John Kerry’s name has often appeared in this newspaper – not always accompanied by plaudits. Kerry came to this writer’s mind in recent days during the deserved outcry against Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about US Sen. John McCain’s service and heroism. From all corners of the media, condemnation of The Donald’s churlish remarks came fast and furious. From Republican presidential candidates who were either mute or tepid in response to Trump’s vile Nativist comments about Mexicans, the rush to excoriate Trump was thunderous.
Back in 2004, when the Swift Boat slander against then-presidential candidate John Forbes Kerry was in full force, much of the so-called mainstream media was actually amused by those purple band-aids on the bloated faces of one-percenters at the GOP convention. Men such as McCain and Kerry should be viewed in two ways: first, for their courage and service in uniform; second, for their public careers postwar. Many Vietnam veterans will always despise Kerry for his anti-war stance after he returned. They are certainly entitled to disagree vehemently – they earned that right. However, neither Kerry’s nor McCain’s service should be sullied – ever.
In 2004, McCain castigated the Swift Boat ads against Kerry as “dishonest and dishonorable.” He did so even though Vietnam-War hero and fellow POW Colonel Bud Day, the founder of the Swift Boat Veterans “for Truth,” led the smear campaign against Kerry. Predictably, Kerry blasted Trump’s bile against McCain.
It comes as no surprise that such nonsense spews from The Donald’s gob. He is not going to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, so the “say anything” hateful and divisive approach has no brake. It is important to note, however, the response by the GOP nominee in waiting, Jeb Bush, to both the recent attack on McCain and the 2004 sliming of Kerry. “Enough with the slanderous attacks,” Jeb tweeted. “Senator John McCain and all our veterans – particularly POWs – have earned our respect and admiration.” He forgot to add “all but one veteran – John Kerry.”
For Jeb and the Swift Boaters, it will never matter that official military records utterly debunked the group’s charges. It will never matter that only one of the Swift Boaters for Truth actually served with Kerry and that nearly all of those who did serve with him defended his courage and service. In a January 2005 letter, Jeb thanked the Swift Boaters for their help in gaining reelection for his brother George W. Bush. Jeb wrote, “As someone who truly understands the risk of standing up for something, I simply cannot express in words how much I value their willingness to stand up against John Kerry.”
In the wake of Jeb’s outrage over Trump’s comments about McCain, a handful of journalists asked Bush about the seeming double standard in his view of Kerry. Jeb stuck to his 2005 stance: “[Col. Bud Day] won every award possible. He served in three wars, and if he says that there was a problem [with Kerry’s service], I believe him. He’s a great Floridian and a great American and so I wrote him a note thanking him for his service. Not gonna change my beliefs about that at all.”
John McCain and John Kerry both stood up for something in the face of risks that most of us can’t even imagine. Jeb doesn’t reveal just what his risk of standing up to something was, but it’s a safe bet that it pales in any comparison to the risks once faced by McCain, Kerry, and for that matter, Colonel Bud Day and Jeb’s own father, George H.W. Bush.
A Boston Irishman who fully understood risk and sacrifice died 150 years ago this month. A frenetic workload, exhaustion, and the likely effects of brutal incarceration by the British Crown in “penal servitude” in Western Australia all likely contributed to his premature death in his Hull, Massachusetts, home on August 9, 1890. So, too, did the accidental overdose from a prescription designed to help a patient sleep.
Court-martialed for treason against the Crown and sentenced to be hanged., he had escaped the noose – and one of the world’s most hellish prisons, Fremantle (Australia) Gaol. In Boston, he would become, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the most famous Irishman in America.” O’Reilly was also a man whom few in present-day Boston, or the entire US for that matter, could match for personal integrity, political and social courage, and unwavering core principles.
Editor of the Boston Pilot, reporter, essayist, novelist, poet, athlete, soldier, and Irish nationalist, John Boyle O’Reilly was all of these. His funeral cortege to Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline was one of the largest processions the city had ever seen. One need not wonder what O’Reilly, imprisoned and tortured, like John McCain, would have thought of a Donald Trump. For that matter, one likely need not wonder what O’Reilly would have thought of a man who never went to war, but believes he risked more than another man, Kerry, who did.