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Tales from the Primary Trail: The Unbearable Lightness of Being John Kerry
December 12, 2003
By Michael McCord

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It wasn't supposed to happen this way for Sen. John Kerry. Being a Democratic contender for president, much less a north-eastern quasi-liberal creature in an era dominated by GOP neo-bolsheviks, isn't supposed to be easy. But little did earnest John Forbes Kerry foresee his campaign would be shipwrecked by the typhoon Howard Dean. Which is why Kerry, the Vietnam War hero and the great hope of the Democratic Party establishment (he has, after all, raised $20 million for the campaign which isn't chicken feed even in these inflated times) is fighting for his political life on the New Hampshire primary trail.

Yes Virginia, there was a time in the recent past when John Kerry was the smart pick among party professionals and pundit wise guys. A four-term senator, Kerry is very smart, very informed, aloof in a gracious sort of way, and a formidable force in foreign policy and environmental arenas. Unlike another JFK from Massachusetts, he bided his time through four presidential cycles when he was in his political prime and had positioned himself to be the first sitting U.S. Senator elected president since, yes, JFK in 1960 (and also like JFK he projected the image of a Beltway outsider).

Like Bob Dole in 1996, there is a "my turn" assumption, a bolt of destiny that animates many of his Democratic Party regular supporters. He has stature and gravitas. And given that he was the high-profile, next-door candidate (as opposed to a certain low-profile Vermont governor), the New Hampshire primary shaped up to be a ripe prize on his way to the nomination - a nomination he could accept by walking from his Boston home to the convention site next summer.

It was a political lifetime ago, early summer to be precise, when Kerry last held the high ground of good publicity and momentum - until he was hit by a perfect storm of colliding political realities.

He was smacked by Dean's nova-like rise sparked by utilizing the Internet for fund raising and organization, and Dean's enthusiastic courting of the "angry bunch" - hundreds of thousands of Democrats and would-be Democrats furious at everything related to George W. Bush and who feel betrayed by the current batch of party leaders (a club to which Kerry belongs), and who are perceived outside the Beltway as little more than - take your pick - GOP cannon fodder or joke material.

Gen. Wesley Clark entered the race and Kerry was no longer the only war hero. The campaign was hurt by a slew of campaign staff firings and defections which lead to inevitable press focus of "process" stories - and "bad process at that" quipped a Wesley Clark staffer to me - which can suck the oxygen out of a campaign.

Whatever excitement real or imagined that Kerry's candidacy generated vaporized in a haze of bad regional press (the Boston Globe columnist corps has been particularly brutal, practicing a form of newspaper water torture) and mixed campaign messages. When Kerry tried to have his "Bill Clinton with the saxophone" moment on the Jay Leno Show, his motorcycle entrance was upstaged by a sock puppet. So much for stature and gravitas.

And then there was the Iraq war resolution vote. A year ago October, Kerry voted yes, voted to give the W. Bush junta their way on Iraq, and if we give Kerry the benefit of the doubt, it was a good faith choice based on intelligence that Saddam's weapons were posed for terrorist uses and that W. Bush would seek a United Nation's effort to disarm. D.C. Dems were also under pressure with midterm elections approaching to get the damn issue off the table so they could get on with campaigning without being branded as traitors.

George W. Bush got his political cover and his enforcers used the traitor tag anyway to defeat Dems like Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who gave his country three limbs serving in Vietnam (by contrast, during the same war Vice President Dick "Undisclosed Location" Cheney had other obligations and W. Bush went AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard.)

Out here in the hinterland, millions of progressive/liberal/moderate voters screamed that the Bush junta couldn't be trusted and even Kerry's colleague, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who was privy to the intelligence information the Bush gang peddled as a coming Armageddon, voted against the resolution. Who knows how many tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of potential supporters Kerry lost? But cost him it did and the cruel irony was Shakespearean in scope - Kerry, the most articulate and visible voice of veteran protest against the Vietnam War, who uttered the famous question "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" while testifying before Congress in 1971, was now, three decades later, carrying the weight of a war he likely wanted no part of. Howard Dean began to exploit the Iraq War as the mother of all wedge issues and Kerry has fallen into a Dantean circle of hell reserved for those whose ambitions don't match the political karma of the day.

