It's a side effect of not having a soul...
I've seen Kerry in person. In the words of George W., you're "misunderestimating" him if you think he has no charisma. He's very stiff and lordly on television, but in small venues, he can rap with folks, cut up, and really turn on the charm. Don't discount him. Be afraid. Very afraid.
Stink Palming!!! That's a new term for me! Damn that's funny!
The Misunderestimation of John Kerry
Beware of this man. He's won every race that he was supposed to lose.
by Charles P. Pierce | Jun 01 '04
This is how the story will begin for me, when I tell it in another saloon some day, maybe ten years from now, as the ocean darkens outside the windows. It begins with the sun falling over Falmouth Harbor on Cape Cod, falling literally over a yardarm, and the water going gold first, and then a deeper blue.
It was the middle week in August of the election year 1982. The Falmouth Road Race had been run that morning, and thousands of people had shown up for the race and for the extended weekend frivolity that had come to surround it, which meant there were thousands of hands to shake and dozens of politicians to shake them, even politicians running for lieutenant governor. John Nance Garner is famous for having described the vice-presidency of the United States as being not worth "a bucket of warm piss." Being lieutenant governor of Massachusetts is pretty much the same thing, except without the bucket.
Nevertheless, there were people running for it, and one of them was Evelyn Murphy, who'd hired a truck to follow along behind the racers and pick up all their discarded paper cups and orange peels. The truck had big signs on it promoting her candidacy. Her principal opponent, a former assistant district attorney for Middlesex County named John Kerry, had spent the day on his boat with his personal aide, a former PGA Tour caddie named Chris Greeley. The two of them came wandering into the saloon as the afternoon waned.
There were five of us there, sipping some cool restoratives, and Kerry was telling tales of his days as an antiwar counterculture hero in New York City at what turned out to be the shank end of the Age of Aquarius. One of our company had been a bartender at the late, lamented Lion's Head in Greenwich Village at roughly the same time, so he and Kerry had run in the same circles, and they swapped stories about who had gone home with whom at the end of whatever long evening. The names flew and I lost track of them after a while, and I believe I somehow ended up with the notion that G. Gordon Liddy had participated in enthusiastic tag-team gymnastics with Joni Mitchell and Bella Abzug.
At that time, I knew what everybody in Massachusetts knew about John Kerry. We knew about the decorated hero from Vietnam who, at twenty-seven, had come home and asked Congress a question that a lot of people should've asked in 1965: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" We knew that what was supposed to have been a golden political career had run aground. He'd lost a bizarre congressional race in 1972, entered the DA's office in Middlesex County, and was now running for lieutenant governor because he had to prove he could get elected to something .
"That race," an old Kerry aide recalls, talking about one of the least significant political offices ever devised by the hand of man, "was sudden death, because if he'd lost, that would've been twice, and that was the ball game."
We also knew Kerry was aloof and patrician, given to unfortunate bouts of earnest public sonority. In short, we knew he wasn't a pol, didn't have an easy connection to people, was not a natural. We knew this, mind you, because we'd seen him run for office, and because we'd seen him lose, and if he'd been a pol, he could've overcome his wealth and privilege the way Jack Kennedy had. Nevertheless, here he was, in the softening summer evening, not merely good company but great saloon company, the way a pol is great saloon company. A storyteller, for chrissakes, the way the old guys are up in the joints on Beacon Hill, the gin blossoms exploding on their faces like old sins detonating beneath the skin. This was the first time I realized that John Kerry was not completely grim. Hell, it was the first time I realized he wasn't made out of wood.
And now here he is, son of a bitch, two decades later, up on a stage in Washington, D. C., spotlights thrown all around him, the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic party. He's surrounded by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and flanked by the other candidates who'd had all those qualities that John Kerry is supposed to lack—John Edwards, who had more charisma, and Howard Dean, who had more passion—and all of whom John Kerry had beaten like tin drums in an astonishing piece of politics between Christmas and the first month of the New Year.
He mortgaged a house. He worked the rooms in Iowa until there weren't any rooms left. He put in place a pol's operation that got people to the places he needed them to be, and he left the rest of them, the charismatic ones and the passionate ones, as the pols of my grandfather's generation would say, in the ha'penny place, which is Irish for the cheap seats.
He did what he had to do. He surrendered, as any candidate must, to the importance of the utterly trivial and to how important the irrelevant can become. He took all the japes about his second wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the millionaire heiress to a condiment fortune. He dealt with the discovery that his ancestry was Jewish. He put more of his life on the slab than ever before.
