Sunday, July 04, 2004

Bright Lights and John Kerry

I recently saw John Kerry speak in San Jose, and it was a unique opportunity to view the Senator up close after only reading about him. Of particular interest to me was whether or not the classic description of Kerry constructed in the mainstream media would actually hold true to form. Oh, you didn’t know? The media knows everything about John Kerry, and even though polls suggest that most Americans still don’t know him, his profile has already been written as follows:

John Kerry is a decorated war hero and prominent anti-war activist (Democrats love that twist), who has wanted to be President since he realized his initials were JFK. (Note: such grandiose ambition is considered unseemly) He has been a Senator for almost 2 decades, facing a stiff and career defining challenge from William Weld in 1996. On the down side, he looks aristocratic and is known to be aloof. Most people who work with him do not get a warm fuzzy feeling when he is around, and he prefers lonely pursuits like playing the guitar or riding his motorcycle to hanging out with real people. He has not been known for any great legislative efforts during his tenure, but he was involved in a few high profile inquiries. He flip-flops on the issues. (The Republicans added that last part. They are advertising Kerry flip-flops for summer wear and I think it’s a cool idea.)

The sad thing is that as much as I try to remain open minded, it is impossible to read the same basic description over and over again and not let it influence how you view a man. As I stood two rows deep from the podium, trying to understand why Rob Reiner was introducing Kerry, people began to get impatient. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Kerry is known to be late to things. (See Clinton, Bill)

Upon first glance, the thing you notice about John Kerry is his height. He’s a very tall man but carries himself with a lot a grace. But if height were all it took, Bill Bradley would be President. He looks exactly like he does on TV, very presidential, but yes, a little snobbish. Even when he rides his motorcycle in that leather jacket, he still looks more French than George W. Bush ever will. Democrats need to accept this and move on.

I have never known Kerry to be a captivating speaker, but he was impressive in his delivery and substance. The largest applause lines were not what you might expect. The crowd cheered wildly when he spoke about how important “science” would be in his administration. Anything related to John Ashcroft is also golden in any Democratic stronghold. He does not have the empathy of Clinton or the feistiness of Dean, but on the bright side, he knows his own limitations.

Since he essentially voted to authorize the Iraq war, Kerry is careful around this issue and could not deliver an effective one-liner. Also absent were his very memorable primary stump lines like “I know something about aircraft carriers for real” and “I have three words for them (The Republicans): Bring it on!”

The new Kerry waxes poetically about returning America to its former greatness, quoting Langston Hughes by saying “Let America be America again.” I get the line but then again I really don’t get it. Its very Reaganesque in its intent and this type of rhetoric helped Reagan present a positive image to counter Carter’s “malaise”. Kerry is liberal enough in his voting record that the base of the Democratic Party seems content to let him drift towards the center. While this may not be a New Democrat campaign in name, it is closer to that spirit than any other. (Sorry Howard Dean)

Another interesting thing about Kerry is how uncomfortable he looks in the spotlight. During his speech, he paused for applause lines and squinted into the lights and flashbulbs, almost visibly counting the seconds until he could return to his point. At the end, he paused on stage for pictures, and any observer could tell how unnatural it was for him. Shy politicians are not as rare as one would think, and perhaps Kerry’s trademark “aloofness” is actually a sign of a thoughtful introvert. (This is at least how Democrats want to spin it)

In sum, Kerry will not be Al Gore from 2000, but he won’t be Al Gore from 2003 either. He will be John Kerry and Democrats are hoping that it will be good enough.

A quick word on the Veepstakes: The decision, rumored to be coming this week, centers around three major candidates. If Kerry picks Gephardt, we’ll know that he intends to play it safe throughout this campaign. If he picks Edwards, we’ll know he’s smart and humble enough to realize that he needs the young upstart to compete in rural areas and the south. If he picks Vilsak, we’ll know that he couldn’t decide between the other two.



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