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Primary Colors

Thus far, John Kerry, relatively well known nationally and well financed, has benefited the most from the overheated atmosphere of the compressed calendar. Though in previous races Kerry fought back hard when he was behind, and won, few observers expected him to do that this time. That he did so—and did unexpectedly well—testified to his determination and his skill as a candidate as well as his being a beneficiary of the compressed calendar. The most troubling aspect of his campaign is that his appearances often seemed staged, the real person hidden behind a mask. Kerry is a member of a prominent New England family, yet he tries to come across as the common man, pointing, for example, to his service with “kids from working America” in Vietnam. Throughout his campaign—as in his pre-campaign life—he has shown that he can be warm as well as aloof, and his detachment could well cause him problems with voters.

Authenticity is a much-underrated value in politics. Inauthentic politicians win office, even the presidency, but they rarely hold up as leaders for long, or in history. Harry S. Truman became retroactively popular because he was true to himself: he didn’t pretend to be anyone other than the former (failed) haberdasher and machine pol who had run tough Senate hearings on war profiteering. Ronald Reagan remains popular among much of the public because he didn’t seem phony. Raised in a poor family, Reagan had undergone a radical change in political belief before he entered national politics, from very liberal to hard-line conservative. But for all his use of slogans and clichés, he did not give the impression of pretending to be somebody he wasn’t—although he was quite obviously drawing on his skills as a former actor, even using lines from movies to make a dramatic point. (“I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen,” he said, in New Hampshire in 1980, borrowing a line from Spencer Tracy in State of the Union.)

Jimmy Carter is thought to be a failed president in some part because his personality, often brittle and difficult, differed so dramatically from the one he presented to the public when he ran for the nomination. He frequently asserted that “I love the American people,” or “I love you all” and that “I’ll never lie to you,” when in fact he could be sour, and, like all presidents, could lie from time to time. He was also unlucky, particularly in his failure to obtain the release of the American hostages before the 1980 election.

The image-driven strategies of John Kerry’s campaign have been evident for anyone who has followed it closely. He seems to want to appear as several different people—changing his clothes and his personality perhaps even more often than Al Gore did in 2000. (He has some of the same advisers.) Kerry has given a macho impression—riding his Harley-Davidson onto the set of The Tonight Show, pheasant hunting in Iowa, playing hockey with the Boston Bruins; and at the same time he has portrayed himself as a sensitive feminist. (His heiress wife, Teresa Heinz, who some in his campaign feared would cause problems publicly, has turned out to be quite helpful, with a sense of humor that relieves Kerry’s tendency to be lugubrious.) One day Kerry presented himself as “the common-sense candidate” of the middle of the road; shortly thereafter, he changed the approach and became a populist, denouncing the “special interests” in Washington.

But though he says he has refused to take money from PACs, in fact, according to a recent report in The Washington Post, during the last fifteen years Kerry has accepted more money from special-interest lobbyists than any other US senator. (PACs are much overrated as a source of contributions; it’s easy enough to collect—or “bundle”—enough individual contributions, previously $1,000, now $2,000, to equal what a PAC can contribute, $5,000.) Moreover, according to Newsweek, Kerry accepted funds from the notorious Johnny Chung, one of the shadiest figures in the Clinton campaign finance scandals. (Chung raised a great deal of money for Clinton and pleaded guilty to violations of the campaign finance laws in exchange for cooperation in the investigation and minor penalties.) According to the Associated Press, Kerry’s tax-exempt political action committee accepted donations from companies, such as AIG, with direct interests in legislation before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, on which he serves.

Kerry, who has been in the Senate for nineteen years, waffled on the resolution authorizing the President to go to war with Iraq—at first leading some people to think that he would head the opposition to it, only then to vote for it. His tortured explanation in the campaign was that he supported the concept of the President taking his case to the United Nations and having to come back to Congress for approval before going to war—which Bush certainly would have received. This seems to be accepted by the voters thus far. Kerry is a serious and thoughtful man, but his behavior in the Senate suggests indecisiveness.

He does not, in fact, have a very impressive legislative record in the Senate. He has been one of the strongest opponents of oil drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but though he criticized the Bush administration for rejecting the Kyoto protocol, he voted—along with most other Democratic senators—to reject it. His supporters point to his part in the Senate investigation of the criminal Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and his activities in cooperation with John McCain—questioning Pentagon waste, for example, and restoring relations with North Vietnam. The association with McCain could be useful to him in the future. In the debate in South Carolina on January 29, when Dean accused him of having sponsored very little legislation, Kerry offered the novel explanation that if you are smart as a senator, you try to get bills through without having your name on them. Kerry in fact appears to have done this a couple of times, but this doesn’t explain his general lack of legislative accomplishment in the Senate.

