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Close Kerry-McCain Kinship Has Dissolved Since 2004

By Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com staff writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Those who know them say they once shared a genuine affection for each other, born in large part from their shared experiences serving in the Vietnam War and their work together in the early 1990s on a Senate committee investigating the fate of prisoners of war and of those missing in action during the conflict.

"This was not a light, collegial Senate friendship," said a friend of Sen. John F. Kerry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Kerry and his relationship with Sen. John McCain. Kerry and McCain "went through the wringer together. . . . They talked openly about having healed the old wounds and the old divisions about Vietnam."

Four years ago, Kerry considered offering the Republican the opportunity to be his vice presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket. But since then, their relationship has gradually deteriorated, and on Sunday, it reached a new low. Appearing on a news show, the senator from Massachusetts lambasted the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for what he called a lack of judgment about the war in Iraq.

McCain "has proven that he has been wrong about every judgment he's made about the war," Kerry said, adding: "Wrong about the Iraqis paying for the reconstruction, wrong about whether or not the oil would pay for it, wrong about Sunni and Shia violence through the years, wrong about the willingness of the Iraqis to stand up for themselves."

Kerry insists that the senator from Arizona is "my friend and will always be my friend" but says that the person he considered for vice president in 2004 was a "very different John McCain." Kerry cites McCain's policy shifts on tax cuts, the treatment of detainees and the regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions, among others.

McCain, through his aides, let it be known that he has no interest in talking about his relationship with Kerry. But Mark Salter, McCain's longtime chief of staff, rejected the idea of any tension between the two men. "If Senator Kerry is saying there was some kind of falling-out," he said, "he's inventing an excuse to justify the difference in their behavior to each other."

At one time the relationship was unusual for two senators from opposing parties. When Kerry faced an extremely tough reelection race in 1996 against Republican Gov. William F. Weld, McCain opted not to campaign against his Democratic friend. Four years later, when McCain was running for president, Kerry returned the favor by organizing Senate combat veterans to defend McCain from criticism of his record.

In 2004, many Democratic insiders thought a Kerry-McCain ticket would be a slam-dunk winner. And yet even as Kerry, a decorated Navy combat veteran, and McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, seemed on the verge of making that happen, a rupture occurred and set the stage for everything that followed. But exactly what happened remains a matter of debate.

From the Kerry perspective, McCain had expressed genuine interest in the vice presidential nomination and then pulled away without warning, and while doing so leaked the story to the media to "put McCain in the best possible light," a Kerry friend recounted.

From the McCain perspective, Kerry was overly optimistic about the possibility of McCain joining him on the Democratic ticket. "Kerry convinced himself that he could convince McCain to be on the ticket," said one GOP strategist familiar with the discussions. "When that didn't happen, he took it really personally."

Kerry insists that the miscommunication about his conversations with McCain was the fault of staff members and not the two senators.

"I thought it was unfortunate that some people in his staff saw fit to leak someone's point of view which did not accurately reflect our personal conversations," Kerry said. "We never got to a serious point. We moved on."

If the vice presidential offer/non-offer strained Kerry and McCain's relationship, the ad that the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran during the 2004 campaign attacking Kerry's military record threatened to end it entirely.

McCain quickly spoke out against the ad, calling it "dishonest" and "dishonorable" and comparing it to the criticism of his military service during the 2000 presidential primaries. But he did not allow Kerry to use his image in rebuttal ads -- a decision that many Kerry supporters viewed as insufficient payback for Kerry's support of McCain in 2000.

"John McCain pretty thoroughly revealed his character when he refused to defend his Vietnam 'brother' from the slimy Swift boaters," said Jim Jordan, who managed Kerry's presidential bid for much of 2003. "McCain's second campaign for the Republican nomination and his support for more U.S. troops in Iraq added to the strain. As the senator from Arizona grew more and more strident about increasing troop levels and about the danger of setting timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Kerry emerged as a leading voice in favor of beginning a drawdown.

In describing his differences with McCain over the handling of Iraq, Kerry repeatedly invokes Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and James Webb (D-Va.) -- two other senators who served in Vietnam and see the current conflict far more like Kerry does than McCain does. "They oppose him on the war and think he's dead wrong," Kerry said. "They oppose his judgment on the GI Bill."

Although Kerry insisted that he and McCain still share the "bond of service that never goes away," it is clear that he thinks McCain has made a colossal misjudgment about Iraq -- a decision that has distanced him from the other senators who have served in the military.

And Kerry's willingness to serve as the lead attack dog for Sen. Barack Obama, McCain's Democratic rival for the presidency, against McCain's policies on Iraq and national security is the clearest sign yet that the close kinship that once existed between the two men is gone.

Kerry described McCain as "unbelievably out of touch" and "confused" after the Republican said, "That's not too important," in response to a question about when U.S. troops might return from Iraq. In late June, when retired Army Col. George "Bud" Day, who was involved in the Swift boat group's effort, was part of a conference call defending McCain's military record, Kerry called on McCain to condemn the remarks and cut ties with Day.

Ed Reilly, a longtime Democratic pollster and Kerry adviser, insisted that the same traits that drew Kerry and McCain together -- shared service and commitment to country -- are what have driven a wedge between them.

"There will always be a bond there, because they're veterans and because they went through the POW investigation together, but the same intensity of their feelings as veterans which brought them together has pushed them apart on two big policy areas this election," Reilly said. "They took away very different lessons."

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