And now Kerry is lined up against an incumbent with $190 million to spend in defense of his office and as deftly bloodthirsty a national political operation as has ever been constructed. The Bush campaign is defining him—as a waffler, as a Massachusetts liberal, as a gloomy presence on the national scene—and he's been engaged in what his longtime friends call one of his periods of political walkabout, in which his intellectual, ruminative side overpowers his combative political id.
However, it's important to remember that Edwards thought he saw vulnerability there, and so did Howard Dean, and so did most of the political smart set. Now John Kerry's in the spotlight and they're all applauding him.
In the fecund hothouse of Massachusetts politics, where political bona fides are measured not in years but in generations, Kerry was never perceived to be a pol, and the pols resented him. Hence every time John Kerry wins an election he's not supposed to win—especially the one in 1996, when he came back from eight points down in August to win reelection to the Senate, sending popular Republican governor William Weld spinning all the way into a midlife crisis—the assembled wiseguys always wonder how he's managed to put it over on them again.
Now Kerry's the one up at the podium, delivering a laugh line that gets what can charitably be described as a this-guy-might-be-able-to-make-me-an-ambassador-one-day reaction. There's a kind of sag in the pressroom at this. However, I've gone back twenty years, back up on the bluffs in Falmouth, and the day is waning, and Greeley is trying to get John Kerry back on the campaign trail so Kerry can get elected lieutenant governor and, therefore, one day be in position to get elected president of the United States.
Kerry's not moving. He has another story to tell, and he tells it very well, with a little dip of his head so you realize that he's his own punch line. I lean in to talk to Greeley. "How come this guy never runs for anything?" I ask. Greeley gives me the kind of grin that you get when you work in politics in the Commonwealth. Outside, without any of us noticing, the ocean goes black in the long fade of the evening.
"The hell with it," John Kerry says. "Let's get another beer."
It's been an eye-opening experience to me in a lot of ways," says the candidate in the way that candidates say things. "Just the reality of people's lives right now in America that I don't think a lot of people in Washington are aware of—how tough a lot of people are as they fight big problems every single day, and how they do it as the system seems to get more unfair every single day."
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He's always looked a bit like an Ent, one of Tolkien's long-jawed, slow-talking tree creatures. His face is now more set in its sharp angles and down-running planes, and it better suits the depth of his voice and the way that his thoughts tend to wind around one another into extended, nuanced answers that are the bane of anyone who makes a business of sound bites. Now, glancing out the window of the campaign plane, he seems fully formed, as though something finally has set that took God's own sweet time about it.
"I've learned that what I'm doing now requires a precision on my part about what I say, and that's part of the learning experience of any campaign," he says. "I will be disciplined."
Yet sometimes, even within the most conventional moments of a conventional enterprise like a presidential campaign, which is now as ritualized as a high pontifical Mass and not half as many laughs, Kerry can take any moment by surprise. On an MTV special, Kerry is asked if he is now or ever was cool. He does not staff out the answer. He doesn't draw it from Machiavelli or de Tocqueville but, rather, rings a true change on the gospel according to Duke Ellington.
"If I were cool," he explains, "if I told you I was cool, then I wouldn't be cool."
He'll turn up with a football out on the tarmac, and the surprise is not that he does so but that he throws a perfect spiral, thumb rotating down counterclockwise the way they showed you in the old Johnny Unitas videos. He'll wander back through the plane and talk about sailing or about the right kind of hiking boots, and these are easy moments when you realize that, for all the wonkish camouflage he can throw up, while there may be a few finer minds than Kerry's in politics, there are none more purely discursive. (After all, how many politicians can boast a campaign biography whose index includes both Elmo Zumwalt and Warren Zevon, or has the Paris Peace Talks listed right after the bass player from Mountain?)
He calls people "man" more often than any politician since Adam Clayton Powell, and a handshake with him can be an adventure not unlike meeting a fellow Mason for the first time. Thumb up or thumb down? Straight-ahead grip or soul shake? The guitar comes with him on the plane, which happens to be one that once transported the Rolling Stones, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the bathrooms, a wet bar in the center of the cabin, and residue of God alone knows what on the seats.
Kerry ran in those circles once. Back in 1971, he was photographed with John Lennon, which was cool, and spoke to mass demonstrations on the National Mall, which was also cool, and argued against his own war passionately on television. Kerry's face was young and angular then, while his voice was plummy and wise, and he appeared to be a set of handsome yet mismatched parts. He was in that passionate moment, but he also was looking down the road further than were a lot of people who were sharing the great platform with him.
