Jewish World Review August 4, 2004 / 17 Menachem-Av 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The man behind it all | Like that opening pitch he'd delivered a few days earlier at Fenway, the wind-up was impressive, but John Kerry's long, long acceptance speech fell short.

The farther he got from his heroic days in Vietnam ("My name is John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty!") and the closer he came to the murky present, the vaguer his words grew. At the end, he seemed to drift away in a sea of red-white-and-blue balloons. Amid the general but unfocused enthusiasm, all traction was lost.

How, for example, would John Kerry's policy toward Iraq differ from the current one he wants us to despise but vows to continue?

What would he do differently, besides make us popular with the French and Germans? Popularity is not a policy. And it is certainly not synonymous with respect in a dangerous and threatening world. As we should have learned during the Nuclear Freeze movement that John Kerry endorsed back in the '80s. That was another popular European concept Ronald Reagan defied. Result: The West won the Cold War and the nuclear arms race ended.

If, as Senator Kerry claims, George W. Bush misled us into an unnecessary war, what is one to say of Senator Kerry's own pre-war statements as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee?

Back then, he was still warning of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and those famously elusive weapons of mass destruction. Are we supposed to believe John Kerry set out to mislead us, too? I don't believe that, any more than I believe the Bush administration did.

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It takes a certain historical unconsciousness, or a willing suspension of disbelief, to join the madding crowd on any convention floor, including the one that was cheering John Kerry the other night. The morning after, it would become clear that he had only sounded forthright.

Every presidential candidate tries to shape his own official myth and buff it for the campaign biographies and films. But in John Kerry's case, the papered-over gaps and inconsistencies are more obvious than in most. "I ask you to judge me by my record," he declared Thursday night. All right. Let's have a look:

There was his intemperate congressional testimony as a young, beribboned war protester-in which he roundly smeared his comrades-in-arms. That was long ago, and he's semi-apologized for that youthful indiscretion. But what is one to say of his lengthy, entirely consistent record of opposition to just about every major new arms system for the armed forces of the United States?

And having opposed the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein to liberate Kuwait, and having been proved wrong, Senator Kerry then voted for this war-only to turn around and vote against the appropriations needed to support the troops and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.

If a single vote disqualifies a candidate for president and commander-in-chief, that vote was it. What kind of American leader, whether he is for or against a war-and John Kerry was supposedly (ITALICS)for this one-votes to cut off support for troops in the field?

In general, Senator Kerry's is a long, winding and worrisome record on the great issues of our times. Thursday evening, he sounded uncomfortably like Pat Buchanan doing his protectionist shtick. He pronounced "outsourcing" the way a preacher would say Satan. But this is a senator who supported NAFTA and the whole principle of free trade back in the '90s, when it was more popular to do so. Once again he is shifting with the political wind.

John Kerry's craggy features, his air of New England solidity, his Brahmin accent and manners, they all assure, but they don't go with his record, which has been one of shifts, dodges, reservations and the usual host of Clinton clauses. What you see isn't what we've gotten over the years.

The record the man asks us to judge him by resembles nothing so much as a series of safe moves to protect his political liability, to use another phrase from the Clinton Era. And his acceptance speech continued that pattern. It didn't seem so much a program of action as a grab-bag of resentments great and small-but mainly a generalized resentment at having to make any decisions at all in a dangerous world.

As he went on and on, John Kerry's voice grew louder, and his catch phrases catchier-Band of Brothers! Help Is on the Way! Enron! Outsourcing! At one point, he seemed to be saying that (a) his party loved the Constitution more than the other, but (b) let's be civil about it. It was as if he couldn't decide whether to divide or unite us, so he did each alternately.

The entire speech-twice as long and half as clear as it should have been-didn't hang together. It seemed designed to introduce a kind of patchwork candidate to the country-a mix of varying parts angry Howard Dean, protectionist Dick Gephardt, order-giving Wesley Clark, with touches of spacey Dennis Kucinich and shameless Al Sharpton.

In the end, John Kerry came across not just as a leader of a disparate coalition, but as something of a disparate coalition himself behind that granite outcropping of a face. A kind of hollowed-out Gary Cooper. A Warren Christopher without the charisma.

When the Democrats chose John Kerry as their candidate-early and often, in primary after primary-they were opting for the safest candidate, a politician without any distinguishing marks. So he could be all things to all voters. It was the risk-averse course. But in a world full of new dangers, the greatest risk may be to take no risks at all.

As America has learned time and again, or should have learned, a nation can drift only so long without taking action. It should be enough to say September 11, 2001 to remember that lesson, but maybe we still don't get it. Maybe the giant is drifting off to sleep again, inviting still another rude awakening.

It is a fine thing to contemplate the various choices before us. But in his acceptance speech, John Kerry seemed ready to make all of them. Or maybe none.

Another disconnect: The senator's thoughtful, forceful, well-paced delivery was so much better than his actual, wavering words. Whether you love or loathe George W. Bush, you know where he's coming from-and where he proposes to go. But if this speech of John Kerry's is a sign of what is to come in his campaign or his presidency, he will mainly drift. At length. Meanwhile, downstream, the cataract still awaits.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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