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Monday, August 23, 2004

Seared Memories, False Memories

Wow, it's really funny how your memory can play tricks on you. The Swifties et al are making a big deal over this Kerry statement from March 27, 1986:

I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what is was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khme Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; The troops were not in Cambodia…I have that memory which is seared--seared--in me....1

Lots of wingers are taking this as proof that Kerry is lying because it's impossible that he was in Cambodia at the time and thus his claim of this memory being "seared" is false2. Kerry has backed off the claim, saying his recollection was mistaken, though he was certainly near Cambodia then and definitely in Cambodia as part of Operation SEALORDS in 1969. But the winger logic is that if a memory were so "seared" in his mind, he wouldn't have made such an error. Thus, he's a liar. QED.

Oddly enough, I committed the same grievous sin several months ago and have just now discovered it. I guess all this talk about ancient memories got me thinking about some stuff I've blogged. Anyway, earlier this week I posted a little about the news that Lithuania had beaten the US in Olympic hoops. I linked to an article I wrote for Open Source Politics back in November of 2003 in which I said:

On my second trip to the Soviet Union, during a language study program in Moscow during the summer of 1990, I got to visit Lithuania...This was back when Lithuania had declared independence from the USSR, and Gorbachev had turned off the oil spigot in retaliation. There was no hot water and even though it was summer, the water we used in our hotels was from the Gulf of Finland, which was so cold that we only dared clean one body part a day in the shower--my scalp literally went numb when I washed my hair.

I happened to go back and re-read that post today, and the graf quoted above planted a seed of doubt in my mind. Being too lazy to go dig out my journals from that time, I decided to do just a little web research and discovered that there is no way I could have showered using water from the Gulf of Finland: it doesn't touch Lithuania.

I have been telling my story for 14 years. One might say the memory of having my scalp freeze is "seared" in my mind. Yet I was factually wrong about an element of the tale.

How could that have happened? It appears I conflated a few things from my travels. Back in 1986 I spent time in Helsinki and St. Petersburg (Leningrad back then), both of which are in fact on the Gulf of Finland--I even took a ride on a hydrofoil in the Gulf. I also did experience very cold showers while staying on the coast of Lithuania, which sits on the Baltic Sea. The Gulf of Finland is an arm of the Baltic.

Boom: I tied a few things together in my mind once long ago, and years of reinforcement made that memory so sharp I didn't even bother to look up stuff in my journal when I wrote that piece. Earlier today I corrected my error.

So I can completely understand if Kerry might not be entirely accurate in some of the details of his experiences. Our recollections are always pretty unreliable, which is why journals and other recordings are so critical to our understanding of the past. So to attack Kerry based on a decades-old memory he refers to in a speech (or a freaking movie review, as some people are doing) is absolutely ridiculous.

But I promise you one thing: the very real memory of these dishonorable attacks on Kerry will be seared - seared - in my mind.


1 - I renew a request I've made elsewhere: if anybody can dig up the Congressional Record with the full speech, I'd greatly appreciate it. It's allegedly on page 6422, but I can't verify because the 99th Congress is not available at LOC or GPO, and I don't have a Lexis-Nexis account. Somebody already has tried to find the speech for me, but to no avail--I suspect because I didn't have enough specific info at the time. BTW, I've found most references indicate Kerry said this on the Senate floor, but I also see some citations say it was in a committee hearing. Anyway, I want to see what the ellipse is hiding, and the full context of the statement.

2 - I'm not going to rehash the myriad arguments about where he was--I think it's highly likely Kerry was in Cambodia based on what I've read, but I'm not going to support that here. I'll also leave aside the parsing of the graf for now (I disagree with people about what exactly is "seared") and just focus on one thing: Kerry's memory of being in Cambodia at Christmastime, 1968.

[Update: thanks to Hubris, who also thinks the Swiftie stuff is silly, I have read a longer chunk of the speech from JustOneMinute. While I'd still like a complete cite from an original source, this excerpt looks legit, right down to the CR page numbers (with all the time I spend reading the current CR, the number I saw in Human Events looked fishy). Seeing the rest of the speech only reinforces my notion that this entire affair over Kerry's statement is the height of idiocy.]