But he's always on the outside of things. The signature image in Douglas Brinkley's hagiographic account of Kerry's early life and service in Vietnam is that of twelve-year-old John Kerry, son of a career diplomat, riding his bicycle through the bombed-out streets of a ruined Germany. Even in the 1970s, he steered by his own star. He was impatient with the revolution-for-the-hell-of-it crowd and with the wilder elements in his own organization, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The triviality of the Abbie Hoffman end of the antiwar movement offended his intellect, and to this day, he bites off his words so sharply when he talks about them that it's plain he still considers them largely a waste of time.
Kerry wanted a career in politics, which was decidedly not cool at the time. In fact, the first people ever to call Kerry a political opportunist were members of the antiwar Left. Meanwhile, as the years went by and the passions faded, politics never seemed totally to want him. Occasionally, he even seemed outside his own biography. He was the war hero who fought for peace, the reform liberal who went off to put the bad guys in jail. He dug into policy, and he so developed that cerebral part of him that distrusts the simple solution and the easy answer that his political career became dissonant with its origins—far removed from that simple knife-edge of a question that cut through the domestic fog of a foreign war.
And that's what was killing him last fall, when passion inflamed the campaign. In a sprawling Democratic field, Kerry began the race as a talking résumé in a year that seemed to demand an Old Testament prophet, touched by the kind of fire in which he'd once walked. It turned around for him, spectacularly, in Iowa. He found his way back into his own life again. He gave himself permission to be cool.
"People are looking for leadership that isn't cynical," he says, the hum at the back of the crowded plane growing louder. "They want to talk about great common interests and the kind of leadership that's willing to reach for it."
All right, so he's not there yet. He's been out trying to recapture the poetry of politics—the way he had it that day in the Senate hearing room and the way it lived in him on the National Mall in Washington. It appears now in startling bursts, with groups of small children and in the ferocious loyalty he summons from disparate people—from smooth government lawyers as easily as from the men with whom he fought the war. He chased it all over Iowa when the poetry seemed to belong to other people until it sat there, amazingly, in his hand.
He looked so surprised last winter, working his way through the small towns of New Hampshire after Iowa had turned it around for him, stomping into the fire station in his clunky brown coat and open-necked shirt—both of which, while informal, were not inexpensive—and suddenly, they didn't need just the fire station, they needed the school cafeteria behind it, because John Kerry was coming to town. People waited patiently in the firehouse and in the cafeteria, watching C-SPAN, of all things.
He didn't wind any stems the way Howard Dean was winding them, and he didn't burn any barns the way John Edwards was burning them. But he showed up, everywhere, and he played every tune on the Democratic-party piano for them, and they stood and cheered, and it always caught him by surprise. And what had seemed like aloofness his entire career softened into something like diffidence.
And he talked to everyone. He spoke to the people in the fire station, and he spoke to the people in the cafeteria out back. He shook every hand. He complimented the chili in a way that (quite frankly) the chili didn't deserve, and it did not elude people in either hall that there was something about all of those moments that looked something very much like gratitude.
Tip O'Neill was imprecise. All politics are not local. All politics are tribal, and the first rule of tribal politics was Always Say Thank You. It was politics in which people felt they had an investment, that they were involved even in the crooked parts, that it belonged to them and, therefore, so did the government it produced. It belonged to them—it owed them—and it should thank them.
It's the politics I imbibed in my youth, my grandfather telling me how he'd scooted down a fire escape one night when the opposition discovered that he'd been monitoring a strategy session in the next room through the medium of a drinking glass held up to the wall. It's the politics best explained by Frank Skeffington, the central figure in The Last Hurrah , a character drawn so closely from the life of Boston's legendary James Michael Curley that, by his declining years, Curley had rendered himself indistinguishable from his fictional persona.
"I'm not just an elected official," says Skeffington to his nephew. "I'm a tribal chieftain as well."
It's the politics of the freighted wink, the pregnant nod, and it's all about being a pol, a dealmaker, and I can explain it to people from, say, Chicago or New Orleans, or even parts of New York, but only in the way that people who speak French can also manage to connect in Italian or Spanish. And it's a politics that was dying when John Kerry came home to Massachusetts.
In 1969, Ron Rosenblith had been hired up at the state legislature by an old hand named Mossy Donahue. Rosenblith was young, idealistic, and full of the spirit of the times, and he found himself working in a stagnant, backslapping political culture, a place of fifty-dollar-a-plate "times" at which everybody drank too much, lied too much, and called one another "Cousin," or, more familiarly, "Cuz," and it was completely oblivious to the issues roiling the streets beyond the great golden dome of the statehouse.
