On the morning of November 9, five hours after Hillary Clinton conceded, Seth Moulton’s closest political adviser called him with a suggestion.
“You should run for president in 2020,” Scott Ferson told the 38-year-old, second-term congressman from the North Shore of Massachusetts—one of the least liberal areas of the famously liberal state.
“That’s ridiculous,” Moulton said.
Ridiculous? “Donald Trump was just elected president,” Ferson said.
“Fair point,” Moulton said.
Moulton has three degrees from Harvard, and he did four difficult, decorated tours as a Marine in Iraq. But he’s still a neophyte in the House of Representatives, and in politics. This is the first office of any kind he’s ever held. In the wake, though, of last fall’s terrain-altering election, Ferson detected an opening. “This,” he told me, “is a moment in time where he is the exact right person to run for president.”
This conversation—reported here for the first time—is precisely the type of talk that’s currently causing disgusted eye-rolling among significantly more tenured Democrats in Massachusetts and Washington. They dismiss Moulton, albeit never for attribution, as gratingly ambitious, a grandstanding backbencher who has advocated for the ouster of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to make way for new, younger standard-bearers—like himself. They see Moulton’s message of country over party as not so much admirable as annoying. “It’s the supercilious, sanctimonious Oh golly gee,” one longtime political observer of his district said of Moulton’s assertions of selflessness. Some of the opinions on Capitol Hill are even more scathing. “I don’t think I’ve seen a more opportunistic, duplicitous person serving in the House,” said a senior Democratic aide, blasting Moulton as somebody who talks bigger than he plays and who pillories Pelosi while almost always voting the same way. “He doesn’t do anything around here,” the aide said. Other members who are more supportive are reluctant to say so publicly—cautious about being seen as “giving him a bear hug,” as one Hill staffer put it, “while he’s knifing the leader.”
Every politician, of course, has enemies. But it’s Moulton’s allies who make him atypical—military leaders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, experienced political minds like David Gergen. These people look at Moulton and see the face of the future of the Democratic Party, a social progressive who’s fiscally more moderate. They see somebody who could chip away at the intractable ideological conflict that is crippling this country and appeal to the sorts of voters who have turned away from the party. And these people don’t say this because of Moulton’s legislative accomplishments, which to this point are limited. They don’t say it because he has compared the president to Hitler and chastised him as “a serial liar” and “a draft dodger,” which does not make him unusual as a Democrat. They don’t even say it because of his position on Pelosi, which does. What excites his supporters the most is what Moulton did before he got to Washington—the four tours in Iraq over parts of five years, the two medals of valor, the special counterinsurgency team he served on that reported directly to Petraeus. In Moulton, they see the antithesis of Trump—a recipient of five Vietnam War draft deferments, considered by many to be the least service-oriented president ever.
Moulton is hardly the first veteran to parlay military time into political promise—that one-two is as old as the country itself—but his service is more than simply a line on his résumé. It is the animating principle of his political identity, and it is a root of the reason he’s revered by some and disliked by others. Because if he’s a war hero, a characterization he says makes him cringe, he’s a complicated one. Part patriot and part rebel, Moulton in Iraq was committed to the war and also overtly critical of the way it was being waged—of the administration and the Congress that put him and his Marines there. And the more he fought, the bolder he got. Now, in Washington, a place that runs on fealty to tradition and deference to power, Moulton has planted himself in a familiar position—as an insider who’s an outsider, armed with intelligence and a self-assuredness that can border on self-importance, attacking the system from within.
“I don’t believe that I am the most qualified person to do this, to lead this,” Moulton told me one morning this month, walking the halls of Capitol Hill, when I asked him about his contentious stance on Pelosi. “And I didn’t think I was the most talented Marine, but sometimes when, you know, we were in a situation in Iraq where someone needed to be a leader—and I was the only guy there. Or the only guy willing to do it. And I think that’s where we are right now.”
