04/05/2006 09:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Greek Tragedy of John F. Kerry

An anecdote about John Kerry has been haunting me since I first heard it several months ago, and his move today to establish deadlines for a military withdrawal reminded me of it. It suggests that the life of the Man Who Would Have Been President has a certain element of Greek tragedy to it.

When the Democrats in the Senate made their fear-based and cynical decision to vote for the Iraq war (despite the fact that most of them realized it was wrong), they did so in a group meeting behind closed doors. It came out recently that Kerry made an impassioned argument for voting against the war during that meeting, but bowed to the majority.

That single decision cost him the Presidency he had been seeking his entire life.

Most Democrats in the House and Senate made the same decision. It was unforgivable, as far as I'm concerned. Voting for a war that you know is wrong is ethically inexcusable and certainly not a Profile in Courage. I don't retract that opinion - not for Kerry, Hillary, Edwards, or the other Senators who did so. When Tom Daschle lost his seat, I felt it was payback pure and simple. And we all saw what happened as a result of Kerry's vote, and his stumbling attempts to explain it.

Kerry's done a lot of very positive things in his political career, and it took more courage than people realize to be an antiwar leader in the bitterly divided days of Vietnam - especially if you dreamed of a political career, as he did even then.

The decision the Democratic Senators made was also a major tactical error. We know that now, yet many of Kerry's colleagues continue to make it on a daily basis. But Kerry? For him that choice was that one wrong act in a tragedy that brings down the protagonist.

I don't think it's stretching things too much to say that the decision reflected Kerry's "hamartia," which is often translated too simply as a "fatal flaw." A character's hamartia can be a virtue as well as a flaw, but it always reflects a mismatch between him or her and the situation facing him or her.

And his hamartia always brings about the character's downfall.

Kerry's decision to work within the political system, and within the Democratic Party, was wise and sound. He's done a lot of good as a result. It's his hamartia, and it's not a flaw. But he took the spirit of accommodation too far. The Party's leadership has demonstrated a craven and cynical attitude toward the moral choices that confront them - an attitude that's not only wrong ethically, but foolish strategically.

Kerry's compromise with his Party's leadership and advisors ended his quest for the Presidency - in 2004 and probably forever.

Here's another term from Greek tragedy: "anagnorisis." It indicates the process by which a tragic hero comes to understand his destiny and his true nature. It's a process I think Al Gore went through in 2000. Is Kerry now experiencing his own? Is this move a step forward from the personal vacuum he entered when he voted for the war?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, the only moral redemption available to these Senators is to dedicate themselves to undoing the tragedy they helped bring about. (It's probably also their only shot at the Presidency.) Sadly, few of them have made any real moves to do so. I have some reservations about its content, but Kerry's move is a step in the right direction. I hope it changes the political dialogue about the war. It could also represent a compass change in Kerry's career.

Kerry's Greek tragedy - if it is one - is far less important than our country's. For that matter, ours is less important than Iraq's. The sorrow and devastation there are overwhelming (which is why our media "chorus" consistently under-reports the human toll of the war, despite what the Bushniks have been saying lately.)

The Greek element in Kerry's story may not be what's most important, but it's food for thought. The only thing missing from this particular tragedy is the sense of catharsis that Aristotle felt should be present in every such drama. That will only come when the war is brought to an end - the sooner, the better.

A Night Light