Kerry is a genuine jock—he played hockey, lacrosse, and soccer at Yale, and has windsurfed between Cape Cod and Nantucket. Asked by Sports Illustrated recently, “If you challenge President Bush to any sport, one on one, what would it be?” Kerry said: “He’s a better runner; I’m a better hockey player…how about windsurfing?” In a country where 100 million people watch the Super Bowl, this kind of publicity may help.

There has also been a generally deceptive quality to John Edwards’s campaign. The populism is new. A man of considerable charm, and a persuasive speaker as well as being very clever, Edwards has managed to convince most of the political press that he has been running a “positive” campaign while in fact he’s engaged in some rough attacks on his opponents. (His staff compiled a memorandum—from which he later dissociated himself—which among other things called Dean an “elitist from Park Avenue.”) Perhaps it’s the trial lawyer in him. Before he was first elected to the Senate in 1998, he specialized in personal-injury cases, winning verdicts for as much as $150 million, with as much as 30 percent going to the lawyers. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Hugh Shelton, who has publicly smeared General Wesley Clark as a man of questionable character, without ever saying why, is one of Edwards’s advisers. Still, it was surprising that in November of last year Jennifer Palmieri, Edwards’s press secretary, said of Clark, without citing a name or any evidence, “military leaders he has worked with, and who know him best, seem to have a lot of concern about his ability to lead.”

Wesley Clark seemed to me to be the most consistently convincing character in the race. He is an unusual mixture: he has shown he could be devious in planning military campaigns and advancing his own military career, but in his personal dealings with people he trusts he is open and direct.

But Clark paid a steep price for entering the race late—September 17—especially since he was new to electoral politics. Partly because most of the experienced political advisers were already involved in other political campaigns, his staff was for the most part second-rate at best. Clark had too much crowding in on him, too many decisions to make, in too short a period of time. Though thousands of people urged him to run—and he himself was quite interested in running—it turned out that telescoping what for other candidates is a two-years-or-longer process into four months doesn’t work, especially for a novice. So Clark became exhausted, and this at times clouded his judgment, as when he stuck with an inadequate staff and also accepted its advice, toward the end, to attack Kerry and Edwards, which temporarily diminished his luster. (Clark can get that back by campaigning for the party’s nominee and taking his strong anti-Bush message to a wider public.)

That Clark had an inadequate staff can also be attributed partly to his own poor planning when he considered running. Last September, before he announced, Judy Woodruff of CNN asked Clark why he was saying he might run and might not run. He replied that in the military, one does “parallel planning”—planning for more than one contingency. But Clark can be faulted for a lack of parallel planning for his own campaign. He also too often said something offhand that he later had to retract or explain. As a Newsweek reporter observed, “Clark has no idea it’s counterproductive to answer questions from the press by reciting bytes of campaign rhetoric.”

I spent four days following Clark’s campaign in New Hampshire in mid-January, when most reporters were in Iowa and Clark was the principal candidate in the state. On January 16 Clark’s staff wasted an entire day of his time, when he was very tired and in danger of once again losing his voice, by having him issue three policy statements—trying so hard to make news that he made hardly any. A basic rule of politics is that a candidate should have only one message a day. Late that afternoon he wasted his time speaking—with obvious frustration—to a largely unreceptive, Republican audience.

Still, over those four days Clark improved his stump speech from one that was weak to one that was eloquent. At a huge rally outside Manchester on Saturday afternoon, January 17, he stirred up more emotion than I have seen since Robert F. Kennedy addressed large crowds. Clark’s stump speech was largely about values. He distinguished genuine patriotism—a commitment to American traditions of civil liberties and vigorous dissent—from fake patriotism—the indifference to rights and intolerance of dissent that characterize the Bush administration. He strongly criticized the President for not taking effective measures to prevent the attacks on September 11, 2001, even after Bush had received a warning about a plan for terrorists to hijack American planes, and for “lying us into an unnecessary war.” He talked of Bush “prancing around the deck of an aircraft carrier,” prematurely declaring an end to “major hostilities” in Iraq. His basic message was that “a higher standard of leadership” is needed in the US.

The Bush administration for a while took the threat of Clark’s candidacy seriously, and tried to undermine him by spreading the charge that he had been inconsistent in his opposition to the Iraq war. This was unfair. He maintained the position of his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on September 26, 2002, that a congressional resolution “need not, at this point, authorize the use of force” and that

if efforts to resolve the problem by using the United Nations fail …then we need to form the broadest possible coalition, including our NATO allies…if we’re going to have to bring forces to bear.

