from the Primary Trail: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
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
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
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
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
"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:
Wesley Clark to the Rescue?
Dean's House Calls