Sen. John F. Kerry is a different man from the one who set out to run for president a year ago. He has been up, he has been down, and now he is up again. Some months ago, as the former front-runner, he looked down upon his open grave, politically speaking. (He'd like that phrase. It comes from "Profiles in Courage," written by his favorite president.) Now Kerry is more than the front-runner again. He has the delegates to claim the Democratic presidential nomination at the Boston convention in July.
George W. Bush is a changed person, too. Terrorism and war can do that to a man. So can great responsibility. Every biographer of Bush has written about how he changed at his 40th birthday, ceasing his drinking and his drifting.
That is a remarkable, important story. But what may be more remarkable and more important is how he has changed since he became the 43rd president.
As a result, the November election is a contest between two men who are substantially different from who they were only months, or, at most, a few years, ago.
In some ways that is good; it shows their ability to grow and to learn. But it is revealing of both Bush and Kerry as well. No one suggested that, for example, President Bush's father, or Gerald R. Ford, or Lyndon B. Johnson, or Harry S. Truman were works in progress. They were fixed and fully formed.
The same is true of some nominees who didn't win the presidency, including Hubert H. Humphrey and Robert J. Dole. And, it might be added, of Ralph Nader, who is not going to be president this year or ever.
In someone's shadow
The unspoken truth about the two principal candidates in 2004 -- and they will not like this, their handlers will not acknowledge this -- is that as recently as when the millennium changed, neither man was particularly at ease with himself. Each thought there was more he could do, more he could know, more he could master. Each thought he was in the shadow of another man -- men they respected and loved, to be sure -- but both still quietly yearned to show that they were more than a junior senator to Edward M. Kennedy and a junior version of George H.W. Bush. Each felt -- and this is a guess, but a guess from someone who has seen both of them up close over many years -- that he was in some ways consigned to striving for, but not winning, the recognition he craved, the recognition he deserved.
Each began the new millennium with the confidence of his associates but not with full confidence in himself.
"He began the office with little self-confidence," Stephen Wayne, the Georgetown University expert on the presidency, said of George W. Bush. "That's come. Sept. 11 gave him a focus and a sense of direction, and he has stayed with the character he formed at 9-11. He has the direction, vision and determination not to make the same mistake his father did. He is willing to be ideological." Then Professor Wayne added a telling sentence: "He has grown in office and in his own eyes." (Italics mine.)
The stunning thing about that critique, made by an astute chronicler of the presidency, is how much it applies just as easily to President Bush's rival.
Kerry began the presidential race with little self-confidence, but it has come -- in part from the very process of coming from behind, which focuses the mind and steels the character. He has the direction, vision and determination not to make the same mistakes Gov. Michael S. Dukakis made in 1988, also running against an underestimated man named George Bush. He is willing to be ideological. He has grown in politics and in his own eyes.
Funny thing about all this. The papers and the journals have been full of how similar the two candidates are on the surface -- from famous families, from New England prep schools, from Yale, from social sets that knew what it meant to meet under the Biltmore clock. They are also from political powerhouse states with distinct cultures -- cultures, by the way, in which they do not fit comfortably. Bush wasn't born a Texan and retains a whiff of Connecticut and Kennebunkport, though he thinks of Midland as his home.
Kerry was never comfortable in the cloying camaraderie of Bay State tribal politics, though his provenance as a link to the Kennedy and Dukakis legacies is strong.
In the days when John Kennedy was president and Sam Rayburn speaker, politicians spoke of a Boston/Austin axis. This is a Boston/Austin axis of a different sort.
Because the biggest similarity between the two men isn't really on the surface at all. It's beneath the skin, down deep. The man who has been charged with cowardice during Vietnam has shown courage during Afghanistan and Iraq. The man who showed courage in his youth in Vietnam (and in its aftermath) has been charged with cowardice and equivocation in adulthood in the Senate and on the trail. Each -- Bush and Kerry -- is far deeper than the charges, far more complicated, ultimately far more interesting.
But most important of all, both men retain a memory of what it was like not to know so much, not to be respected quite as much, not to personify so much for so many people.
Some are fully formed
Some presidents carry that as a distant memory; George Washington was a fully formed man in the presidency, which in some ways was a coda to his life, not the main theme. The same can be said for Coolidge, most underrated of American presidents. Some finished men were disasters as president; Herbert Hoover is a good example. And then some men with little self-confidence, or with the fresh memory of a time when they weren't so confident, achieved greatness in the White House. Abraham Lincoln (the small-time, always-broke capital lawyer in Springfield) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the one-time dandy broken in body, spirit and prospects) were two of them.
Two more of them are running for the presidency in November. We'd be wise to remember that when Lincoln and FDR came to power -- and even at times while they served -- they didn't seem like substantial figures, and they sure had their critics, many of them mean-spirited. You might say that neither was a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt, on Election Day.
But ultimately it may not be the lack of self-confidence that counts in politics. It's how candidates, and presidents, battle their lack of self-confidence, and whether and how they conquer it, that matters in their own eyes, and in ours.
David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.