A generation younger than Pelosi and other party leaders struggling to find a new formula for electoral success, Moulton is not talking about yanking to the left or hewing more to the center—or much policy, period—so much as he’s stressing the philosophy of bipartisanship that undergirds the concept of national service. He has made himself the torchbearer of a crop of Democrats who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and are ramping up to run for Congress in 2018, from New York to North Carolina, Texas to California. He recently got engaged to be married, and he proposed on the balcony of the office of Republican Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House. The wedding is this fall, and the plan is to have on the guest list an even number of Republicans and Democrats from Congress. He’s still paying off student loans, and he’s still getting his health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs—facts he mentions often—and he has a book due out early next year. It’s called Called to Serve. All of this, depending on who’s doing the interpreting, is either calculated preparation for a run for higher office—unseating Ed Markey, the junior senator from Massachusetts, as some suspect, or Ferson’s go-for-broke bid for the White House—or simply the naturally occurring product of an uncommon combination of smarts, a sense of duty and a life story that could play well with a broad swath of the American population. What’s clear is that Moulton is not waiting for status or power bestowed by party bosses. He’s chasing something else.
“This is a man the Democrats ought to be recruiting and grooming for the White House,” said Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, another military man who’s become an enthusiastic Moulton advocate—a former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell and a former director of the United States Marine Corps War College who got to know Moulton by reading internal reports of his exploits in Iraq.
Now, outside, standing in the sun in front of the Library of Congress, I asked Moulton about the possibility.
“I’m not running for president, man,” he said.
Talking to people who know him, though, the conversations are different. Gergen likened Moulton to a young John F. Kennedy, whose mantra was "a new generation of leadership." “I’m guilty of romanticizing Seth and his background,” he told me, “because I think he’s had a very brave and noble life.” He called the prospect of President Seth Moulton a "long shot" for now—but “tantalizing.” Tom Costin, the 91-year-old former mayor of Lynn, Massachusetts, was “very close” to JFK, he said, “but right now, Seth Moulton, with all he’s done, and his background, and his education—he’s farther along.” And when I reached Charles Ferguson, the Oscar-winning director of No End in Sight, a 2007 documentary on the invasion of Iraq in which Moulton played a featured role, Ferguson was frank about Moulton’s ambition. Based on discussions he had with Moulton over the course of years, Ferguson told me, Moulton has his eyes on the Oval Office. The only question is when he will run. “I am 100 percent certain that he intends to do that,” Ferguson said. “Unless there’s some very unexpected turn in the road, yes, he’s going to run for president.”
Seth Moulton is in Washington because he did something he wasn’t supposed to do: He challenged a nine-term incumbent. He ran against not only John Tierney—a reliably liberal vote for nearly 20 years, known as a workhorse, not a show horse—but essentially the leadership of the Democratic Party. Siding with Tierney were Pelosi, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the most prominent Massachusetts Democrats—from Elizabeth Warren in the Senate on down to the House. “I support incumbents unless they’re incarcerated,” Emily Cherniack, an informal Moulton adviser and the executive director of New Politics, said she was told by one seasoned Massachusetts politico. Joe Trippi, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Howard Dean and others, was warned by establishment Democrats in Washington that he would “never eat lunch in this town again,” he said, if he went to work for Moulton. He did anyway. “This is exactly the kind of person we need in the party today,” Trippi said. Betsy Merry, a real estate agent in Salem, remembers introducing Moulton to people around town as “your next congressman,” she said, “and they would say, ‘There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell he’s going to beat John Tierney.” They weren’t far off. In March 2014, internal polling showed Moulton trailing Tierney by 54 points. Mark Mellman, the campaign’s pollster, told Moulton he might consider bowing out. Moulton heard the phrases “statistically impossible” and “no credible path”—and stayed in.
“Basically, he said, ‘Everybody’s told me it’s going to be really, really hard,’” Gergen recalled. “And he said, ‘It can’t be any harder than Iraq.’”
“I can’t remember many candidates who were in that situation and didn’t walk away,” Trippi said. “But Seth said, ‘I didn’t get into this thing to get out. … I’m going to go make my case.’ And he did.”
At various stages of the campaign Moulton called himself “a progressive Democrat,” “a pragmatic Democrat” and “a frustrated Democrat.” If his identity was still taking shape, his network of support from Andover and Harvard was more fully formed from the start. He brought in better than $350,000 in his first quarter ever as a candidate, and the figure rose from there. The crux of Moulton’s pitch: “I went, led my platoon and always ate last—after my Marines.” Personal sacrifice. “That really connected,” Ferson said.