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"There was a significant cultural change in the political community," Rosenblith recalls. "The intensity and the passions of that time were really at odds with that culture."
The war killed the pols. Or, more precisely, the movement against the war did, and so did the campaign for civil rights. They merged in Massachusetts with an older impulse for institutional reform and produced a generation of leaders dedicated to the end of the old order. The movement changed the culture of the state's government, reducing somewhat the hereditary nature of the state's road crews and eliminating from it most of the people named Mossy. In their place came people like Barney Frank, Paul Tsongas, Michael Dukakis, and, eventually, John Kerry.
"People felt burned," Kerry recalls. "A lot of our efforts were about openness and empowerment and accountability because a lot of us had faced the opposite of those things in its extremes."
Still, most of the new guys paid the old dues. Frank began his career as a mayoral aide in Boston and then became a state legislator, as Dukakis had before him. Tsongas was a county commissioner, rising far above an office that exists as British colonial rule's most lasting contribution to contemporary political chicanery. They were able to channel their reform impulses into what was left of the previous political structure. They became pols in new ways. And they were successful at it. Both Dukakis and Tsongas eventually ran for president, and Frank is now one of the most influential members of the House, where a number of the old forms still obtain.
Kerry was different. He came back to the state as a full-blown celebrity, and he shopped for a congressional district. However, in 1970 the nascent liberal political-reform movement boosted antiwar Jesuit Robert Drinan instead of Kerry for one seat, and Kerry campaigned vigorously on Drinan's behalf. Kerry briefly moved to Worcester—my hometown—for a run against Harold Donohue, a superannuated New Dealer most famous for appearing to doze during the House Judiciary Committee's hearings on whether to impeach Richard Nixon. Donohue was some sort of fourth cousin to my mother, which meant a card every other Christmas thanking us for sending Cousin Harold back to Washington for another two-year nap.
Finally, in 1972 Kerry went for the Fifth Congressional District, which runs north of Boston toward New Hampshire and which includes the city of Lowell, where Kerry and his then-wife, Julia Thorne, took an apartment in order to establish residence. He then got tangled in a congressional campaign that was strange even by the baroque standards of the Commonwealth.
Lashed as an opportunistic carpetbagger (and worse) by the Lowell Sun , the local newspaper run by a notorious crank named Clem Costello, Kerry nevertheless beat a pair of local favorites in the Democratic primary, which was enlivened by an episode in which Kerry's brother, Cameron, and another Kerry aide were arrested in the basement of the building that housed not only Kerry's headquarters but that of one of his rivals as well. The Sun accused the Kerry campaign of a Watergate-style moment, and the Kerry campaign responded by blaming the whole thing on the actual Watergate conspirators—the operatives in the Nixon White House who'd been tracking Kerry ever since his emergence as an antiwar spokesman in 1971.
Kerry moved into the general election against Republican Paul Cronin and a third-party candidate named Roger Durkin. The Sun opened up on him almost daily. Then, four days before the election, Durkin, who'd been much harder on Kerry than the Republican Cronin had been, bailed out of the race and endorsed Cronin. Kerry's support collapsed and he lost every bit of what had once been a twenty-six-point lead. It had been a weird, dirty campaign. Only a pol could appreciate the art of it.
So Vietnam wasn't enough. His medals and his countercultural cachet combined weren't enough to beat one grumpy old man and his newspaper. As the airplane banks steeply over the undifferentiated farmlands of southern Illinois, it's fairly apparent that Kerry wasn't expecting Clem Costello's name to be cited in this particular context. But the great agitation of a presidential campaign is liable to bring all kinds of things to the surface, and this campaign is shaping up to be the most agitated one in nearly thirty years.
Since his fortunes turned around, Kerry's had the full attention of the opposition. He's been derided as French looking, which is surely an epithet, if not a wholly exact one. (Does he look like Gérard Depardieu? Charles de Gaulle? Lafayette? Catherine Deneuve?) He's weathered the Drudgery about the intern-who-wasn't-an-intern. A butchered quote about leaders elsewhere who might support him has taken Kerry too long to explain. In an act of hypocrisy so breathtaking that it passeth all understanding, a Bush campaign spokesman has criticized Kerry for making use of a Bible verse in a speech, while another dismissed Kerry's Vietnam service with "yadda-yadda-yadda"—which, if you're keeping score at home, comes to just under twenty thousand dead American men per yadda .
And now Time magazine is waiting back in the main cabin to talk to him about whether or not he can simultaneously be a good Catholic and a good president, a question that everyone thought Jack Kennedy had settled back in 1960. Nothing is so trivial as to be unimportant. The spirit of Clem Costello—if not his actual self—now stalks a bigger stage.