August 23, 2004 | Permalink


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But did your scalp literally go numb -- in other words, was every single nerve ending on your scalp completely anaesthetized -- or did it just feel like your scalp had gone completely numb? Surely you can't discount the possibility that one or two of the millions of nerve endings in your cranial region might still have retained some degree of sensitivity.

And unless you spend your next 15 posts proving your claim, in the terms I have dictated above, you're a LIAR!

/ Karl_Rove

Posted by: vaara | Aug 23, 2004 1:02:42 PM

Here is a more complete transcript of Kerry's 1986 remarks (scroll down a bit).

Posted by: Hubris | Aug 23, 2004 1:18:24 PM

It definitely is NOT page 6422. That page for that year in the Senate refers to an address on May 21, 1986, by John Danforth of Missouri on the "Needs of indigent citizens." Lemme do some digging: there are around 100 items from the CR that pertain to the March date you cited.

Posted by: Michael | Aug 23, 2004 1:40:10 PM

Michael - thanks for checking into this! Please try S3564-02, which records debate on AMENDMENT NO. 1718
(Purpose: To restrict assistance to the Nicaraguan democratic resistance to humanitarian assistance, and for other purposes)

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 23, 2004 1:47:26 PM

In fact, it doesn't appear that Kerry spoke at all on the Senate floor on March 27, 1986. Are you sure that isn't the legislative day he spoke, instead of the calendar date?

Posted by: Michael | Aug 23, 2004 1:52:27 PM


Gracias por el acoplamiento [is that the correct word or did I just say something dirty?]!

Posted by: Hubris | Aug 23, 2004 1:53:02 PM

Michael - It is quite possible that the reference is to the Senate's legislative day (those guys are so whacky with all their silly things like "Morning Business" at 8PM). I honestly don't know and am just going on what I saw on Human Events and elsewhere. Maybe when my copy of Unfit for Command arrives I'll have more specific info.

Hubris - de nada [and I have no idea if you just insulted my mom or not]!

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 23, 2004 2:01:04 PM

Karl, er...vaara - I'm pretty sure I literally mean 'literally', but I could be mistaken. I gotta tell ya, though, I couldn't feel it when I touched my scalp for a few minutes. Literally. But now I guess I must go find my journal, lest I never get to run for President for fear that the Shower Veterans for Truth will attack me...

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 23, 2004 2:16:04 PM

NTodd: Nope. S3564 on that date is "Conclusion of Morning Business." S3712-S3727 are multiple "Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions," but none of them is from Kerry and none of them is on Nicaragua. S3734, S3739, S3745, and S3746 are all amendments (and some statements thereon) regarding aid to the Nicaraguan contras, but again, I'm unable to find any Kerry remarks on the floor or in the "revise-and-extend" sections. A couple of other Democratic senators refer to him in context of a fact-finding trip he and others made, but I can't find anything that even remotely addresses his service in Vietnam. An expanded search through all the results from March 27 on the terms "Kerry" and "Christmas" turned up zero results. Are we sure he was speaking in Congress that day?

Posted by: Michael | Aug 23, 2004 2:18:14 PM

Michael - curiouser and curiouser. It's possible that the remarks were made in committee, but the fact that the excerpt refers to the Senate President rather than a committee Chairman is telling. Could they be found in the Extension of Remarks, rather than in the Senate record? At least on Thomas, they are separate, but usually the Extension has stuff like magazine articles cited in a speech. Doesn't make sense.

I hate not being able to read the speech in an original source.

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 23, 2004 2:34:41 PM

At least according to a scan at InstaHack, it's S3594. But a Lexis/Nexis search on that page from the volume of the CR for 1986 turns up "no record." So InstaHack may have it wrong, or else Lexis/Nexis didn't fully transcribe that volume. We have it in the law library here. Lemme go see if I can dig it out.

