Arizona Daily Star
If voters see that testimony, they will see a young man arguing passionately for a cause. They will see a young man willing to take risks and boldly state his beliefs. Whether they agree or not, they will see in John Kerry a man of conviction.
Many young people, who don't have an emotional investment in refighting the conflicts of the late 1960s, might take a look at that man and decide they like him. They might not realize that man no longer exists.
That man of conviction was still visible as late as the 1980s. When Kerry opposed aid to the Contras, or took on Oliver North, he did it with the same forthright fire.
But then in the early 1990s, things began to evolve. First, Kerry relied on his post-Vietnam convictions and ended up casting the vote against the first Iraq war that threatened his political future.
Then the political climate changed. Bill Clinton came to power, and suddenly the old Vietnam-era liberalism was no longer in vogue. The future belonged to triangulating New Democrats.
Then Newt Gingrich came in and the frame of debate shifted farther to the right. Kerry was now in a position to run for national office - and thus needed to be acceptable to a national constituency.
Kerry's speeches in the 1990s read nothing like that 1971 testimony. The passion is gone.
He issued statements endorsing the use of force in the Balkans so full of back-door caveats you couldn't tell if he was coming or going.
He delivered a tough-sounding speech on urban poverty filled with escape clauses he then exploited when the criticism came.
Most people feel attached to their opinions as part of who they are. But Kerry can be coldly detached from his views. For example, on Aug. 1, Kerry told George Stephanopoulos:
"I think we can significantly change the deployment of troops, not just (in Iraq) but elsewhere in the world. In the Korean Peninsula perhaps, in Europe perhaps." When Bush outlined a plan along those lines, Kerry blasted him, saying it was reckless to embrace the idea.
Almost every American has a view about whether this Iraq war is worthwhile or a big mistake - except John Kerry. He's both called himself an anti-war candidate and said he would even today vote for the war resolution. He's either lost the ability to make a clear decision on this central issue, or he thinks it would be imprudent to express a view.
Even on personal matters, Kerry radiates an air of calculated positioning. He declares marriage is between a man and a woman, but does anybody think he actually believes this? He's said life begins at conception, but has he ever acted on this belief?
All this is odd for a person who is such a child of the 1960s. "Authenticity" was such a big concept then.
Nobody would accuse the current John Kerry of that. In fact, the Democratic Convention dwelt obsessively on the period in his life when Kerry was authentic, so it could evade the last 20 years of rising inautheticity.
In short, he's not the flaming liberal the Republicans sometimes try to portray. He's not flaming anything.
If today's Kerry were called before that 1971 Senate committee, he would have prudently told the throngs that he was for the goals of the war but against the implementation, for the idea but against the timing.
Nobody accomplishes much in politics without consuming ambition, but sometimes people are changed along the way.
● David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036; e-mail: email@example.com.