What kind of a historian is Douglas Brinkley anyway?
These days Brinkley is acting a lot less like a historian and a lot more like a PR flack for John Kerry, the subject of Brinkley's flattering bestseller "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War." Brinkley proclaims his independence from the Kerry campaign -- "This is my book, not his," he writes in "Tour" -- but he's become a major player in the Kerry agitprop machine.
On television, in magazines, and on Kerry's website, Brinkley functions as a dependable surrogate for the candidate, quick to testify to Kerry's unflinching qualities of heroism and leadership. "I don't quite see it that way," Brinkley says. "Yes, I think Kerry will make a good president, but this book could have gone either way. After Iowa, instead of going kinetic, the book might have been remaindered."
(Bias alert: I played a bit role in preparing the Globe's recently published "John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography," which differs significantly from Brinkley's authorized, triumphalist tome.)
In "Tour of Duty," Brinkley makes much of how Kerry shared all his Vietnam records, and of the extra research the author brought to the book. And yet, just a few months after publication, here are three examples of lazy puffery in Brinkley's tome.
Brinkley told the Atlantic magazine, which excerpted a portion of the book, that he interviewed "every single one" of John Kerry's crewmates on the so-called swift boats that Kerry captained in Vietnam. But in fact he did not interview crew member Steven Gardner, and -- surprise! -- Gardner turned out to be the only one of Kerry's crewmates who disliked his former commander. "I would have talked to Gardner, but I couldn't find him," Brinkley says now.
It gets worse. After the Kerry campaign learned that the Globe had interviewed Gardner for its Kerry biography, Brinkley called Gardner. The presidential historian -- Brinkley has written about Franklin Roosevelt and is a disciple of the late historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose -- warned Gardner of a "firestorm" if the vet went public with his doubts about Kerry, and then hacked out an article attacking the former gunner's mate on Time magazine's website!
Hilariously, Kerry declined to talk to the Globe about Gardner's criticisms, but graced Brinkley with his opinion -- uncritically relayed by the historian -- that Gardner's stories were "made up."
Who needs opposition research when Doug Brinkley is on the case?
Despite his claim to have reviewed Kerry's Navy records, Brinkley didn't interview Lieutenant Commander Grant Hibbard, the commanding officer who likened the wound for which Kerry was awarded his first Purple Heart to a scrape from a fingernail. Kerry declined to talk to the Globe about this incident. In his role as aggrieved Kerry factotum, Brinkley ginned up a quick article for Salon magazine condemning Hibbard as a "blowhard" and dumping on the Globe for reporting Hibbard's comments. Brinkley could have spared himself the heavy breathing if he had bothered to interview Hibbard for his book.
Predictably, Brinkley toes the current Kerry party line on the controversial medal-throwing incident of April 1971, reporting that Kerry threw his ribbons, and other servicemen's medals, away during an antiwar demonstration. But the historian seems blissfully unaware that the party line has changed several times since Kerry threw away, or did not throw away, his medals -- or his ribbons, or other people's medals.
"His explanation seemed fairly logical," is how Brinkley justifies printing the latest version of this much-discussed event. Isn't it relevant, I asked, that Kerry has answered questioners differently about this incident over the years? Brinkley: "His answers are a different story."
Brinkley and publisher William Morrow plan to release a revised edition of "Tour of Duty" in two weeks. "I started realizing, `I've got to fix this,' `I've got to fix that,' " Brinkley says. "Nobody believed we would get to this point where every aspect of the book is being dissected."
Call me old-fashioned, but I can remember a time when historians wrote books that didn't have to be revised after sitting on the shelf for just four months.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org