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Jewish World Review April 29, 2004 / 8 Iyar, 5764

James Lileks

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John Kerry, prisoner of symbolic politics | "Go back and get the file footage," said John Kerry.

He was on "Good Morning America," sorting out whether he threw over the White House fence his medals, his ribbons, someone else's medals, someone else's ribbons, or a combination of the above mixed with some Cracker Jack prizes. How to clear things up? In a peeved and hectoring voice, Kerry told the interviewer to "go back and get the file footage."

Hmm. This would be the film of a grim, long-faced young man with ultra-'70s hair hurling some symbols of military honor at the White House. That's the sort of image the opposition usually puts in the October negative ads. Particularly when the nation is at war and soldiers are in vogue.

Kerry wants us all to see it in prime time. He seems to think it's something we want in a president.

It would impress those who abhor American power, who think that Vietnam turned into Sunny Candyland the moment the United States got out and let Ho Chi Minh's minions poke everyone into the camps. But it reminds others that once we cut and run — and that guys like Kerry were there with the scissors and track shoes.

Few would hold his medal toss against him today; his record as a senator and a presidential candidate is much more pertinent. People do things in their 20s they later repudiate. But Kerry is one of those people who hasn't changed his mind much in 30-plus years. The 60-year-old senator and the 27-year-old war vet getting his first taste of the sweet juice of national publicity — same guy.

Hence he feels compelled to defend himself with tortuous hair-splitting and excruciatingly complex explanations. If he was wrong then, you see, he's wrong now. And John Kerry, as he reminded us after a day on the slopes, doesn't fall down.

If the medal toss showed anything, it's how the left is welded to the curious morality of symbolism. In Kerry's camp, symbolism has an almost religious quality. Throwing medals for the cameras may be narcissistically theatrical, but the essence of the gesture is symbolically correct: Up yours, Nixon! It can never be retracted.

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Alas, the medals flap overshadowed another remark that was more illustrative of Kerry's imprisonment in symbolic politics. He was asked if he had an SUV. He admitted owning a Chrysler 300M, and made a pitch against outsourcing: "I want cars to be made in Michigan, made in America, made" by the United Auto Workers, Kerry said.

The 300M is made in Canada. Oh well. Who can keep track of these things? Then came the telling line about his SUV. He said: "The family has it. I don't have it."

So now we have three separate Kerry Units: JFK himself, whose tax returns and military records are part of the debate; his wife, Teresa, whose tax returns are NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS; and "the family," an entity distinct from Kerry and Heinz, a sort of familial blind trust into which he contributes no input. Don't blame him for having an SUV. Blame THE FAMILY.

You have to feel sorry for him, you really do. No one can live the simon-pure life. No candidate can don the hairshirt for 30 years. He throws away a pop can, we shout gotcha, jump on him and insist this invalidates his position on recycling.

Modern life almost demands that you violate the innumerable tenets of each party. But it's easier to run afoul of the laws of the Pure Left than the Pure Right, because the left has freighted practical causes with moral weight. It's not enough to want to preserve the Earth; it has to be done because it is immoral not to. Smoking isn't just a bad habit, it's a sign of moral degeneracy. (They got that one from the old right.) Driving a vehicle the size of a rhino is evil. And so forth.

It's a minefield, because you can't tell what portion of the constituency might have a moral objection to a pragmatic decision.

Guaranteed: There are those who don't care whether he threw away his medals. But they're furious that he didn't recycle them.

