July 12, 2004
THE DOUGLAS BRINKLEY SHOW
JOHN J. MILLER
At around 8:30 p.m. on March 15, retired admiral Roy Hoffmann was sitting at his desk in Richmond, Va., when the phone rang. He picked up the receiver and heard a familiar voice. It was John Kerry. The two men weren’t close, but they had served together in Vietnam, when the admiral was a captain and the senator a lieutenant. Kerry wanted to discuss some urgent business: the negative portrayal of Hoffmann in Douglas Brinkley’s best-selling new book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.
“He said I’d been unfairly maligned and that he respected me and thought I was a good leader in Vietnam,” recalls Hoffmann. “I told him it sure as hell doesn’t look like it.”
No, it sure as hell doesn’t. Brinkley’s book — basically an authorized account of Kerry’s life through the early 1970s — portrays Hoffmann as a shameful villain who represented everything Kerry despised about the military and Vietnam. “The senator told me he hadn’t even read the entire book,” says Hoffmann. “He wanted to know if there was anything that should be corrected when a revised version comes out.” (Kerry also may want to revise his own phone records: When Hoffmann checked the caller ID, it read “H. J. Heinz III” — the name of Teresa Heinz Kerry’s first husband, the Pennsylvania senator who died in 1991.)
Kerry’s offer to Hoffmann was at once strange and expected. It was strange because Brinkley, a history professor at the University of New Orleans, insists in an “author’s note” that Kerry “exerted no editorial control on the manuscript.” So why was the senator acting like a fact checker? But the call was no shock, because Brinkley already had phoned Hoffmann, after hearing that the admiral was telling fellow swift-boat veterans that Brinkley’s account contained numerous distortions and errors. “Brinkley wanted me to cooperate in correcting the manuscript,” says Hoffmann. “I refused because he had made no effort whatsoever to document his claims the first time around.”
Documenting claims, of course, is not the primary purpose of Tour of Duty. Instead, the book serves as Kerry’s campaign biography. Brinkley has an impressive resume: He has written books on Dean Acheson, Jimmy Carter, and the Ford Motor Company. He appears regularly on TV talk shows as that rarefied species of pundit, the “presidential historian,” and wrote The American Heritage History of the United States — a plum assignment for any professor who seeks a popular audience. But he is also passionately devoted to just about every liberal cause and cliche — and, in Tour of Duty, it shows.
It takes a special kind of author to claim that Kerry’s private journals compare with the literature of World War I poet Wilfred Owen; Brinkley pulls it off with a straight face. He also refuses to question anything his hero does. One of the most important moments in Kerry’s early career came during the medal-throwing protest against Vietnam: Did Kerry throw away his own medals and ribbons or somebody else’s? Brinkley devotes just a few sentences to this controversial episode; the rest of the time he’s busy hailing the young Kerry’s marvelous potential. On page 62, we read of Kerry the “Kennedyite.” Three pages later, there’s Kerry being “Kennedyesque.” And did you know that the initials of John Forbes Kerry are JFK?
The book reads like a celebrity profile from a glossy entertainment magazine, albeit an excruciatingly long one, coming in at 546 pages. It is sometimes said that journalists make lousy historians. Tour of Duty is a case of the exact opposite: a historian making a lousy journalist. The book bears many of the hallmarks of the ink-stained trade: It’s topical, its interviews constitute a large portion of the research, and its writing took place in a hurry to meet a deadline. The book simply had to be in stores before the Democratic primaries.
Journalists at the Boston Globe landed the first serious blows. Brinkley claimed to have interviewed “every single one” of Kerry’s swift-boat crewmates. It turns out he missed a guy named Steven Gardner, who happens to be the one fellow who is less than worshipful of his former commander. “I would have talked to Gardner, but I couldn’t find him,” Brinkley explained. When others did reach Gardner this spring, Brinkley scrambled to catch up. Instead of interviewing him, however, Brinkley warned Gardner against criticizing Kerry in public. Then, in an article posted on Time magazine’s website, he accused Gardner of inventing stories and playing “politics.”
Brinkley also failed to speak with Lieutenant Commander Grant Hibbard, who made the memorable observation that Kerry won his first Purple Heart for a wound that resembled “a scrape from a fingernail.” In an article for Salon.com, however, Brinkley saw fit to accuse Hibbard of “grouching” and to label him a “blowhard.” The doctor who treated Kerry’s injury, Louis Letson, might have been able to clear things up. In a written statement, Letson described “a small piece of metal sticking very superficially in the skin. . . . It did not require probing to find it, did not require any anesthesia to remove it, and did not require any sutures to close the wound. The wound was covered with a bandaid.” Brinkley does not include any of these inconvenient details in Tour of Duty; for such a long book, the account of Kerry’s first Purple Heart is curiously truncated.