That summer, though, with the primary some 60 days out, the outcome of his efforts was still very much in doubt. Moulton fired his campaign manager, shifting to highlight the heart of his appeal, installing a fellow Harvard graduate—and a fellow Marine, Jeff Phaneuf, 26, whose entire political experience was a three-month stint as Moulton’s driver. “I think,” Phaneuf told me, “a lot of people saw it as, ‘Well, Seth Moulton just threw his campaign away.’”
It’s not how Moulton saw it.
A mixture of old money and old factories, working waterfronts and struggling small cities, union halls and revitalizing downtowns, and with a strong presence of veterans throughout, Massachusetts’ 6th is almost a swing district by the standards of the state—a place in which Trump won 38.2 percent of the vote last fall, second only to the 41.8 percent he got on Cape Cod. To win the trust of its constituents, and then their votes, Moulton in 2014 acted as a kind of insurgent—cobbling together endorsements from lower-wattage local mayors, city councilors and area activists, presenting as a new voice and a fresh face. The pitch was generational more than political. He leaned on persona more than policies. “He had a life story,” said former Gloucester Mayor Bruce Tobey, “that grabbed me.”
“What’s needed in Washington,” Moulton told the Boston Globe, “is a sense of service, and you don’t have to be a veteran to have that. But I know all veterans have it.”
Gergen met Moulton when Moulton was a senior at Harvard. “He was serious, articulate and had a quiet passion about him,” Gergen said. And writing in the Globe five days before the primary about an up-and-coming crop of politically enterprising veterans, including Moulton, he acknowledged that people should be “willing to pay their dues. But if there is a bigger fear, it is the tendency of leaders of the political establishment, for all its talk about change, to cling to the status quo, giving too little help and encouragement to these young candidates trying to break through.” Gergen called out Warren for “reflexively” endorsing Tierney “with nary a tip of the hat to Moulton.”
But Moulton received endorsements from the Globe and also the more conservative Boston Herald—an almost unheard-of pairing—as well as McChrystal, the Army general who had led all forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 before resigning over remarks critical of the administration in an article in Rolling Stone. He didn’t know Moulton from war—they met at an event at Harvard—and he had never endorsed a political candidate. For Moulton, though, he headlined a gathering at the Peabody Elks Lodge. “I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican, I’m not an independent, I’m not any of that,” McChrystal told the crowd of a little more than 100 people, mostly veterans. This wasn’t about party politics, Moulton said. “I didn’t have a platoon of Democrats.”
A week before the primary, a poll showed Moulton behind Tierney by only 3 points. Tellingly, too, people thought Moulton had the better chance of winning in the general election against the waiting Republican, Richard Tisei, a moderate who had come surprisingly close to beating Tierney two years before. In the end, Moulton trounced Tierney by nearly 11 points. The victory party was at the VFW in Salem. Veterans staffed a cash bar.
The animus that exists between Moulton and powerful quarters of the Democratic Party today dates back to this initial race. It has been exacerbated by what he has said about Pelosi—whose daughter, Christine, was Tierney’s chief of staff, from 2001 to 2005. “Look, Leader Pelosi has achieved an awful lot,” Moulton told me in Washington. “But it’s time for a change. And the most important reason is that the American people are suffering because Democrats are not in power. We need to start winning again as Democrats. And maybe the attacks against her by the Republicans are unfair. Maybe the way that they tie candidates to Leader Pelosi and say she’s a San Francisco elitist … maybe that’s unfair. I think it is. I think that if you dive into the policy details she’s not nearly the extremist people make her out to be. But the reality is that we’re losing. And the American people out there are demanding a change.”
Moulton loyalists bristle when asked about this tension.“Why should Seth be a party guy?” said Jon Soltz, the chairman of VoteVets, a progressive organization that helps veterans run for office and supported Moulton’s 2014 campaign. “They didn’t help him”—at least not until he dispatched Tierney, at which point most of the high-profile Tierney endorsers and the DCCC flipped to assist Moulton with money, staff and time. “The D-trip sent people up to Boston to beat him—and we were saving them from a seat they would’ve lost!” Soltz said. Moulton unsettled them, he said, because he didn’t need them. “He had donors that weren’t on their team. He brought new donors to the fight.” And it’s still true, he said. “He’s not beholden to them.” He ran unopposed in 2016.
