Kerry's Latest Colors; Banner Waves: John Kerry's Upriver, under Siege. Is His Plan to Take It to Bush on National Security a Masterstroke, or a Fool's Errand? the Democrat's Path out of the Hot Zone

By Fineman, Howard; Gegax, T. Trent | Newsweek, May 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

Kerry's Latest Colors; Banner Waves: John Kerry's Upriver, under Siege. Is His Plan to Take It to Bush on National Security a Masterstroke, or a Fool's Errand? the Democrat's Path out of the Hot Zone


Fineman, Howard, Gegax, T. Trent, Newsweek


Byline: Howard Fineman and T. Trent Gegax

Sen. John Kerry has been a man under fire. In a choreographed attack, Republicans last week ambushed him with a 33-year-old leaked videotape (unearthed in the National Archives) and bombed him with $5 million in negative ads. The aim: to indelibly depict him as a weak-on-defense waffler defined not by his bravery in Vietnam but by his later protests against the conflict. His convoluted answers to a simple yet symbolically loaded question--did he throw away his combat medals, or just his ribbons, in a 1971 protest?--drew stinging reviews. A new Democratic survey surfaced, showing what a party operative conceded was "further erosion" in the senator's image. Spinning strenuously, Kerry's handlers sought, without being asked, to distinguish him from a hapless standard-bearer of the past. "Our guy is not Dukakis!" yelled one. "Mike wore a funny helmet in a tank. Kerry carried an M-16 in the jungle!"

Kerry has found himself in this situation before: underestimated and pinned down in terrain he doesn't seem to know well. In earlier incarnations--as a Swift Boat commander in the Mekong Delta and as a contender in Iowa and New Hampshire--he not only survived; he triumphed. And he did it with a straightforward strategy: charging enemy positions. "His way of dealing with an ambush was to attack," recalls Del Sandusky, who piloted one of Kerry's patrol boats.

As it was then, so it apparently is now. In theory, it's foolish to take on a sitting president in his role as the commander in chief. But that's what Kerry has decided to do. He now questions George Bush's National Guard attendance record and Dick Cheney's multiple draft deferments. This week Kerry launches a huge TV ad buy touting his war years and his "strength and service." "We won't concede one inch on 'strength'," says one Kerry operative.

Clearly, it was long past time for Kerry to follow the old Navy dictum: don't just stand there, do something! Since effectively securing the Democratic nomination a full two months ago, Kerry has raised money at a record pace but otherwise fiddled in Rome. Outside Kerry's circle, Beltway wise guys belittle his campaign as a listless and message-less mishmash that has failed to engage a vulnerable incumbent.

Instead, Kerry has been ridiculed for numerous position shifts and baloney-slicing emendations of the story of his story. Among them: Does he own an SUV? (He once said he did, but now he says his family does, though he doesn't.) Was he for or against an $87 billion war appropriation? ("I voted for it before I voted against it," he said.) Which war decorations did he toss at an antiwar protest in 1971 on the steps of the Capitol? (At the time, he said they were medals; in 1984, he said they were ribbons; last week he said that medals and ribbons were "absolutely interchangeable.")

Some politicians can get away with this kind of thing. Bill Clinton was a master at the three-card monte game of autobiographical self-editing. George W. Bush has carried out some monumental shifts of position--he campaigned as a foe of "nation-building," for example--but voters give him post-9/11 leeway and credit for bullheadedness. Kerry has neither the soft charm nor the chops to shape-shift without all the gears showing. Reviewers, including putative friends, lambaste him for "shimmying" and for "distended, lumbering TV appearances." On the trail, he still can be wooden and lordly, as if he were offering himself as a candidate for secretary of State--in the 19th century. His speeches can be a hash of proposals and exhortations--a "wapatooey," as pour-it-all-in-the-punchbowl drinks are known on some college campuses. Parallel to the unfriendly "free media," Bush-Cheney '04 has leveled an unprecedented $60 million "shock and awe" barrage of TV ads at him.

It's a wonder of a sort that Kerry is still standing. After being slightly ahead in the polls, he has fallen slightly behind in most of them.

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