kerry was a good leader and considerate of his men, and he arranged for them to get safer assignments when he left. David Alston, a gunner aboard the Swift Boat, recalls, "After a fire fight, John would come up and he would put his hand on me and he would say, 'David, are you all right?' And I began to think, 'You know, he cares about me'."

Kerry was troubled by the war he fought. His Swift Boat operated in "free-fire zones," meaning, in essence, that Americans were free to shoot at anything that moved. Kerry's men did open up on some questionable targets, like old men or boys along the riverside. Everyone was a potential combatant in Vietnam; still, in January 1969 Kerry and some other officers went to Saigon to complain about the free-fire-zone policy to their superiors. They were given a pat on the back and sent back to war. But when Kerry came home in the summer of 1969, to a safe spot as an admiral's aide, he began looking for ways to speak out against the war.

The Fallout

In late 1969, when George W. Bush showed up at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas for flight training, his instructor was a 270-pound judo black belt and self-described "mean S.O.B." named Maury Udell. "I know your dad is a congressman, but that doesn't mean a thing to me," Udell told Bush. After Bush had learned to fly jets, Udell tried to rattle him by getting on his tail in mock dogfights. Bush gave his instructor a hard look and began doing his own high-speed zigzags, "doing his damnedest to lose me," Udell recalled to NEWSWEEK. "He was not a candy a--." Udell rates Bush "among the top 5 percent of fighter pilots I've ever trained."

Bush's frat-brother background was useful at flight school. A favorite fighter-jock game was called Dead Bug. In a bar, when anyone shouted "Dead bug!" everyone, including generals, had to drop to the floor with hands and feet extended into the air, like a dead bug. Last man down had to buy drinks. Bush, who was cheap as well as practiced at drinking games, "would always get to the floor first," recalls Scott Woodfin, a retired Air Force colonel who served in Bush's unit.

The standard rap against Bush is that he was ducking combat by joining the Guard. Actually, the Texas Air Guard had a program called Palace Alert that allowed pilots to volunteer for flight time in Vietnam. Three of Bush's fellow pilots--Udell, Woodfin and Fred Bradley--recalled to NEWSWEEK that Bush inquired with the base commander about signing up for Palace Alert. He was told no; he had too few flying hours at the time and his plane, the F-102, was by then deemed obsolete for air combat.

After his flight training, Bush was mostly a "weekend warrior" for the Guard. In the winter of 1972, he asked to be transferred to the Alabama Guard because he wanted to work in the Senate campaign of one of his father's friends, Winton (Red) Blount. It is still not clear how often Bush showed up for duty. His commanding officers don't recall seeing him, and he failed to show up for a physical to maintain his flying status. The White House insisted that since Bush was no longer flying, the exam was unnecessary, and late Friday, Bush's aides released newly located records showing that Bush did receive "points" for the time he was in Alabama. The only solid evidence that he appeared on base was the record of a dental exam. One former officer emerged to recall Bush's flipping through flight manuals and magazines in his office. Pressed by his anxious staff, Bush himself couldn't recall much about his duty in Alabama. "He remembers shooting the breeze," said communications director Dan Bartlett.

In any case, at the time no one seems to have minded much. The rules were lax, and Bush was never disciplined in any way. When he wanted to go to Harvard Business School in the fall of '73, he was able to get discharged from duty six months early.

Bush showed up in Cambridge, Mass., in his bomber jacket and with a chip on his shoulder. He disliked the hippies shouting anti-Nixon slogans in Harvard Square. At the time, Bush's father was chairman of the Republican National Committee. At Sunday lunch at the home of his aunt Nancy Ellis in Wellesley, he would bitterly complain about East Coast intellectual snobs who put down people like him.

Discharged from the Navy in 1970, John Kerry was racked with nightmares about his time in combat. He grew his hair and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some of the vets, most of whom were working class, resented the patrician Kerry. A VVAW leader named Scott Camil told The Boston Globe that a vet tried to reach Kerry at home and was told by someone, presumably a maid, "Master Kerry is not at home." At the next meeting, someone hung a sign on Kerry's chair that read, FREE THE KERRY MAID.

But Kerry had star power. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Watching his former Swift Boat captain testify on TV, Jim Wasser "felt angry and betrayed. I was still a hawk," Wasser recalled to NEWSWEEK. "I was still used to taking orders--you know, God and country. But even as I was watching him on TV and getting mad at him, I said to friends, 'This guy is going to be really big some day'."