Back in September 2014, though, Moulton’s victory over Tierney made the general election practically anticlimactic. The Tisei campaign had been preparing to run against Tierney—with some of the staff hoping to run against Tierney. Moulton was, they thought, a rough-edged rookie, an oddly ill-at-ease physical presence and an uninspiring orator. Privately, Moulton’s own advisers didn’t disagree. He didn’t ooze empathy. He could be gruff. He had a lot to learn. But they suspected he could overcome all of this with his extraordinary biography.
Tisei staff scanned the long list of Moulton’s pre-politics media appearances, looking for ammunition, finding none. Moulton had been on CNN in November 2001 after he emailed Greta Van Susteren. “We have to be courageous and committed, just like the terrorists,” he told her. Moulton was the archetype of the scholar-soldier journalists love—educated, articulate, equally at home in the home of a tribal leader or an Ivy League lecture hall. NPR reporters had located him repeatedly in Iraq. In 2003, the Globe wrote about him twice—including an article that opened with Moulton at home on leave sitting at his parents’ piano playing Bach. In congressional testimony, meanwhile, military brass had talked about Moulton reverentially. “He is the model of the exceptionally intelligent, combat-tested and culturally savvy officer,” a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School said in 2005. In 2008, Wilkerson, the former Powell chief of staff, called Moulton “one of my heroes.” And in 2011, in Time, Joe Klein had written about Moulton in a long story headlined “The New Greatest Generation.”
That fall, Tisei tried to paint Moulton as a Wall Street elitist propped up by an array of rich supporters from his ultra-exclusive alma maters, but this strategy suffered after an investigative reporter from the Globe published a report two and a half weeks before the election saying military records revealed that Moulton had won two medals for valor. To earn the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation and the Bronze Star, Moulton had “fearlessly exposed himself to enemy fire”—and then hadn’t talked about it. In the campaign, only Phaneuf knew about the medals. Mellman didn’t know. Trippi didn’t know. Moulton’s parents didn’t know. “There’s a healthy disrespect among veterans who served on the front lines for people who walk around telling war stories,” Moulton said at the time. He asked the Globe to please not describe him as a “hero.”
“That bastard,” said a Massachusetts Republican strategist familiar with the race. “He built the most perfect résumé of all time.”
The first meeting I had with Moulton was earlier this summer in Salem, Massachusetts, at the Ugly Mug Diner. He sat down for lunch and ordered a milk.
“Milk?” I said.
“I love milk,” Moulton said. “I always drink milk.”
He told me he used to down seven glasses a day in grad school. Now he just has it with every meal if he can. Moulton drank the milk and ate a tuna melt and outlined the beginnings of his “perfect résumé.”
He grew up in Marblehead, a picturesque, upper-middle-class coastal town steeped in Revolutionary War lore. The oldest of three children of a real estate lawyer and a hospital secretary—staunch liberals who protested the Vietnam War as students at Brown University—Moulton as a boy watched a Marine land a helicopter in the field where he played soccer. “You’re so lucky,” Moulton told the Marine. “I’m not lucky,” the Marine told Moulton. “I’m good.” Moulton, serious-minded even early on, checked out from the public library nothing but nonfiction, according to his mother, mostly how-to-books. He wired his house to create an intercom system through which he could talk from his bedroom to his parents downstairs and later built from scratch a sprinkler system in their yard. On a family ski trip, he told his sister she wasn’t pushing herself hard enough if she didn’t fall at least once every seven trips down the mountain. She was 7 years old.
At Andover, where the motto is non sibi, or not for self, Moulton was one of two sports editors for the weekly student newspaper, the Phillipian. He worked late on nights before it went to print, when his peers were ready to go study or sleep, and on sections that weren’t even his own. He was understated to the point of shy, “one of the least self-promotional people I knew,” said his friend, Sam Goodyear, but he had a reputation for being exacting and fastidious. He was respected for this, but some found it irksome at times. “He didn’t suffer fools or sloppy work,” said the other sports editor, Owen Tripp. Moulton was the captain of the varsity crew team and sat in the stroke seat for three years. “The guy in the stroke seat,” said Pete Washburn, Moulton’s crew coach, “is the one who sets the cadence, and everybody else has to follow.” Moulton, said Jeff Herzog, the coxswain on the team, was steady as “a metronome.” The stroke doesn’t have to be the best, biggest or strongest oarsman, Washburn said, but he does have to possess a certain mettle when the boat is behind. He needs to be able to keep his form and his head when it’s hard. At graduation, Moulton merited “special mention for distinguished scholarship” in chemistry, math and physics. In the 1997 Andover yearbook, he picked a Shakespeare quote: “To thine own self be true.”