"I think, by and large, the press has been fair," Kerry muses. "Except for the rumor traffickers."
It has escaped nobody's notice that it was a Massachusetts reform liberal who'd made "smart and tough" an oxymoron in Democratic presidential politics. In 1978, then-governor Michael Dukakis lost reelection in the primary to a career hack named Edward King in large part because, as one of King's aides explained, "We put all the hate groups in one big pot and let it boil."
Ten years later, with a bigger budget and a wider audience and vastly higher stakes, Lee Atwater and Jim Baker did exactly the same thing, and Dukakis collapsed again, accomplishing the not inconsiderable feat of making the elder George Bush look like a cross between Wild Bill Hickok and Conan the Barbarian.
Now, on a plane that will take him from Michigan to Missouri and thence to California, in a week in which the Republican counterattack has only begun, Kerry ponders whether or not he's facing Clem Costello with $190 million to spend and access to FBI files.
"That's a very interesting question," he says, looking out the window of the plane. Suddenly, his face sets, he looks back, and it is not a face you want to see if you are a criminal defendant or a bureaucrat with something to hide.
"It's not going to happen this time."
After losing the congressional race, Kerry dropped out of electoral politics for nearly ten years, paying the dues that his contemporaries had paid before they sought higher office. He took a job as an assistant district attorney for Middlesex County and discovered within himself not only a gift for prosecution but a taste for it as well.
"I loved delivering justice," he says now. "I loved putting the case together, the art of the trial itself. There was a big sense of return for me. I mean, when you have a rape victim there, seeing her assailant punished, that's real."
He was building not merely a career but a constituency, moving beyond his celebrity. "The whole time we were there, John never talked about Vietnam," recalls William Codinha, who worked with Kerry in the district attorney's office and, subsequently, in the Senate as well. "We spent hours together, and that was an area that he didn't talk about. What he was, he was a naturally good litigator."
By 1982, Kerry reemerged and won the race for lieutenant governor. He even found a way to do something with the useless job, becoming active on a number of environmental issues, particularly acid rain. But he'd served only a year when Paul Tsongas was diagnosed with lymphoma and announced his decision to leave the Senate. Kerry threw himself into the race. He was a different candidate—quicker on his feet, more effective in the clinches. Either from Clem Costello or in the hurly-burly of the courtroom, he'd learned to counterpunch.
It was significant that in the primary, he beat James Shannon, another young liberal who'd been the protégé of the traditional Irish wing of the party. It was in this race that his fellow veterans first joined Kerry on a campaign. A group of Vietnam vets called the Doghunters pursued Shannon after the latter accused Kerry, essentially, of flip-flopping on his own Vietnam service during a televised debate. Shannon never recovered.
In the Senate, throughout the 1980s, Kerry made his mark spelunking down the darkest caverns of what had become a reinvigorated secret government. He chased the illicit aid to the contra rebels in Nicaragua and the byzantine operations of a bank called BCCI, a sort of international ATM for black ops. And he did so alone, as far outside in the clubby world of the Senate as he ever had been in Massachusetts.
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"This was a bad case of bubonic plague," says Jack Blum, Kerry's investigator through those years. One prominent Democratic senator tried to sabotage Kerry's investigations, and the Republicans, riding Ronald Reagan's popularity, went after him as harshly as the Nixon people ever did. In fact, it is a kind of unprecedented historical parlay that John Kerry's name appears both on Nixon's White House tapes and in the notebooks of Oliver North.
For Kerry, the investigations were pure reform politics, but they also were leavened with a respect for what happens when people are tricked away from their investment in their government.
"It's antithetical to everything we are," he explains. "A government with secrets is accountable; a secret government is not. And when that happens, the American people are cheated of what is rightly theirs."
They have packed the hall in Baltimore. They pack the halls everywhere in a political year that has become a breeder reactor. John Kerry is winding into his tired punch line. "If they want this election to be about national security," he intones, "then we have three words for them we know they understand."
"Bring It On!" says the crowd.
"Bring It On!" responds John Kerry. And then he keeps talking, under his own applause.
He usually builds well, unleashing a torrent of emotion that drowns out briefly the fact that he's . . . still . . . talking . "The only person in this country who deserves to be laid off is George W. Bush," he says, and while the audience explodes, Kerry plows gamely—if unnecessarily—onward. "And we're going to do it," he continues, and the flood tide of feeling gradually thins into increasingly smaller creek beds on the banks of which lie the desiccated bones of his original point. It's a strange way to talk to folks.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents the Seventh Congressional District in Baltimore, and he has come to Morgan State University this fine day in March first to support John Kerry. Mainly, though, Cummings is here because the people in his district are angry enough to get him angry, and he has become the voice for all of them.
