Heard on the Hill

McCain, Kerry, Hagel Co-Star at Burns’ ‘Vietnam’ Screening

Clips from new 18-hour documentary shown at the Kennedy Center

From left, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, “The Vietnam War” co-director Lynn Novick, Sen. John McCain, “The Vietnam War” co-director Ken Burns, Anne Finucane and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, and former Secretary of State John Kerry pose for a photo Tuesday night at the screening of Burns’ and Novick’s epic Vietnam War documentary. (Courtesy Bank of America)

Public servants who lived through the Vietnam War attended the Washington screening Tuesday of the upcoming PBS documentary on the conflict by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. 

Before the preview screening of “The Vietnam War,” Burns asked Vietnam veterans in the Kennedy Center auditorium to stand up. Dozens did. After the crowd applauded the veterans, Burns asked people who protested the war at the time to stand up.

“I couldn’t tell the difference,” Burns said of the two groups standing in the crowd, adding that he wants to “begin the process of reconciliation.”

Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam, and fellow Vietnam vets and former Senate colleagues John Kerry and Chuck Hagel attended the screening and spoke on a panel afterward.

McCain and Kerry talked about their 10-year effort as senators to normalize relations with their former enemy to help the country heal.

“We needed to move forward in the relationship with Vietnam in order to move forward with the relationship here at home,” Kerry said.

And while McCain is a defense hawk and Kerry an outspoken liberal, they found a way to put aside their differences.

“John and I would pass in the corridors, we’ve been on different wavelengths,” he said. “Seniority put us together.”

But the two men joked that they still dislike each other. 

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McCain recalled the first of their conversations about Vietnam on a plane to Baghdad, “John Kerry — whom I hate …”

Kerry interjected, “Let me begin by saying that I try to hate John, but I can’t.”

Hagel joked: “First, let me say that McCain and Kerry are both losers. That’s about it.”

Burns and Novick showed six clips at Tuesday’s screening from their 18-hour-long documentary, which is set in 10 parts. All three veterans praised the film and the message of reconciliation the filmmakers have tried to convey.

“I think it’s marvelous. I think it’s the right time to tell it because there has to be a period of time after a conflict when the passions cool … and you start to get the real story,” McCain said. “Particularly because we are in such turmoil in the world today, and we look back at the Vietnam conflict and don’t make the same mistakes as before.”

Kerry said the series’ biggest lesson was that it “honors all Vietnam veterans, honors those who served and it recognizes that you should never confuse the warriors from the war.”

Hagel called it “the most compelling, the most comprehensive, the most honest telling of this story of 50 years ago. I’ve been particularly struck with the fairness and the different sides that [Burns] presented.”

Burns said he consulted all three former senators for the series, but didn’t feature them because they were still in the public eye. The documentary features ordinary Americans who served or protested the war and Vietnamese people who fought and lived through it.

The first clip shown was from the opening of the series, which is about the “failure” of the war and how no veterans talk about it. It teases to the fact that the story will be told through accounts of veterans, the North Vietnamese and protesters..

The second clip featured the voice of a North Vietnamese guerilla from Hanoi who was forced to move to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in the South. The third was about the awful conditions American troops faced in Vietnam, and the fourth was about the anti-war movement in the U.S.

The fifth was about the attack by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong on the U.S. embassy in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, and how the American public viewed the incident at home versus what actually happened.

And the sixth clip included the story behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the response to it by veterans, relatives of soldiers killed in the war, and anti-war activists.

How often does McCain visit the memorial?

“Depends on the weather — sometimes once a week, sometimes once every couple of weeks,” the Arizona Republican said.

Burns said at the start of the screening that he had talked to McCain before about how the six clips didn’t do the film justice.

“With his cooperation, we’ve locked the doors and we’re going to show all 18 hours right now,” Burns joked. “You should be out about 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon if we don’t take any bathroom breaks.”

“The Vietnam War” premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT on PBS stations.

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