Brinkley did manage to talk to Adm. Hoffmann for the book — and then disparaged him in its pages as a promotion-hungry naval officer who participated in outrageous “cowboy antics” and launched “ludicrous missions aimed at sacrificing the best Americans to satisfy a president’s geopolitical ambitions.” To drive the point home, Brinkley resorted to a stock image from Hollywood, comparing Hoffmann to “the rough-hewn colonel in the movie Apocalypse Now who boasted that he ‘loved the smell of napalm in the morning.'” A few chapters later, Brinkley repeats himself, equating Hoffmann with “Robert Duvall’s brutish character in Apocalypse Now, who said he liked the ‘sweet smell of napalm in the morning.'”
It’s impossible to read these pages and not conclude that Hoffmann is a real son-of-a-bitch — and indeed, “son-of-a-bitch” is one of the insults Brinkley hurls at Hoffmann (or, to be precise, one he chooses to quote from a source). Yet it’s easy to track down a bunch of Hoffmann’s old comrades who don’t share this low opinion. “Hoffmann was a very strong officer,” says former Navy lieutenant Robert Elder. “The Apocalypse Now comparisons are absurd. I don’t know of anybody from Vietnam who acted like Robert Duvall.” Adds former Navy lieutenant Andy Horne: “When I read Tour of Duty it has to be with an empty stomach.”
There were so many mistakes in the initial printing of the book that its publisher, William Morrow, took the unusual step of issuing a revised version of the book in May, four months after its initial publication. Brinkley originally misspelled Hoffmann’s name throughout, using one “n” instead of two. This is corrected in the new version, which is virtually impossible to distinguish from its predecessor: Both are labeled a “first edition.” All of the modifications appear to be minor, and a number of spelling mistakes can be found in both books.
At least one major error remains in place. On page 439, Brinkley wrote that a member of the Army’s 69th Engineer Battalion witnessed “atrocities” in Vietnam, invoking the vocabulary of anti-war protesters who believed the American soldiers were war criminals. In April, Tom Pardue, a former lieutenant in the 69th Engineers, wrote to Brinkley complaining that his battalion never before had been accused of “atrocities.” He demanded a correction. “I lost four of my men in Vietnam,” says Pardue. “They can’t defend themselves, and I can’t remain silent.” On May 5, Brinkley called Pardue and left a phone message promising that the book’s new edition would remove the word “atrocities.” But this change was not made — page 439 in the new edition is a carbon copy of the old one. (Pardue played me a tape recording of Brinkley’s phone message; Brinkley refused all requests for an interview.)
The fundamental problem with Tour of Duty, however, goes far beyond botching a few names or dates or words. Brinkley gets the big story wrong. Take the case of the Winter Soldier Investigation, the hearings convened by anti-war protesters to publicize the supposed war crimes of GIs. Kerry relied on those hearings to support his infamous Senate testimony of 1971; Brinkley describes the Winter Soldiers as “gallant” and their testimonies as “unsettling.” He approvingly cites a reporter who recoiled from “the very commonness, the quotidian character of atrocity.” The only complication is that the claims of the Winter Soldiers have been roundly discredited. Even the New York Times has noted that a number of the anti-war veterans “turned out to be frauds.” Yet Brinkley, who didn’t hesitate to lambaste Steven Gardner as a con artist, fails to question their trustworthiness. His only criticism of their publicity stunt is that it didn’t receive the mainstream press attention its organizers had craved.
As a TV regular, Brinkley himself is no stranger to publicity. But he apparently aspires to be something more: the court historian of the Kerry administration, just as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was for JFK. Tour of Duty can be interpreted as Brinkley’s job application, and it shows him ready for the assignment, which does not involve recording history dispassionately so much as defending the court against critics, all the while projecting the image of a fair-minded academic who is the lucky witness of great events.
On January 22, right after Kerry’s triumph in Iowa, Tour of Duty was hot off the press. Brinkley appeared on CNBC. “I think he’d make a first-rate president,” the historian said of Kerry. Then he thought better of such blatant advocacy. “I’m not endorsing anybody, though.” Of course not.