"I've never seen it like this," he says. "People are not only angry, but they're following stuff. Like Halliburton. Look, I didn't expect Halliburton and the contracts it got to be an issue in my district, but people are angry enough to make sure they know about it this time around."
Kerry's reception has been suitably raucous in what has been a remarkably raucous year. He still ducks a little at the intensity that comes back at him from the crowds.
"What I see now is what I saw in the 1980s, and what I saw in Vietnam," Kerry says later. "The same kind of maneuvering behind the scenes, money and power moving, and a lack of accountability. There's a danger in that down the road. It facilitates terror. It creates a haven of privilege."
These themes are the subtext of his talk when he challenges George Bush with the familiar line about "knowing something about aircraft carriers for real." Kerry still leaves too much of the emotion to the people in front of the stage. He's not yet the vehicle of it. He did it once, long ago, and Cummings finds himself asked if Kerry can summon that up again, if he can engage more in Cummings's voters than their intellects and their simple affection.
"I think he can. I think he has to," says Cummings as the Kerry buses pull away.
In 1996, Kerry ran the race that made him. Governor William Weld was a jovial, redheaded Republican who acted the role of a Massachusetts pol as well as any Republican ever has and better than Kerry ever did. Weld joshed with reporters about his fondness for "amber-colored liquid," conspicuously haunted Irish bars, and became as popular in Massachusetts as a Republican had a right to be.
Many Massachusetts Democrats never had been comfortable with Kerry. His pronounced fondness for the cameras had gotten him the nickname "Liveshot," which stuck. Many of them tacitly admitted that they'd be perfectly happy with the more amiable Weld, who was half Democrat anyway, at least in temperament and on the social issues. When Weld challenged Kerry, Weld was the native son, and Kerry again was from outside the tribe. By August, Weld had an eight-point lead.
The pol's moment came in October. The two men had debated eight times—intense exercises in high politics as far removed from Jim Curley as Cicero is from the works of George M. Cohan. At the exhausted end of things, though, when the two men looked inside, it was Kerry who found his inner Skeffington. He spent with both hands. He pilloried Weld on kitchen-table issues like health care, and he hared across the state in a campaign frenzy while Weld stayed in the statehouse, trading bon mots with the press and looking more and more like a man who thought the job was just too damned much trouble. Kerry won going away and stayed in the Senate. For his part, Weld changed jobs, wives, and cities, wrote a couple of mystery novels, and disappeared from national politics as thoroughly as did the Whigs.
This is something else people should know about John Kerry: When you lose to him, he finishes you. Which is why it should have been a caution to the president when an anonymous Kerry advisor replied that if the White House were to go after Kerry on his divorce, or his wife's money, or some other area that Kerry deemed out of bounds, then "everything is on the table."
This should be taken as a warning to George W. Bush not only for his own predilections for bunker government but also those of his father. In the 1980s, while John Kerry was involved in investigating the complicated and obscure scandals that kept popping up out of the renegade national-security apparatus, the elder George Bush ran between the raindrops. The scandals swirled all around him, but they never quite touched him. He campaigned for president in 1988 while claiming to be "out of the loop" on the Iran-contra affair. Four years later, after he was defeated by Bill Clinton for reelection, it was revealed that contemporary notes taken by some of the Iran-contra principal actors gave the lie to that claim. Bush pardoned everyone except Shoeless Joe Jackson on his way out of town.
In 2001, almost immediately after taking office, George W. Bush took a series of actions that seemed to complete his father's legacy in this regard. First, by executive order, he sealed documents from the administrations of both his father and of Ronald Reagan—Clinton's papers got sealed along with the deal—that were due to be released and for which historians of the period had long hungered. Then he hired back a number of Iran-contra's most memorable figures, including Elliott Abrams, whom his father had pardoned, and John Negroponte. Long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, gave it irresistible momentum, a movement toward a return to bunkered government was well under way, led by some of the people with connections to both Presidents Bush, and with whom Kerry was very familiar. Now, increasingly, it seems that this election will be fought out partly in the shadowy regions between a government with secrets and a secret government, with that difference squarely on the table. That's terrain on which John Kerry has fought—at one point, quite literally—his entire public life.
