The Boston Tea Ceremony

Kerry's gambit: If you can't say anything nice

John Kerry had a lot to prove when he spoke to the Democratic convention last Thursday night, not least that he was still alive and still wanted to be president. Since turning the primaries on their head in Iowa and locking up his improbable victory only a couple of weeks later, he had transformed himself into something less like a candidate than a wraith that materialized occasionally to haunt the campaign. He was never again as strong as he had been in the days when he was chasing Howard Dean and matching him blow for rhetorical blow against the Bush gang. Part of the reason was emotional stamina: Kerry was visibly worn out--had literally lost his voice--after Iowa. Two things became evident. Kerry, astoundingly, could summon real fire when he needed it. And he couldn't keep it up for long.

But last Thursday night he did manage to conjure an hour's worth of something close. If the cadences and the content were not exactly timeless, they were good enough. More important, Kerry looked and sounded right in the news clips that constituted all that most Americans would ever hear of the speech. The more vital question revolves around what he does now. Is it back into hibernation until October, or will Kerry start working to wrest the occasional news cycle away from Bush?

I'm betting the former is closer to the mark. But the call depends on how one reads Kerry's invisible-man act to date. Admittedly, this is not entirely Kerry's doing. The main subject on everybody's mind is the, well, undeniably historic performance of George W. Bush, and rightly so. When someone seems, by any reasonable standard, so intent on braiding the rope, tying the knot, and hanging himself with it, it's easy to suppose that the best thing to do is to stand back so everyone can have an unimpaired view.

This has been the main stratagem of the Kerry campaign so far, and it's a dangerous one. The poison pill in the formulation is that phrase "by any reasonable standard." Americans are more nervous, confused, and angry than at any time since the Great Depression, and considerably more ignorant now than then, thanks largely to the undoing of public education over the course of 24 years' unremitting conservative and neo-liberal rule. (The media deserve their credit, too.) We possess no sense at all of history. We know that references to democratic institutions and values are cues to nod vigorously, but most of us have no working notion of what they mean, or therefore of when they are being honored or violated. John Kerry needs to spell it out more frequently and more fervently. He needs to shape and amplify the meaning of Bush's actions and sketch the countless scandals unfolding in erratic public view. He isn't doing it and he probably won't. He is, after all, the standard-bearer of the party too genteel ever to have explained to the country what really happened in Florida in 2000.

In going after Bush, Kerry's choices are circumscribed not just by his tactical judgments, but likewise by his character, sensibility, and record. This is not an election about ideology, as our political mythmakers would have it--as it should be. There may be large practical differences between Kerry and Bush (true or false, we're betting the farm on it), but they disagree little on first principles. What is Kerry's line about the outrageous and needless invasion of Iraq? It wasn't wrong; he voted for it. It was just foolhardy to leap in so precipitously and so nearly alone. The domestic economy? Of course he'll do splendid things for economic fairness at home. Or as splendid as former Clinton treasury secretary and Wall Street love slave Robert Rubin will permit. It was Rubin who got seated beside Teresa Kerry during John's acceptance speech; if you wink any harder than that, you'll put your eye out.

Kerry's case against Bush comes down to the matters of recklessness and managerial competence. Bush is impetuous, facile in his thinking, and mean. He never does his homework or checks his expense account. He makes us look bad and alienates allies for no particularly good reason. His advisers and cabinet members are too rigid and too ideological, which is a rather more stately way of saying too impatient. But these are, from Kerry and the Democrats' point of view, errors of judgment rather than direction. They thereby cede a lot of ground that ought to be getting scooped up and flung at Bush.

Here's another sensible reason to doubt that Kerry will go for the president's jugular anytime soon: the convention itself, an orgy of darned-glad-to-meet-you, wouldn't-say-shit-if-we-had-a-mouthful bonhomie stitched together by sunny, desiccated music that only a radio station programmer would dare call "classic rock." (Where was Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me"? Too contemporary? Too good?) The orations were mostly dreadful. On the night when Howard Dean and Teresa Kerry spoke, it sounded like someone backstage had filled a candy dish with Xanax. Only a few rose above the nice-folks torpor, or flouted it. Bill Clinton was more loose and more likeable than he's ever been on a spotlight occasion. Ron Reagan disclaimed partisanship and then blasted Bush harder than any of the "legitimate" Democrats deigned to do. Al Sharpton was electrifying as he read aloud from the blueprint for the convention that should have been. Each spoke with a moral authority that derived largely from calling George W. Bush by his true names: tyrant, punk, fool. (And no, none used those exact words. Wasn't necessary.)

For months now--since the Bush-bashing extravaganza in Iowa revealed the depth of popular animus toward the president, to be precise--the cable news savants have tended to fill the dead spots in their broadcasts with dutifully grave references to "this deeply divided country." For once they're right, even if they are no more illuminating on this subject than any other. So it did not seem inappropriate (unearned, yes; inapplicable, no) when Kerry and Bob Shrum dragooned Lincoln into the convention. He was there in Kerry's acceptance speech, and more eloquently in Teresa Kerry's address two nights earlier. It was a calculated effort to bestow upon Kerry the virtues of the picture-book Lincoln, a figure of enormous gravitas and responsibility who arose at a critical hour. The irony is that these times more closely resemble Lincoln's than anyone dares to say, except that the fissures have less to do with race and region now than with class and the naked exercise of power. It goes without saying that Kerry is no Lincoln. He is in fact a lot less than any nation with pretenses to democracy deserves at a time like this. But the more salient fact is that he's not George Bush. So let him trade on Lincoln if he can pull it off. He's got the stovepipe head for it. And if focus-group testing says that he'd benefit from growing chin whiskers for the duration of the campaign, he should do that too.

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