John Kerry, who served in Vietnam, walks with Sen. Ted Kennedy in Washington in this undated photo. Kerry’s memoir recounts his Swift boat service and the controversy it sparked in the 2004 presidential election. (Kerry-Edwards 2004/AP)

Beverly Gage teaches U.S. political history at Yale.

There are many reasons to write a memoir. Some authors reveal intimate experiences in the hope that the subtleties of one life will resonate for many. Others seek to tell whopping good insider tales or simply to set the record straight. John Kerry’s memoir tries to do a bit of all three. At about 600 pages, it offers a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Kerry’s life from birth to the present, recounting his path from naval officer to antiwar activist to local politician and finally to Democratic presidential candidate and secretary of state.

This could have been a complicated tale, spiked with insight about the dilemmas of power or the challenges of legitimacy now facing America’s liberal elite. But Kerry mostly skims along the surface, offering stories of boarding school and Vietnam and the campaign trail in an even, conversational tone. Many of those stories — especially about Vietnam and Massachusetts politics — are interesting, but the whole never quite manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. The book’s title, “Every Day Is Extra,” hints at a certain late-life humility, yet the memoir suffers from a lack of self-scrutiny on some fundamental political questions.

This begins in the first few chapters, which focus on Kerry’s ancestral history and upbringing. Like any family, the Kerry clan has had its share of heart-rending tragedies, including his grandfather’s suicide at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston, a family secret hidden for decades. As a rule, though, Kerry came of age in a blessed world of ease and beauty and pleasantry, floating gently from St. Paul’s prep school to Yale. Family vacations were spent on a private island off the coast of New England. He learned to ski in Davos, Switzerland, now the fabled gathering place of the cosmopolitan elite. His greatest childhood difficulty was being sent off to Swiss boarding school at the tender age of 11, a story that evokes real sympathy for the anxious little boy but hardly undermines the stereotype of Kerry as a man of privilege.

Kerry appreciates his good fortune. Yet he has little to say about what it all means: about the contradictions of concentrated wealth in a democratic system or about the peculiarities of the elite institutions through which he came to know the world. Recall that this is a man who spent much of 2004 facing down accusations that he was out of touch with the people, windsurfing while the world burned. In his memoir, he remains surprisingly untroubled by this populist critique — if not unaware of it altogether. In recalling his first childhood trip on a transatlantic steamer, he tells of his amazement at discovering “a gate marked with second- or third-class signs.”

“It seemed weird,” he concludes. “Occasionally, I found a way through them, but mostly I explored the complex of decks and salons that made up first class.” The same might be said about many other chapters of his life.

One exception was his service in Vietnam, the most dramatic section of the book and ultimately the launching pad for his political career. After graduating from Yale, Kerry volunteered to serve as a naval officer and famously ended up assigned to the Swift boats, lumbering river patrol vehicles whose loud engines and difficult controls never quite lived up to the agile promise of their name. Kerry evokes the tedium, thrill and fear of Swift boat service, along with the anguish of losing close friends in an unwinnable war. Today, he comes at the story with righteous outrage, not only about the poor decisions of U.S. leaders but also about the distortions and false accusations made by fellow veterans during the 2004 presidential campaign. “What still sticks in my craw is the way these men who served on Swift boats themselves turned the words ‘Swift boat’ into a pejorative.”

Even here, though, he shies away from some knotty questions — including his decision to support the Iraq War more than three decades after denouncing Vietnam as a mistake and a national tragedy. Kerry ends up blaming George W. Bush for failing to deliver on commitments to diplomacy and multilateralism, but he reserves his greatest umbrage for the antiwar activists who split with him over Iraq.

“I was naive and overly optimistic to think that the activists would judge my record since 1971 . . . and stick by me rather than get behind someone who had never bled with them,” he writes with indignation, without quite addressing whether Iraq, in the end, turned out to be a repeat of what went wrong in Vietnam.

Kerry is at his best not in wrestling with such existential difficulties but in describing the dilemmas of on-the-ground politics: how to choose a vice-presidential candidate, how to decide whether to accept public money. He recalls the 2004 race as the “last presidential campaign of a more personal era,” when it was still possible for candidates to talk honestly with individual voters without worrying that the exchange would end up online. He harbors a certain nostalgia for the lost world of bipartisan Washington, where politicians of differing views engaged with one another at dinner or prayer breakfasts or in the Senate gym. When Kerry name-drops, it’s often in homage to this bygone capital, where men like Ted Kennedy and John McCain could give as good as they got and still shake hands at the next cocktail party.

Unsurprisingly, Kerry aims most of his hostile fire at Republicans. While he can’t help but admire the party’s strategic success, he worries about the decline of truth, virtue and democracy that seems to have accompanied Republican rule. He views himself as the canary in the coal mine.

“It was amazing how low their party stooped,” he writes of the 2004 campaign. “I had volunteered to go to Vietnam. Bush didn’t. Cheney didn’t.” He concludes that “politics had clearly entered a dark, new chapter” by then and has been growing darker ever since.

For all of this partisan hostility, though, it’s worth keeping in mind what Kerry and Bush have in common: Both came from wealthy, elite families with long-standing political ties; they even went to Yale at the same time. In recent years, Republicans have been adept at selling their high-born candidates as champions of the common man. Democrats, by contrast, have allowed themselves to be cast as insular elites, preaching to the masses while talking mostly to each other. Despite its value as the record of a life in politics, “Every Day Is Extra” will do little to dispel that myth.

Every Day Is Extra

By John Kerry

Simon & Schuster. 622 pp. $35