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


04/22/04: Shall we grovel? Kerry Plan to Restore America's Place in the World
04/08/04: Sept. 11 Might Have Been Different If ...
04/02/04: Slinging slime or citing facts?
03/26/04: One War, One Enemy
03/22/04: Bloodied Spain Rejoins Old Europe
03/12/04: Why All Those Foreign Leaders Want Kerry to Whup Bush
03/08/04: Introducing the Kerry Doctrine
02/27/04: Introducing the AWOLs: Angry White Outraged Libs
02/20/04: Sifting the headlines of election year 1992
02/18/04: Guess Which Candidate Our Enemies Want to Lose in 2004?
01/29/04: Every Laptop a Truth Squad
01/27/04: When the battle over artistic freedom goes over the edge
12/31/03: For the Left and Right, Some New Year's Resolutions
12/22/03: Dean's black helicopters
12/15/03: Dems Are Mainstreaming the Extreme
12/08/03: Does Dean Really Want to Be President? One Wonders, When He Opens His Mouth
11/24/03: The real story: Most Brits see U.S. as force for good
11/19/03: The Trouble With Al Gore's Screed on Civil Liberties
11/11/03: Can a fellow win with the Confederate Metrosexual vote?
10/22/03: Let's make Greenpeace pay
09/29/03: Ah-nold & Clark may be on different sides of the aisles, but their supporters are cut from the same cloth
09/19/03: All Hail the Ninth Circuit Court of Surreal
08/26/03: This time, the record industry doesn't stand a chance!
08/18/03: Assessing the Schwarzenegger Factor in Republicanism
08/08/03: No wonder Howard ‘Two Covers’ Dean gets all the buzz
08/04/03: Expect bad news for the foreseeable future
07/28/03: Despot's Deserts
07/21/03: No winners in this game of gotcha
07/14/03: Doing the right thing in Liberia may not be the right thing to do
06/27/03: On feet in Democratic mouths
06/16/03: The real story behind Hillary's book
06/09/03:America's new mission was and remains: Extirpating the flaming nutballs and the societies that nurture them
06/03/03: The Constitution as gag order
05/23/03: Sometimes the theme of world events is chaos itself
05/16/03: Newspapers are only human, after all
05/13/03: What McCarthy messed up
05/06/03: Still think the International Criminal Court was a good idea?
04/03/03: The world is ending, the world is ending! Doesn't anybody care!? Why won't anybody listen!?
03/14/03: Kerry and the Dems are banking on American electorate's tendancy to forget history
02/28/03: Roadmap to peace?
02/13/03: We live in an age where the poet has been cast out from the halls of power --- sob, sob
02/10/03: Found: League for International Justice and Peace talking points
01/30/03: The US can go to war whenever it likes for its own reasons, and all the UN can do is pass more worthless paper
01/23/03: People who'd volunteer for the Iraqi army if they saw Saddam wearing a "Free Mumia" button
01/16/03: One of those head vs. heart things
12/27/02: Whistleblowers?
01/06/02: The second year of this jangled millennium
11/16/01: Attack of the 'Patriotism police' and other Hollywood fare
11/12/01: From the bleats of dismay
10/30/01: Osama and the Genie
10/08/01: "We can stop the Bush Death Juggernaut"
11/04/01: America, loathe or it leave it
09/25/01: Do the Europeans actually think that the war on murderous zealotry will be furthered by undercutting America?
08/27/01: If the economy is in a funk, why aren't we dancing?
08/14/01: Dubyah's embarrassing presidential vacation
08/10/01: Hail to our co-chiefs?
08/03/01: Constitution: George the Uniter picked a doozy to unify detractors
07/25/01: The real reason why we need missile defense (What those uppity policy wonks won't tell you!)
06/18/01: Paining the egalitarian soul
06/01/01: One of the stranger indexes you'll ever hear about
05/21/01: One man's toke is another man's snort
05/08/01: Republicans want poisoned water
04/23/01: We bleat as we're sheared
04/10/01: Boys will be boys. And that's the problem
04/06/01: Pity the anti-American Left, they're gonna have a hard time on this one
03/26/01: You've been warned
03/16/01: The GOP's inexplicable desire to fold
02/23/01: Will the Jeb Bush administration attack Saddam in 2011?
02/09/01: In search of the the first ashtray thrown by a member of the First Family
02/06/01: Can you say 'Ayatollah Bush'?
01/24/01: The new Executive Orders
01/22/01: Hey, Dubya: Wanna save Ashcroft? Teach him to rap!
01/09/01: Bubba gets his last licks
01/05/01: The low-down on the coming recession (What those snooty economists won't tell you)
12/23/00: Memo to Dubya: Wanna show who is boss? Nuke 'em!
12/06/00: The Count of Carthage
At the Sore/Loserman Transition HQ
12/01/00: The Count of Carthage
11/28/00: Clinton knows history isn't written by the victors anymore
11/17/00: Chad's the word
11/08/00: The strangest political night
11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2003, James Lileks