In the fall of his freshman year in college, he walked into Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and met the Reverend Peter Gomes, who would become the most influential person in Moulton’s life. Moulton’s father is Catholic and his mother is Protestant. He and his brother and sister went to both kinds of churches growing up. Even though he’s “not super-religious,” he now attends Marblehead’s Old North Church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a historically liberal Protestant denomination that emphasizes local autonomy and a personal relationship with God. In the short time he lived as an adult in Texas, he attended Highland Park United Methodist Church, which used to be George W. Bush’s church, he noted to me. But back in college, what he was looking for from Memorial Church wasn’t religion per se. Harvard’s Gomes, a gay, black registered Republican for most of his life who participated in the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, preached humility, hope and grace—and, above all else, service. He and Moulton, Gomes later would write, had “many conversations about the large questions of value, virtue, worth, and vocation.” “Reverend Gomes,” said Liz Boardman, Moulton’s Georgetown- and Harvard-educated fiancée, “put a hand on Seth’s shoulder and guided him.” Inside Memorial Church, Moulton often looked at the long list of Harvard graduates who died in World War I and the long list of Harvard graduates who died in World War II and then the considerably shorter list of Harvard graduates who died in Vietnam. And he committed to memory the quote from former Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell that wraps around the walls in the foyer: “While a bright future beckoned they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies that we might learn from their courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”
It’s a lot to think about, Moulton told me at the Ugly Mug, but the main takeaway for him was this: “We ought to not just celebrate what they did but recognize it as a call to action ourselves.”
In May of his senior year of college, Moulton made the decision to join the Marines. His parents did not approve. “There was no career choice he could have made that would have made me more unhappy, except if he had chosen a life of crime,” his mother would say later. Moulton’s friends were puzzled, too. “Why would you do that?” they asked. One friend said he was going into investment banking because it was “a different kind of public service.” Another friend told Moulton going into the military was “fucking stupid.”
In June, Moulton was one of three student speakers at the commencement of Harvard’s Class of 2001. He said his generation was “undeservingly triumphant in our lives fraught with success” and living in a world “dominated by contentment, and threatened by mediocrity.” He challenged them to attempt to achieve “greatness.” “Greatness,” he said in his five-minute speech, “is accomplishing the unrequired—doing what is right beyond what is expected. … [I]t takes people who are bold and courageous, people who are willing to take extraordinary steps to an uncertain future.” Gomes was so struck by what Moulton said that he wrote about it the next year in the first chapter of a book he titled The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need.
“When I started listening to Reverend Gomes and his message of service,” Moulton explained at the Ugly Mug, “I was not able to look back and say, ‘I’ve done a lot.’ I would look back and say, ‘God, I’ve benefited from other people’s service.’ … And what have I done? What have I done to give back?’” He considered the Peace Corps. He considered teaching abroad.
“But at the end of the day,” he said, “I just had so much respect for these 18- and 19-year-old kids who put their lives on the line for our country. And that’s also why I wanted to be in the infantry. If I was going in because of those guys, I didn’t ever want to be riding around in a tank when some 18-year-old kid, younger than me by that point, was slogging through the mud next to me. I don’t know. I just feel that to my core, like, um …”
Tears welled in his eyes.
“I’m just, I’m just—there’s nothing I’m more proud of in my whole life than serving with those guys,” he said. “Of being a grunt.”
He picked up a paper napkin and wiped his face.
Moulton says he would not be in Congress if not for his time in the Marine Corps, if not for the specific war in which he served, and if not for the way that war was mismanaged.
The first time he went to Iraq in early 2003, he was at 24 years old the commander of the 2nd Platoon of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, fighting north from the Kuwait border. That April, in Baghdad, according to military records I reviewed, he rushed to the aid of one of his men who was critically wounded by friendly artillery fire—in spite of a threat of another barrage directed at the same target. This is what he won the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal for. “Without regard for his personal safety,” says the citation.
