NYT's James Traub on John Kerry, Latest 'Decent, Serious, Honorable' Dem Destroyed by 'Republican Attack Machine'

James Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times Sunday magazine, contributed a very positive 5,000-word profile of Obama foreign-affairs maven (and failed liberal Democratic presidential candidate) Sen. John Kerry for the Sunday magazine, under the online headline 'How John Kerry Tries to Put Out Diplomatic Fires.' The table of contents and print edition headlines simply hailed Kerry as 'The All-American,' while deep in the article itself Traub lamented that in 2004, 'Kerry seemed to be the latest in a long line of decent, serious, honorable Democratic presidential candidates cut to ribbons by the Republican attack machine and bested by G.O.P. contenders whom voters would much rather have a beer with.'

(Traub isn't fond of the G.O.P. In October 2010 Traub took to CNN to rant against the newly conservative Republican Party's 'war on competence and professionalism.')

John Kerry surprised a lot of people when he endorsed Barack Obama for president in early 2008. Kerry was a longtime friend of Obama's chief rival, Hillary Clinton. He had served in the Senate for a quarter-century and had built a reputation as a cautious, incremental figure - like Clinton herself. But for Kerry the time had come for a decisive break with the past. 'I felt very strongly we needed a new narrative for the country,' he told me during a long conversation last fall.


John Kerry is ready, willing and able. And hardworking. And loyal. Hillary Clinton has been, too. Obama is a 'transformational' figure who is comfortable surrounding himself with pillars of the foreign-policy establishment. This may explain why he has proved to be less bold than many of his supporters had hoped. Would a Secretary Kerry help Obama make that decisive break with the past? Or would he offer four more years of the same?

Traub traveled with Kerry to Afghanistan and Pakistan in May, painting Kerry as perhaps simply too civilized and proper to have been an effective presidential candidate.

That night, when he returned to Kabul, Kerry had a long dinner with Karzai. Afghanistan's erratic president has worn out the patience of some of America's most senior statesman, including Vice President Joe Biden and Richard Holbrooke, the late envoy to the region. But Kerry's roots run deep in the New England gentry, and his fine sense of social codes may be better suited to the courts of Central Asia and the Middle East than to presidential debates. Kerry denies that he is quite so genteel as all that. 'There's a time to blow your top and walk out of the room,' he told me, 'and a time to be totally in quiet listening mode when somebody else's mind is open to you.'

Traub trumpeted the anti-war view in Afghanistan.

Why, then, does Kerry bother? Why is he racing back and forth to put out the fires being set by a serial arsonist? I asked him about this on the short flight from Kabul to Islamabad. Kerry tried to put the best possible face on what he had learned. Despite the warlords in Kabul, he said, Karzai had appointed some talented officials at the provincial and district levels. 'It's a mixed bag,' he concluded gamely. Kerry knew Karzai's failings as well as anyone, but he was not prepared to abandon Afghanistan's president, because he was not prepared to abandon Afghanistan. But why not? With Bin Laden dead, and with the cost of the war becoming unsustainable at a time of grave financial problems, why not declare victory and go home? A majority of the public, a growing body of congressmen, Republican as well as Democratic, and many leading foreign-policy thinkers and regional experts are calling for the troops to come home as fast as possible.

Traub confessed that Kerry is so nuanced one often has no idea where he stands, before bewailing the unfairness of Republican attacks during the 2004 presidential campaign, without bothering to comment on Kerry's flip-flopping on the war, or the validity of accusations leveled on his war record by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The last time most Americans saw John Kerry, he was tying himself in knots trying to rebut the charge that he was for the war in Iraq before he was against it. That was unfair, like a great deal that happened during the 2004 campaign, but politics are unfair. Kerry seemed to be the latest in a long line of decent, serious, honorable Democratic presidential candidates cut to ribbons by the Republican attack machine and bested by G.O.P. contenders whom voters would much rather have a beer with....

- Clay Waters is director of Times Watch. You can follow him on Twitter.