Posted by: Michael | Aug 23, 2004 2:38:32 PM

Michael - you are a true patriot and scholar. I'll owe you some beers for this no matter what you find...

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 23, 2004 2:44:26 PM

It's in the daily digest. I made the reference librarian go dig it out of storage for me, and I photocopied the pages (S3593-S3596) that contain Kerry's remarks. They appear to be in the debate on the amendment you referenced earlier (at least, the vote which was recorded in the document before Kerry's remarks was on Amendment 1717.

The funny thing is, there shouldn't be an ellipsis where you have it in the quote in your original post. In the middle column of S3594, Kerry starts out with the following:

"Mr. President, how quickly do we forget? How quickly do we forget? No one wanted to widen the war in Vietnam. We heard that. Let me remind you of what we said during that period of time."

There follow twelve paragraphs, carrying over into the third column of S3594, of statements made by the U.S. government and its officials relative to the war in Vietnam, from 1954 to 1965. The thirteenth paragraph introduced the snippet you quoted above. I will quote that 13th paragraph and the six that follow it (including one which carries over to the leftmost column of S3595):

"Finally, President Nixon, 1970. 'In cooperation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, attacks are being launched this week to clear out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border.'

"Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia.

"I have that memory which is seared--seared--in me, that says to me, before we send another generation into harm's way we have a responsibility in the U.S. Senate to go the last step, to make the best effort possible in order to avoid that kind of conflict.

"Mr. President, good intentions are not enough to keep us out of harms [sic] way. The danger here is our support of the Contras. Everyone knows the Contras are our Contras. We have a proprietary interest in the Contras. So with that proprietary interest we will raise the stakes, and then will come the commitment of our prestige and worse our pride, our pride. How many battles do we fight for pride? The ultimate vote today on temporary policy to give lethal aid that everyone in this Chamber says is not enough to do the job--the job, I take it, meaning to overthrow the Sandinistas is the ultimate vote.

"There is an enormous contradiction in that because we will see people come back to us at the same time next year and say to us, you know, we need more money. Now, I will hear it from the senior Senator from North Carolina, and others: We have backed these guys. We have given them guns. We have given them the hope for freedom. We have given them a stake in their own country. We cannot desert them now.

"I remember a politician who ran for President in 1968 with the secret plan for peace, and he was elected. The only promise he kept was that 4 years later the plan was still a secret. At the time that he ran there were only 22,000 or so names eligible to be on the wall down there at the Mall. When he finished, there were 58,000.

"So, Mr. President, we have a special responsibility. We will be back here, and when the money is needed, we ultimately have to come back. We will be voting on a self-fulfilling prophecy that we have created. We give the Contras aid, and mark my words, you will see more Soviet helicopters, you will see more Cubans. Then the President will have another excuse to come back to the people of this country and [S3595] say, look at what is happening down in Central America. Look at what is happening in Nicaragua. All these Soviets and all these Cubans. We have got to do something about it. And the stakes will increase; international tensions will increase; superpower cold war rhetoric will increase. And nothing will be done to create greater stability."

Damn. Just change a few references in that speech, and he could give it on the stump tomorrow.

I'll be happy to scan or transcribe (or just mail you) the full remarks. Let me know.

Posted by: Michael | Aug 23, 2004 3:44:19 PM

Dude, thanks so much for digging that up. No need to transcribe or mail the remarks, but hang on to them! Seems to me those words after his "seared" comment are incredibly telling. No wonder the wingers want to parse a single paragraph...

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 23, 2004 4:03:21 PM

De nada. I had to go over to the main library this afternoon anyway, to pick up some interlibrary loan stuff for my research project that came in late on Friday (ironically, one of the books came from the University of Vermont). The law library is just across the street, and not five minutes' walk from my office. Think I may post a scan or a transcript to my place. I could use a little extra traffic :-9

Posted by: Michael | Aug 23, 2004 5:09:45 PM

Michael - you rock. Lemme know if you post the speech so I can link to it.

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 23, 2004 5:28:27 PM

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