The press—some reporters encouraged by the Bush administration—also attacked him for not distancing himself from the left-wing humorist Michael Moore, who, in a funny introduction of Clark at a rally, called George W. Bush a “deserter.” Moore was obviously joking, as he made clear in a chat with some reporters afterward, saying also that he respected people who tried to avoid service in Vietnam. Perhaps because of Moore’s comment, whether Bush reported for duty in the Alabama National Guard has become a major issue again, though it was generally ignored in 2000. Bush, for his part, recently acknowledged that he was allowed to leave the National Guard eight months before his term expired: “Well, I was going to Harvard Business School and worked it out with the military.”

Some reporters concluded that Moore was serious, and this set off Clark’s largest crisis in New Hampshire, on the weekend before the primary. Clark said in a press conference after the rally, and in the debate in New Hampshire on January 22, that he wasn’t going to tell anyone what form their dissent should take. This is a fundamental principle for Clark, one that he defended even before he entered the race. Yet his response was widely seen to have been a mistake. He said the next day that he wouldn’t have “used those words,” but it was too late. This episode damaged Clark in New Hampshire and elsewhere, though he managed to come in third, just a few hundred votes ahead of Edwards. (Contrary to many reports, Clark fully expected Kerry to win in Iowa.)

Kerry and Dean both had advantages in New Hampshire, since they are from neighboring states; the only surprise was that Dean came in such a distant second—26.4 percent to Kerry’s 38.4 percent. In the seven states that voted on February 3, Kerry won five and Edwards won South Carolina (where he was born, and lived for ten years), while Clark narrowly won Oklahoma and came in second in Arizona, New Mexico, and North Dakota, a respectable showing, but one that was largely written off by the press, which had by then practically anointed Kerry. Kerry easily carried Michigan and Washington State on Saturday, February 7, and won Tennessee and Virginia by large margins on February 10. Edwards came in a distant second in both states, and Clark came in third and withdrew from the race the next day.

The press and television coverage of this year’s nominating process has been more superficial and unbalanced than ever. This may partly be the result of there being so many elections and caucuses in so short a time. But other factors also seem at work. Of course some journalists and editors try to be fair, but, for the most part, elementary journalistic standards have been largely ignored. Far too much of the coverage has taken the form of prediction rather than observation, along with a great deal of speculation backed by constantly changing polls about who is the most “electable” candidate, even though this is impossible to discern so far in advance. (At the close of the 1988 Democratic Convention, Michael Dukakis was predicted to be eighteen points ahead of the elder Bush. He lost by eight percentage points.)

The race was declared “over” so many times, and so many outcomes were declared “inevitable,” that it sometimes seemed as if the voters were irrelevant. Reporters and pundits kept telling us what was going to happen rather than explaining what’s happened and trying to analyze why. Early in 2003, The New York Times announced that John Kerry was the “front-runner.” This turned out to have been prescient, but at the time it was written it was hard to discern how there could be a front-runner a year and a half before anyone had voted, and months before there was an opportunity to observe candidates and hear their plans.

Before Christmas, countless pundits and reporters told us that Howard Dean had the nomination sewed up—again before anyone had voted. If Dean won Iowa and New Hampshire, we were told, “it’s over”; some commentators and reporters ventured further, stating that if Dean won Iowa, that would suffice. Consider, they said, the fearsome power of the unions in Iowa, who were backing Dean along with Dick Gephardt. Then Gephardt was said to be winning the nomination, and Kerry was “coming apart”—all before anything real had happened. Clark, a man with admirable qualities—and at times a very good candidate—received, on the whole, negative treatment in the press.2 That much of the press was wrong in predicting Dean’s “inevitability” apparently gave them no pause in making further predictions.

Such journalism is not only a waste of time but can seriously distort the electoral process. Forecasts by the press that a certain candidate will win may produce contributions, volunteers, and energy (as with the early endorsement of Dean by labor unions)—and the reverse is also the case. That they mislead the public seems not to matter. The entire nominating and election processes need to be reconsidered by the political parties and the press. The voters deserve to be better served by both the politicians and by journalists; otherwise the principle of democratic nomination and election through informed choice is made a mockery.

—February 12, 2004

  1. 2

    Particularly unfortunate was the widespread journalistic failure to investigate the smear campaign against Clark by a group of former military officers, not just Shelton, who dislike him intensely, partly out of jealousy, partly because of policy differences in the Balkan wars, and partly because of his brash and seemingly confident personality. They were supported by former Defense Secretary William Cohen, an experienced knife-wielder against those who get in his way. Some journalists passed on, without identifying the source, Cohen’s attacks on Clark’s character.

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