Kerry was already thinking about his political future. He had considered a run for Congress in 1970; he lived in no fewer than three Massachusetts congressional districts between 1970 and 1972, shopping for one where he could win. He thought he found potential voters in the suburbs around the old industrial mill towns of Lowell and Lawrence.

The liberal middle class liked his JFK looks and tone and his antiwar message. But the blue-collar voters regarded him as a carpetbagger and joked about "Kerrymandering." Kerry had an unfortunate tendency to preen and posture. Garry Trudeau, who went to St. Paul's and Yale after Kerry and knew his reputation, lampooned him in his new comic strip, "Doonesbury." One strip showed Kerry soaking up the adulation after a speech. He is grinning toothily and thinking, "You're really clicking tonight, you gorgeous preppie." The editors of the Lowell Sun, the local paper, were much tougher, lambasting Kerry as a carpetbagger and a "blow-in" whose campaign coffers had been fattened by Hollywood producers like Otto Preminger. Blowing a big lead, Kerry lost and was devastated.

Lessons of War

Like combat veterans of any war, Kerry did not talk much about his time under fire for many years. "I've known him for 35 years," Sen. Edward Kennedy told NEWSWEEK, "and he would never talk about the war. I've been on beaches and picnics and boats with him and sat around in the evening with him, and he always steered the conversation away." But Kerry learned the political usefulness of surrounding himself with veterans in his political campaigns.

Kerry first tapped into this power source when he ran against Jim Shannon, a popular congressman, for the U.S. Senate in 1984. At a debate, Shannon made an offhand remark questioning Kerry for trying to have it both ways as a war vet and an antiwar activist. With cold passion, Kerry told Shannon not to lecture him about war. Kerry's handlers looked at each other and said, "Oh my God! We've got to bottle that!" After Kerry won in '84, he began having annual reunions at his house for the vets. Now they stand behind him on campaign platforms.

Kerry's policy views, as well as his politics, were profoundly shaped by the war. Kerry came back from Vietnam believing that the "government was not being honest with the citizens and its soldiers," Kerry's Senate chief of staff, David McKean, told NEWSWEEK. As a senator, Kerry has spent most of his time not on legislation, writing bills and dickering over their passage, but rather running congressional investigations. Some of them have seemed a little quixotic. For a time in the late '80s, Kerry tried to find connections between the CIA, drug runners and the Nicaraguan contras financed by the Reagan administration. His inquiries never had much impact. On the other hand, Kerry performed a true national service by taking on the thankless role of getting to the bottom of various conspiracy theories about American POWs and MIAs still held by the North Vietnamese. He had the guts to accuse POW/MIA activists of preying on families of missing soldiers by hyping rumors about "sightings" of MIAs in the jungle as part of fund-raising scams.

Kerry has never given up his longed-for membership in the East Coast establishment. He has merely evolved with it, from JFK "bear any burden" interventionist to more cautious internationalist. George Bush, on the other hand, has almost defined himself in opposition to the East Coast establishment (despite, or because of, his father's deep establishment ties). Bush practically scoffs at hand-wringing by Council on Foreign Relations types who worry about offending European allies or the United Nations. There is an edge and swagger to Bush's go-it-alone policies that makes even moderate Republicans want to vote for Kerry. In Bush's determination to be decisive and resolute one can almost feel his post-adolescent scorn for the "sherry sippers" and intellectual equivocators who emasculated his all-male Yale. (Bush remained hostile to Yale right up to the moment it accepted one of his daughters, Barbara, class of '04. Then he invited the president of Yale, Richard Levin, to stay at the White House.)

Kerry claims that Bush has never changed. "I know this guy," Kerry told Vogue magazine's Julia Reed. "He was two years behind me at Yale, and I knew him, and he's still the same guy." (Bush told NBC's Tim Russert that he did not know Kerry at Yale.) Bush, like Kerry, is not the same guy who entered Yale as a callow preppy in the early '60s. Both men were shaped and reshaped by personal struggles and political challenges that would have broken less determined men. There are many kinds of war stories, especially for privileged boys entering a world turned upside down.

Janet Auchincloss was the half-sister of Jackie Kennedy, not her niece.

In "War Stories" (Feb. 23), a caption accompanying a photo of John Kerry and Jane Fonda should have specified that Kerry was sitting several rows behind Fonda and was not the bearded man directly behind her.

Join the Discussion