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John Kerry and thankless tasks

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Sometimes, the ugliest assignments pay off.

In 1991, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., agreed to chair a Senate committee investigating the fate of American soldiers missing in Vietnam.

Success seemed unlikely. Some POW/MIA families remained angry. Paramilitary kooks wanted to raid Vietnam. The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, held forth with conspiracy theories. And the chamber’s Vietnam vets did not hang tight.

“The POW issue was white hot; I mean white hot,” former POW John McCain told Time. There was so much raw emotion.”

Along with other senators, McCain resented the highly decorated Kerry for opposing the war after he came home. But over the course of  Kerry’s 17 trips to Vietnam, and conversations that ran into the night, McCain’s view of Kerry changed to respect.

Kerry finally persuaded the entire committee, including Smith, to sign a report saying that no POWs remained alive in Vietnam. A GOP staffer remembers three all-nighters and a helpful, ever-present Kerry who then took the report and, with McCain by his side, persuaded the president to normalize relations with Vietnam.

It took years of labor. But in the end, that least glorious of assignments won loyalty from vets and votes from Democrats in Kerry’s bid for president.

— Adapted from “Kerry’s Record,” Nancy Gibbs and Douglas Waller, Time.

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