I wondered about the Iraq war resolution vote as I sat across from John Kerry on his "Real Deal Express" bus in a bank parting lot in Dover. I'd hopped aboard on a gray, cold afternoon, the day before the season's first storm hit New England - and a few days before Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean which preceded the most inane primary 'debate' I've witnessed in a while (aka Ted Koppel's excellent ego trip). The "Real Deal" is the Kerry campaign's latest incarnation in a series of launches and relaunches to reenergize his supporters and fashion a bankable message to contrast with the "Raw Deal" of the Bush junta. About 20 supporters representing all age groups, dressed in bright red "Real Deal" T-shirts, were on the bus as we headed out for some serious New Hampshire primary retail politicking - a visit to two grocery stores in Dover and Portsmouth.

The campaign had had a day to digest the latest poll news which showed Dean smoking the field but John Kerry seemed energized anyway as though released from expectations. On the stump, Kerry is not the most charismatic of orators. His presentation is C-SPAN methodical befitting his hardly modulating voice, a cool demeanor and a humor too rarely shared. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a Kerry supporter, diagnosed the Kerry message muddle issue well when told a Concord audience last week that "I wish that John Kerry didn't take seven minutes to clear his throat. I wish he could better articulate the fire in his belly."

On the day we talked, the fire in his belly was burning hot. When I asked Kerry about the latest Bush junta salvo (the Republican National Chairman came to New Hampshire and Vermont during the week spreading holiday cheer by saying, among other things, that Bush's critics were indulging in "political hate speech"), Kerry's eyes lit up and he got feisty, telling me that Iraq "is not a war on terror" and that "most Americans get it" that we need to get rid of "John Ashcroft and this quelling of dissent... these people are crazy for intimidating people with patriotism" (I get in person what Kerry began to do last week by increasing the decibel level of his attacks on Ashcroft and the more unsavory aspects of the Bush junta all week.) When I asked him at the end of the bus tour if he sensed the betrayal millions of Americans feel about Bush's Iraq War, he didn't mix words. "I feel personally betrayed and I don't like that we let him (Bush) do it."

As for his campaign, Kerry acknowledges the bumps in the road but says now he's getting his "message" out and that "people are paying attention and getting to know our agenda." This "Real Deal" phase of the campaign trumpets a platform of program promises for his first 100 Days in office. He knows, I know, his top campaign strategists and his party supporters know that Kerry is on the right side on most issues near and dear to the hearts of Democrat Party primary voters whether it be the environment, economic policy, abortion rights, rolling back Bush's tax cuts on the wealthy (while keeping them for the middle class), education, civil rights. And I suspect he loathes W. Bush and the neo-bolsheviks such as John Ashcroft as much as anyone. But his candidacy isn't getting through and that is why John Kerry is riding the "Real Deal" express hustling for every vote he can get, greeting grocery shoppers as a winter storm approaches and darkness is falling while Dean has ascended to a higher plateau of campaign existence by, to cite one example, making plans for a national campaign by helping Democratic Congressional candidates raise money.

Carole Appel, a lifelong Democrat an energetic 66-year-old who is the Strafford County Democratic Party chair, told me "I am passionate about John Kerry," because of his "depth and experience and his unwavering commitment to the principles of the Democratic Party." Appel sees him as the rightful heir to the legacy of FDR and can list dozens of reasonable, logical reasons why John Kerry should be president. But all these attributes don't mean squat unless you can convince voters you are the candidate beyond the party's establishment and devoted regulars. Kerry has yet to draw in the bus loads of the young and independents that Howard Dean has - for example, there is no New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story talking about "The Kerry Swarm" of young, communitarian-seeking supporters. If it exists, it's hidden.

He garnered another establishment endorsement earlier in the day (popular Manchester Mayor Robert Baines) but endorsements don't matter much to regular voters, youthful newcomers and independents. For better or worse, they don't care about someone with an "unwavering commitment to the principles of the Democratic Party" mostly because that type of party solidarity exists more out of habit than passion and there is certainly a generational gulf that Dean has massaged. And to many, FDR's legacy is an urban myth. Dean makes headlines by claiming he wants to blow the party up and rebuild it. The irony here is that Kerry is far more the idealist than the pragmatic, technocratic Dean. For reasons that may have nothing to do with his campaign or message, 60-year-old John Kerry might simply be on wrong side of history, an heir to a legacy that is under ideological assault by the neobolsheviks and treated indifferently by a profoundly ahistorical new generation.

