Kerry's Regrets About John Edwards

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis

Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry clapping as vice presidential candidate Senator John Edwards gives a thumbs-up at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, July 2004.

After a day of filming at Edwards's summer home on Figure Eight Island in the Outer Banks, we went out to dinner. Afterward, while Elizabeth drove the car home, John and I headed back on his boat; as the darkness closed in, we got lost in the tall grasses of the shallow waterways. He finally found the channel; and back in his living room, we talked about the likelihood of war in Iraq. Edwards said no one had yet made the case to him.

That fall, as a vote loomed on the resolution giving Bush authority to go to war, Edwards convened a circle of advisers in his family room in Washington to discuss his decision. He was skeptical, even exercised about the idea of voting yes. Elizabeth was a forceful no. She didn't trust anything the Bush administration was saying. But the consensus view from both the foreign policy experts and the political operatives was that even though Edwards was on the Intelligence Committee, he was too junior in the Senate; he didn't have the credibility to vote against the resolution. To my continuing regret, I said he had to be for it. As I listened to this, I watched Edwards's face; he didn't like where he was being pushed to go. The process violated a principle I'd learned long before—candidates have to trust their own deeply felt instincts. It's the best way to live with defeat if it comes, and probably the best way to win.

The meeting we held in the Edwardses' family room did him a disservice; of course, he was the candidate and if he really was against the war, it was up to him to stand his ground. He didn't. If he had, it almost certainly would have been Edwards and not Dean who emerged early on as the antiwar candidate. But Edwards didn't want to look "liberal" and out of the mainstream; he was, after all, the southern candidate and thought of himself as Clintonesque. He valued the advice and prized the support of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. I had my own concerns: If he took the antiwar route, I knew I would have been characterized as a malign force moving him to the left—which wasn't true, although I wish it had been given that I now regard the Iraq invasion as one of the great mistakes in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

Kerry had asked Jim Johnson to head up the vice-presidential search. Jim, my friend stretching back to the 1972 campaign, was one of Washington's best connected "wise men"—at times successively, and at times simultaneously, not only chairman of the giant mortgage company Fannie Mae, but of the Kennedy Center and the Brookings Institution; he had been Gore's chief debate negotiator in 2000, and was a likely treasury secretary or White House chief of staff in a Kerry administration. The candidate was obsessed with keeping the veep process closely held to prevent the speculation and leaks that had embarrassed him when he was on Gore's final list in 2000. This worked—until the last hour.

One option, the one that would have sealed the election, was off the table. John McCain's political strategist John Weaver had talked earlier with Cahill and said he needed to see Kerry about McCain. According to Kerry, when he met with Weaver and Cahill, Weaver said McCain was serious about the possibility of teaming up with him. Kerry had then sounded out McCain, who rejected the idea. McCain, I told Kerry, was running—but for president, in 2008, against Kerry if he was elected, or after a second Bush term. This meant he'd have to prove his loyalty to Republicans; and we couldn't expect much if any help from him if Kerry was slimed by some "independent" Republican group. It didn't matter that Kerry had rallied across party lines to McCain's defense when he was smeared in the 2000 primaries. Kerry nonetheless clung to the hope that if his service record was questioned, being a member of the "band of brothers" would be more important to McCain than party ID. But I didn't expect much "straight talk" from him this time around.

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