The second time he went to Iraq, he led his platoon and allied Iraqi soldiers in the Battle of Najaf against the Mahdi militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. For 22 days in August 2004, in fierce urban combat, and with little sleep, water or food, and in temperatures that reached 135 degrees, according to military records, Moulton coordinated tank attacks, counter-sniper operations and perilous fighting in a cemetery swarming with machine-gunning, mortar-firing insurgents. From there, his platoon continued into the city, besieging a Mahdi-controlled shrine and buildings in which militants rolled grenades and sprayed bullets down stairs. This is what he won the Bronze Star for. “Continually exposed himself to enemy fire,” says the citation.
In Moulton’s third and fourth tours, he worked directly for Petraeus, who had first spotted Moulton at a briefing in Najaf. “I thought, ‘Man, this guy is sharp,’” said Petraeus, whose focus on counterinsurgency tactics is widely credited with stabilizing Iraq, when we talked this month. “And he was forthright. He wasn’t pulling any punches.” He worked for Petraeus in 2005 and then in 2007 and 2008—after he had been off active duty and could have stayed stateside. But he and two other handpicked Marines returned to a country that had become a hornet’s nest of sectarian strife. Living in remote, bare-bones buildings spray-painted with warnings of “Americans Go Home,” Moulton was tasked with getting different tribal heads to work together, to convince Iraqis to fight rebels instead of joining them. Along with Alex Lemons and Ann Gildroy Fox, the other two members of Petraeus’ select “Team Phoenix,” Moulton’s efforts frequently consisted of day-and-night, door-to-door foot patrol—face-to-face diplomacy rather than sheer force. “You can’t kill or capture yourself out of an industrial-strength insurgency. You have to try to get them on your side. You have to serve where they live,” Petraeus explained to me. “And I needed him to show that was viable, and survivable.” How to earn their trust? “We traveled alone with Iraqis, sometimes in very soft vehicles, to demonstrate our willingness to lose our lives with them,” Fox said. “When you put yourself in these vulnerable positions, it shows people you believe in what you’re doing. And he did that all the time.”
Moulton had a way about him, though, that rankled “a lot of people with a lot of rank on the collar,” as Fox put it. “There were times,” Petraeus acknowledged, “when he got crosswise with people.” Years after the late nights in the office of the Phillipian at Andover, and years before he would ruffle feathers on Capitol Hill, Moulton in Iraq could present as confident or cocky, impressive or insufferable. “The Iraqis that we worked with, high-ranking, low-ranking, they absolutely loved Seth,” Fox said. “It was our own establishment that would stand in his way and work within the system to get accolades or credit for themselves to promote their careers. And Seth just blew right through them.”
Moulton became less and less hesitant about voicing his opinions, even if they were unpopular. While supporting the mission, he criticized the methods. And he questioned the commitment of the United States as a whole—of the majority of its citizens, who weren’t serving and sacrificing the way he was. By late August 2004, toward the end of the Battle of Najaf, he hinted at his dissatisfaction in an interview with a radio reporter. Back in the U.S., President Bush had stood in front of a banner that said “Mission Accomplished,” some 15 months before—and here was Moulton, in the midst of the most ferocious combat he had experienced. “We will do whatever our commander in chief tells us to do and will go to the ends of the earth for him,” Moulton said on NPR—before suggesting he wouldn’t be supporting Bush that November in his reelection campaign against John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran. “There’s one thing that he can’t order us to do, and that’s how to vote in November.”
In 2006, in between his third and fourth tours, Moulton wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. The situation in Iraq was deteriorating, and militias were spreading, because American troops were retreating—“as advocated by several members of Congress,” he said. And too many of the troops who were there, he argued, weren’t being used properly. “We can’t win this war from the Burger Kings and rec centers of our biggest bases,” he wrote.
And by 2007, in No End in Sight, the documentary by Ferguson, Moulton let loose.
He criticized the lack of planning and foresight of the politicians who used their power to put him there. “After the fall of Baghdad, we had no idea what really was going to happen, and there certainly didn’t seem to be much of a plan,” he said. “Personally, I feel the war would be going differently if you had, um, leadership that really understood, No. 1, what it’s like to be on the ground, had actually served in the armed forces—and, No. 2, really had a good managerial grasp of making this thing work.” He lambasted the dispiriting lack of armored Humvees and “short-sighted” civilian contractors—people who were there, after all, only because there weren’t enough actual troops.
