Archive for Thursday, July 22, 2004

Kerry must be more than ‘not Bush’

July 22, 2004


— Let me begin this slowly. The last time I talked about a rite of passage at the Democratic National Convention, one of my neighbors nearly choked: "Right of passage? There is no right of passage. The whole city is going into gridlock!"

Such is the mood of Boston. The talk of the town is less about politics than parking. The natives are being wooed north with ads promising "not a delegate in sight." The same city hall that boosted the convention now has slogans saying: "It's only four days." And the real reason to envy John Kerry is that he can walk from his Beacon Hill home to the convention center.

But the rite of passage I have in mind is about transformation, not transportation. Ever since conventions turned from nominating to coronating candidates, they've been cast -- and plotted -- as mystical ceremonies that usher the candidate from one political life stage to another.

For the man sometimes still referred to as the junior senator from Massachusetts, this will be the week to change from ABB to JFK, from Anybody But Bush to John Forbes Kerry.

Kerry has been ABB ever since last March. After a crush on Howard Dean and a flirtation with John Edwards, primary voters chose the tenacious senator. He won because the voters decided he could win.

Today, the anti-Bush sentiment still outranks the pro-Kerry sentiment. Even Michael Moore, in his Bush-bashing movie, doesn't have a word to say about Kerry. Ron Reagan Jr., who opposes Bush, will talk at the convention in favor of stem cells, but not in favor of John. And an entirely unscientific sample of bumper-sticker sales in Seattle shows that anti-Bush stickers are outselling pro-Kerry stickers 49 to 1.

It's charming to see Democrats carrying this new garment -- pragmatism -- in their carry-on bags as they descend on Beantown.

Consider the normally contentious issue groups. The day after Kerry gratuitously expressed his scientific view than life begins at conception, NARAL Pro-Choice America dubbed the Dems the "dream ticket." Gay-rights activists who are fully aware that Kerry doesn't support same-sex marriage have still been civil in their union with him.

But however many ABBs there are, there aren't enough to elect one of them. Some 30 percent of the public still say they don't have an opinion of this JFK. As a native of Massachusetts, I get the same question I got in March: "What's he really like?" And I start the answer with the same word I used in March: "complicated."

Kerry is not the first candidate to approach the convention with an enthusiasm deficit. But the walk from Louisburg Square to the Fleet Center, from anti-Bush to pro-Kerry, will test his ability at making connections.

No, Kerry will never be a backslapping schmoozer. He engages and disengages. He doesn't do folksiness or share Oprah moments on camera cue.

I can remember a handful of times the window opened in my presence -- once when I asked him about cancer, once when he talked about being a divorced father, once when he talked about the friendship among men in combat. But the expectations of Kerry's personality are as low as the expectations about Bush's grammar. So he only needs to satisfy a need for confidence, not intimacy.

But the other connection he is just beginning to draw is between biography and beliefs. It's the narrative from Vietnam War and resistance to the post-9-11 world, especially the Iraq War. In political scientist Sam Popkin's words, Kerry should say, "Here's what I learned from the men I fought with. Here's what I learned from the war I fought in. I've learned the difference between loving my country and loving its wars."

This campaign will revolve around trust and leadership: How broken are the economy and foreign policy and who is the better fixer? Who will define words like "strong"? When is it resolute and when is it stubborn?

Every good rite of passage involves a sort of test. Kerry rides a Harley-Davidson, windsurfs and snowboards. But he is cautious on the record and parses his words as closely as a margin of error.

So his rite of passage demands some straight and risky talk. Would he have voted for the war if he knew then what he knows now? Did the president and his men deceive us? How would John Forbes Kerry get us to the Iraqi exit door?

Kerry didn't sweep the party off its feet. This wasn't so much a romance as a careful match with a pre-nup agreement. Now for the wedding.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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