Unless you understand the Weston dump, you cannot understand how it happened for John Kerry in Iowa, much less how he now has come to the point where next month he will give a speech accepting the party's nomination for president when the Democrats convene in Boston. Weston is a woodsy, precious suburb to the west of Boston. Weston does not provide curbside rubbish pickup. So on the average Saturday, a good percentage of the town's registered voters bundle up their trash and take it to the dump. In the average election season, this means that they are greeted there by a clutch of candidates, stepping gingerly over the orange peels and tabbouleh shrapnel to ask for votes.
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In 1980, Barney Frank was running for Congress to replace Robert Drinan, whom Pope John Paul II had ordered to surrender his office. Now, if Kerry was from outside the tribe, Frank—a gay Jewish man from New Jersey—might as well have beamed in from Neptune. However, he had the sharpest wit in American politics, which counts big in a pol, and he hired a woman named Mary Beth Cahill to run his campaign shop. She called John Kerry, and John Kerry showed up, bright and early, to work the Weston dump for Barney Frank.
"I never had to ask him twice," Cahill recalls. "No task for him was too small. He was a volunteer attorney for us who watched polls in Waltham so there wouldn't be anything funny going on there, and he went to the dump in Weston whenever we asked."
Cahill is, as they say around the statehouse, a piece of work. A daughter of St. Peter's Parish in Dorchester, in a part of Boston where you identify yourself by parish and not by street address, she got Frank elected to Congress and Patrick Leahy from Vermont reelected to the Senate , building herself a minor legend. She was working for Senator Edward Kennedy last November when John Kerry called her.
His campaign was dying. Once the consensus front-runner, he'd found himself overwhelmed by the emotions of the year. He'd voted for the USA Patriot Act and for Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform and for the authorization for Bush to take the country to war in Iraq. Now towns were passing resolutions refusing to abide by the Patriot Act, even some Republicans were railing at the education reform as an unfunded mandate, and Howard Dean had gone sailing into the stratosphere by being unalterably opposed to the war in Iraq, which was daily looking like a bait-and-switch proposition of the first order.
Kerry seemed to have two choices: Either he could look like a waffler or he could look like a sucker. And his campaign was coming apart. In one national poll, Kerry trailed Al Sharpton.
Kerry fired his campaign manager and handed the effort over to veteran Kennedy hands Robert Shrum and Cahill. They shrewdly staffed the campaign with people with whom Kerry was comfortable, notably veterans of the 1996 campaign against Weld. They ended the intramural sniping. And they got in the candidate's face.
"Sometimes," says a longtime Kerry friend, "you just got to slap him and say, 'Get with it!' "
They sharpened the stump speech. The message became government betrayal and lack of accountability, two themes that run through Kerry's entire public life. They brought out the Vietnam veterans again, this time as the "Band of Brothers" who went all over the country campaigning for Kerry. These included a man whom Kerry had pulled out of a river under heavy fire and former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who'd lost three limbs in Vietnam and his Senate seat in 2002 to a campaign in which he was paired in television commercials with Osama bin Laden by a man who avoided military service because of a high school football injury. This tactic was enough to get Kerry genuinely angry in public.
The new staff immediately made two critical assumptions. The first was that the Dean campaign was more phenomenon than actual movement; one bad loss, say, in Iowa and the bubble would burst. And, second, that as bad as things looked in New Hampshire, where Kerry was polling fourth in some surveys, Iowa was worth the gamble. "We always had tracking that looked good there," Cahill says. "And we got good coverage there on local TV and in the local newspapers."
So they committed everything to Iowa, pulling staff out of New Hampshire and convincing Kerry to mortgage one of his homes for the effort. They shrewdly got the endorsement of Christie Vilsack, the wife of Governor Thomas Vilsack, who'd said he'd keep himself neutral in the caucuses. They put the candidate on the road and they kept him there.
"I had to learn," Kerry says, "that a presidential campaign is different from any other campaign in its intensity and in its pace, and in the precision with which you have to make sure you're saying certain things. Sometimes you can get sloppy."
As always, Kerry seemed to be discovering his gift—and his taste—for campaigning on the fly. By the end of it, for all practical purposes, he'd ended the race for the nomination almost as soon as it had begun. The endorsements rolled in, so did the votes, and it seemed everyone had been there with him all along, because that is what happens with pols who win. No matter what was said, no matter what was done, no matter what you thought of the principal, Cuz, everybody comes to the wedding and everybody comes to the wake.
This night in Atlanta surprises me as much as did that long-ago evening on Falmouth Harbor by the sea. I never thought I'd see this—an all-star gospel choir, transported by the spirit, shaking the rafters in a place called the Tabernacle, making a joyful noise unto the Lord and a hell of a warm-up for John Kerry, who's running late, but nobody cares because this choir has sailed past the seventh level of the cherubim. Oh, what Bill Clinton would have done with this crowd.