On the ride from Dover to Portsmouth, I talked with William "Billy" Shaheen, one of Kerry's most influential state co-chairpersons (another happens to be Shaheen's wife, Jeanne, the former three-term governor of New Hampshire). Kerry has corralled more of the NH Democratic Party establishment than any of the other primary candidates and Billy Shaheen, a lawyer, is one of the shrewdest. He is a back-slapping throwback, a ward boss character who knows how to rally the faithful. In New Hampshire's isolated Democratic Party community, there is only one degree of separation between Billy Shaheen and a potential vote for a candidate - and he proved it in a Dover parking lot by seemingly knowing everyone by first name (he lives in the next door town of Madbury) and dragging them, along with their groceries, to shake Kerry's hand.

If Shaheen was frustrated about Kerry's lack of momentum in this state he disguised it well. History is the key, he said, and Shaheen and I talked about primary campaigns ranging back to 1976 and Jimmy Carter and 1984 when Jeanne Shaheen managed Gary Hart's unlikely win from nowhere, and George W. Bush's fall from frontrunner grace in 2000. He says he's not a big poll guy and he focuses "on working to win and we are going to win." Shaheen believes that a Howard Dean nomination would be a "disaster" for Democrats, worse than McGovern in 1972. Dean may have the "angry bunch" vote but he will be as exposed as a fraud on the issues (including the Iraq War debate) by the GOP attack dogs.

After Dean had been drawn and quartered, Shaheen said "He won't have the votes." Shaheen teold me he wishes more voters could imagine "a debate between him (Kerry) and Bush. Are you kidding? He'd kill Bush on everything... if people vote with their heads, for their own interests instead of their hearts then John Kerry is the best choice and that's why I'm here." (A few days after my conversation with Billy Shaheen the campaign let it be known that finishing second in New Hampshire wouldn't be so bad after all.)

In Portsmouth and between shouts of "Vote for Kerry" at passing drivers in a grocery store parking lot, Mike Quinlivan said "this is the first time I've ever done anything like this." Quinlivan, 54, told me he'd come out primarily for Kerry because they shared a bond long ago - Quinlivan served as a Marine and was wounded in Vietnam and, like Kerry, was part of Vietnam Veteran's against the War movement three decades ago.

"Like him (Kerry), I served my country with distinction." Quinlivan has a bushy mustache and a long, graying pony tail and admitted he doesn't know everything about what Kerry proposes. But he'd come out of apolitical hibernation because, he told me, Kerry is the real deal to him and he's been waiting for a candidate like Kerry to emerge, someone who understands sacrifice and what it means to be a real patriot. "I don't trust Bush and his weapons of mass disappearance. I don't want my son to fight and die for oil and I know John Kerry would never do that." Quinlivan is part of a sizable contingent of veterans, especially Vietnam era veterans who support Kerry, and he's precisely the type of voter John Kerry needed to attract. But the equation Kerry and his campaign face is this - are there enough Mike Quinlivan votes out there?

The shoppers came in and out of the grocery store, many preparing for the storm by filling up their carts. Lots of folks stopped for photos and handshakes with Kerry who, unlike this shivering reporter, was not wearing gloves nor headgear. He was having a better time than most and after greeting one shopper, suggested she talk to a pair of hovering columnists who have been particularly tough on him. "I need all the help I can get," he joked.

One 50-something lady told me about what issues are important to her (jobs, health care) and then stopped, looked at Kerry and said "What a face." It's true. John Kerry's chiseled face is distinguished, distinct as though with the sturm & drang of life. When he cracks a smile his face can change dramatically from tragic to liberating. It's one that could easily launch a thousand, evocative editorial cartoons.

The vultures may be circling but I heard Kerry rally his supporters on the "Real Deal" express by telling them "I'm a closer" - and he does have history to back him up when it comes to electoral survival. In 1996, he survived a brutal reelection fight with then Massachusetts Gov. William Weld who was a trendy, very popular moderate Republican. Kerry was far down in the polls and considered road kill by the pundit wise guys but he showed the tenacity of a street brawler. He fought and hustled for every vote and knocked Weld out at the finish.

If John Kerry can't close on Howard Dean, it could a long and lonely walk from home to the Democratic National Convention.

Michael McCord is an award-winning reporter and writer living in New Hampshire.

More of Michael McCord's Tales from the Primary Trail:
Gen. Wesley Clark to the Rescue?
Dr. Dean's House Calls

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