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Dark Secrets

by Jerry Klein

pull: I have no use for cookie-cutter images of politicians as holy figures -- because there aren't any.

In its buildup for the May television ratings period, NBC's The West Wing has come up with a provocative story line, in which the fictional President of the United States comes face-to-face with a lie which could lead to his impeachment. He'd kept secret from the world the fact that he has Multiple Sclerosis, a condition so serious that it certainly would have been relevant to his election. The plot's a great vehicle that lets viewers take an inside look at how lies, coverups, and even personal health issues can affect the operations of the government. But as so often happens, real life has once again trumped fiction, in the form of a news story that broke last week which dredges up memories of one of the worst periods in American history -- the Vietnam War.

As it turns out, former Nebraska Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey, a once and perhaps future candidate for President, has been carrying his own dark secret for 32 years, a memory of the night of February 25, 1969, in which, as a 25-year-old leader of a band of Navy Seals dubbed Kerrey's Raiders, he gave the orders, and perhaps personally participated in a horror resulting in the murders of at least 13 innocent Vietnamese old men, women and children.

While there is significant disagreement among the few members of Kerrey's commando team who have thus far chosen to discuss their memories of that night publicly, this much appears to be indisputable: a gung-ho Kerrey was in charge of a team which did things Americans aren't supposed to do, the kind of things which brings to mind the My Lai massacre, and which is deserving of comparison to the kind of atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

Once again, the veneer of supposed American moral superiority has been cracked, if not destroyed. Once more, we're forced to examine war, and the ethical failures of individuals caught up in war. One more time, we come face-to-face with ourselves, and what we're capable of doing under pressure. The picture is ugly.

I was a 17-year-old high school junior when Kerrey's Raiders struck that night, and a high lottery draft number would keep me out of the military, out of Vietnam. Instead, I was one of those who marched in protest in the streets back home, while Kerry trudged along through the forest, trying to figure out who was friend and who was foe under the worst and most confusing of conditions.

Just a few years later, while working as a counselor at Mecklenburg County's Mental Health Center, I found myself sitting across the table from veterans of Vietnam who were struggling to purge themselves of their memories, struggling to re-integrate themselves into an America weary of war. I heard countless stories of men who couldn't sleep at night anymore without their rifles and knives beside them, who couldn't purge themselves of mind-pictures too dark to confront directly.

And these were men who I had criticized, men who I had considered morally corrupt. I learned then that I was wrong for having personalized my criticism, even though I despise the military code of conduct that justifies inappropriate actions under the blanket authority of I was only following orders.

So I will not criticize now what Kerrey and his group did, or might have done, that awful night. It's simply not for me to judge, not only because I wasn't there, and can't understand what that war -- or any war -- is like, but because I know all too well the demons that reside inside us. That burden is Kerrey's, and Kerrey's alone.

But I will point an accusatory finger at him in this respect: Bob Kerrey owed it to us to disclose his involvement in that episode long ago. And he should have refused, or at least returned, the Bronze Medal he was awarded for that very same night's actions.

Kerrey is nothing if not an interesting man. During his time as governor of Nebraska, he gained national attention for dating actress Debra Winger. He's got a strong streak of independent thought, often clashing with his Democratic cohorts, and he was a thorn in Clinton's side over the past eight years. Not long ago, he shocked a lot of people by giving up his safe Senate seat, saying that he needed time away from the public eye for some soul-searching. Now, he's President of the New School University in New York, and is often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

As for that possibility, the question now is, how will this revelation affect his chances? Would you vote for him if given the chance?

My answer is in the affirmative, in spite of my criticism of his silence concerning that night in Vietnam. Simply put, I have little or no use for the charade politicians play, one in which we collude with them in pretending that a president should be highest of the high, bereft of any mistakes, any personal failures. I have no use for cookie-cutter images of politicians as holy figures -- because there aren't any.

Every person who's ever run for office has something in their closet of which they're ashamed, of which they're convinced you'll reject them if only you knew. No one can live up to the standard we seem to set as a prerequisite, because we all, at some level, have our personal failings.

If we continue to pretend we'll only vote for saints, we'll continue to be disappointed, to feel betrayed when we find out what's locked away. What I'd rather have is a candidate who isn't afraid to stand before the world and admit his or her faults. I want a human being as my leader, not some pretender. It's important to me that our leaders understand what goes on inside those of us who know we're not saints. I'd much rather give my allegiance to someone that I know has confronted his or her own demons, who might be able to understand mine.

Not many of us know what it was like in the jungles of Vietnam. It's Kerrey who has struggled with this secret for more than three decades, who has to look himself in the eyes every morning.

So I forgive him. And I welcome his disclosure, whatever the motivation at this late date. I wish for him, finally, peace with himself. And I'll welcome him back to the public arena, should that time ever come.

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