John Kerry hits the stage when he is supposed to, and there's no indication that the ringing balconies have reached him until he starts talking about Max Cleland, who's seated stage left, and what the Republicans did to him in 2002, and Kerry's head dips ever so slightly, and that's the signal. If he's telling stories, it means he's coming quickly to the point. "And it was a disgrace what they did," Kerry says, and the crowd explodes. Cleland waves with his one remaining limb. Kerry doesn't say anything else.
John Kerry's story always had soul, but John Kerry rarely showed it. He gave it up for a political career. At least that's what we thought we knew about him. He was bloodless, lost in the gated abstractions of his mind. He wasn't in any way justified, nor sanctified, nor initiated into the tribe. He walked the walk but he couldn't talk the talk.
If this half-finished political season is about anything, it's about John Kerry walking back up the marble steps and facing the Mall again, remembering the power that the audience gave back to him. It's about his reclaiming those parts of his biography outside of which he's walked ever since they weren't enough to get him elected in Lowell. It's about walking over strangely familiar ground with a slower tread and a wiser eye, and it's about redeeming passion for passion's own sweet sake, about allowing yourself to be thankful for what it can do for your ideas, about grace notes and regret, and it's daring to be cool again, just for a moment, as the occasion demands.
Here he is, with the music rising all around him, down into the roiling crowd to work it along its edges. Up on the stage, Max Cleland sits not far from Congressman John Lewis, two bloodied veterans of the two great movements that formed John Kerry and that transformed the home state that he came to represent long before it came grudgingly to adopt him.
John Lewis looks down from the stage at John Kerry, who's shaking every hand and smiling a craggy smile that's not in any way easy or glib, but no less genuine for that.
"Look at him," Lewis says. "He's doing fine, isn't he? I mean, he's getting better, and we're working on him. We're working on him."
Lewis then gives me a grin, and it's the same damn grin that Chris Greeley gave me in that Falmouth saloon twenty years ago. Go on, this grin says, underestimate him. Lose yourself in the surface bullshit—the moneyed wife, the plummy accent, the windsurfing. Go ahead, it says, throw yourself into the national cartoon in which it's a story every time the guy receives communion because he's getting heat from a bunch of Roman Catholic bishops who ought to be lighting candles every day for the next decade in thanksgiving that they weren't all hauled off in a RICO proceeding. Go ahead and do all that, the grin says, and there he'll be at the end of it—stubborn, willful John Kerry, with his Ent-like presence and his drifting periods of political walkabout, dipping into the crowd until he looks something like a pol.
Does he feel it coming back at him again? you wonder. Does he feel the heat as well as see the light? The magic is there, a gift, right there in his hand. Does he have it in him to close his fingers around it? And if he does, will he notice that he's made a fist?
Slate was overly kind.
Please Dear God, 4 more years.
Yee who has the Kennedy's backing in Mass Wins, PERIOD!!!!
Just read the article. To discount Kerry as someone without "charisma" is a dangerous mistake. He's a tough competitor. Until I saw him in person I was ready to write him off, too.
Someone 'splain to me why the POTUS needs 'sex appeal'?
This seems to be this woman's total problem with Kerry (not his habit of fabricating stories).
You seem to think that this will be a cakewalk for Bush. I think it'll be close. VERY close.
I don't think any of the Democrats who count are doing that this time around.
I don't think that's their tack. Don't just assume that this will be a runaway victory for Bush.
If I have to explain it...........................
Sorry. Do your own research.
Yep, the mayor of Youngstown, Ohio decides it for most people.
Oh, well, I'm convinced.
At what point was I tasked to come up with "anything?" I'm just posting what I've observed. You've posted that the mayors of two insignificant cities have endorsed Dubya. BIG DEAL. Voters notice things like a man igniting a Marine van over the loss of his son in Iraq. They notice things like a disabled veteran trying to deliver a letter to Dubya at his ranch. St. Paul and Youngstown become rather insignificant.
And the band played on......
Ummm, if it helps sway a close race in this state, it may decide it for the whole nation. Just a thought. (Florida 2000?) Every little bit helps.
What's the Vegas odds these days
Nixon didn’t have much charisma either, but he won the election. And if he hadn’t have been so nearly insanely stupid with Watergate, he wouldn’t of had to resign. He would have gone down as one of America’s better Presidents instead of the one of the worst.
I have heard from people who know him and dislike him that he is absolutely ruthless and has less morals than either Clinton. He was like that even in high school. There is nothing he will stop at to win.