Ferguson gave him the last word of the film.
“And are you telling me that’s the best America can do?” said a stern-faced Moulton. “No. Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najaf that. Don’t tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that that’s the best America can do.” Moulton shook his head. His chin quivered. “That makes me angry,” he said. The screen went black.
The premiere of No End in Sight was at the Sundance festival in Park City, Utah, where a mostly liberal crowd of some 1,500 gave it a standing ovation. Ferguson walked to the front of the auditorium. He introduced the people from the film who were present. “And when I introduced Seth, there was just this thunderous applause. It was astounding,” Ferguson told me this month. “That’s the first time I thought, ‘Hmm, this is a guy who could end up going someplace in public office.’”
There is a story that has congealed around Moulton that goes like this: He was working as the managing director of the Texas Central Railway, trying to develop high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston, when Gergen mentioned him at a donor breakfast in Boston, and Cherniack and Ferson were there, and they were intrigued and called him and urged him to move back and run for Congress—and that this was the first time he had considered the idea. All of that is true—except the part about how he hadn’t thought about it before. In 2004, in Najaf, fighting in that cemetery, losing Marines, one of his men told him, “You know, sir, you ought to run for Congress someday so that this shit doesn’t happen again,” Moulton would say more than a decade later. And in early 2008, Moulton and Lemons and some other Marines were making frozen hamburgers on the roof of their barracks in southern Iraq, talking about exit plans. Moulton was going back to Harvard, pursuing graduate degrees at the business school and the Kennedy School of Government. After that, though, he might run for Congress, he said.
“Seth said, ‘Guys, I don’t want this to happen to the next generation of guys in the Marine Corps,’” Lemons told me—sent to a war that shouldn’t have been started and wasn’t run right once it was. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I get this. I could see you doing this.’”
Lemons’ voice crackled with conviction. “Many people who had power to speak up didn’t,” he said. “And it led to disastrous consequences.”
He’s not like that, not like the people with power who don’t say what needs to be said, Moulton was telling me now. We were in the back seat of a Honda Accord. A staffer was driving him from Salem to Ipswich for a roundtable with local business executives.
“I genuinely believe that Congress would be better and more effective if we had more service-oriented people in Congress, because I think that a lot of my colleagues—you know, many of whom I love and respect—make pretty self-interested, politically self-interested decisions, when they decide how to vote on things and what policies to support or whom to support in campaigns,” he said. “Anecdotally, I have found that newer members of Congress, younger members of Congress, and especially veterans in Congress, just tend to be more more bipartisan, tend to be willing to rise above the party rhetoric and say, ‘I don’t care what the Democratic position is or the Republican position is on this issue—like, I just want to do what’s right for the country.’
“Because there are a lot of members of Congress who know what the right thing to do is,” he said, “and yet they just get scared and vote the way that they are expected to vote politically.”
Moulton then told me a story about an experience at Officer Candidate School, in Quantico, Virginia. Before Moulton and the other aspiring Marine officers ran through mud and up and down hills with a long, heavy log on their shoulders, the platoon commander asked them about the first rule of this exercise. “Safety,” they said. Wrong. “If safety was the first rule,” the commander shot back, “we wouldn’t be running through a swamp with a log on our shoulders.” The first rule of the log run was teamwork. And the only objective was accomplishing the mission.
It should be the same way in Congress, Moulton said. “Self-preservation shouldn’t be the first instinct in politics. It should be doing the right thing for the country. That’s why you’re fucking there.”
Sitting in the Accord, on the winding roads of the North Shore, listening to Moulton call his colleagues in Congress “self-interested” and “scared,” I practically could hear the tut-tutting from down in D.C. “Not well-liked.” “Looks out for himself.” “Pompous.” And so ambitious—even by the standards of a city in which ambition is lifeblood. Moulton’s anonymous detractors cite the effusive thank-you note he wrote Pelosi last year, according to reporting in the Globe last month, as evidence of his two-facedness—one posture when nearly everybody expected the Democrats to keep the White House and win back the House of Representatives, and then the opposite when that didn’t happen. Moulton defended what he had written to Pelosi as standard civility. But his critics saw the latest part of a pattern. They point to his brief time with the railroad in Texas and with a health care startup in Massachusetts as quick-hit résumé-padders. They surmise he moved not to his hometown but to Salem—where he lives in a brick condominium just off the central common—because it would have been harder to appeal to the district’s blue-collar voters with an upper-crust Marblehead address. They say his signature achievement, the bipartisan “Faster Care for Veterans Act of 2016”—which hangs on the wall of his office in Washington, under a set of oars from crew—was an obvious, easy legislative “layup.” He doesn’t even want to put himself out there and actually run to take Pelosi’s place, either, they grumble—he just wants her to step aside. And to the senior Democratic aide who sees him as “duplicitous,” the idea of Moulton running for president is “preposterous.” “You can’t just run on the fact that you have a bunch of degrees from Harvard and you served in the military,” the aide said.
Moulton’s advocates insist these people on Capitol Hill have pegged him wrong.
“Washington missed it the first time,” said Trippi, referring to the 2014 race, “and they may be missing it again. … And I think one of the reasons they keep misreading him is that he really is different. He’s not the politically calculated guy that a lot of them are.”
How, ask Gergen, Petraeus and McChrystal, can Moulton be stamped as some rank opportunist, when he went to Iraq four times—including after his active-duty obligation was over? “If you’re just checking a box,” McChrystal said, “there are easier ways to do it.”
And the idea that he would run for president, said Ferson, his adviser who made the call on November 9, “is no more ridiculous than me asking to meet him to urge him to run against an incumbent congressman in Massachusetts—but that’s what we did.”
The eight Moulton-endorsed Democratic veterans who are running for Congress consider him a mentor and a model for what they’re trying to do, which is unsurprising. But Moulton does have allies, too, who are already in the House, and in both parties.
“He has a moral compass,” Republican Representative Will Hurd of Texas told me, “where he’s willing to do what’s right over what’s political.”
“I love the guy,” said Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, another of the leading anti-Pelosi Democrats. “He’s the kind of guy we need to have around, pushing us to think differently about things, whether you agree with him or not.”
In the Accord, nearing Ipswich, I asked Moulton whether he thinks he can get away with saying what he says—about Trump, about Pelosi, about his colleagues, all the way back to what he said about the war—because he served the country when so many Americans did not. When so many members of Congress did not.
“No—because I think everybody can get away with the truth,” he said.
“Some of the most controversial things I’ve said about President Trump, I’ve heard from Republicans,” he continued. “But it’s just that I’ve heard them in the locker room. That’s what people actually talk about in the locker room—how terrible our president is.”
The car pulled into the parking lot. He asked the staffer to pull up and out of view so he could put on his tie.
“We all know that Leader Pelosi has a lot of allies, right?” Moulton said. “Do you know how many of them have come up to me and said, ‘Stop doing what you’re doing’? Exactly zero. Do you know how many people who even voted for her”—in last fall’s caucus tally—“have come up to me and checked to make sure no one’s listening and then patted me on the back and said, ‘Keep it up’? And that’s not because I came up with some brilliant idea that we need new leadership. All I did was just say publicly what everybody else is saying privately, and stand by it, and defend it… I’m no genius for thinking we need new Democratic leadership. I mean, I hear that back home all the time. So I think the point here is that we just need more people in Washington to speak the truth.”
Moulton pivoted to the president. “When people say Donald Trump ‘tells it like it is,’ it’s a crooked way to get at the same thing,” he said. “Like, they’re so anxious for somebody who will just be honest as a politician that they voted for a guy who’s absolutely dishonest but he just says things in a sort of, quote-unquote ‘real’ way. Right? That’s what people are yearning for…Of course you should expect your leaders to tell the truth. When I went through [Officer Candidate School], you could fail a test, you could fail an academic test, an athletic test—like, they give you a second shot. But if you lied about anything, you were gone immediately. Pack your bags and you’re out. And by the way, when you fail out of OCS, you don’t go in to be an enlisted Marine—you just go home. Like, that’s how important integrity is. And so we just need more of that. And people in America know that.”
Tie tied, Moulton opened the door, stepped out of the car and started shaking hands.