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Kerry comes out

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

Watching John Kerry speak at length and at long last about Iraq on 20 Septemper, I realized yet again just what the man is up against.

Kerry’s internal critics urged him for months to give this speech – to diagnose the war, spell out what Bush did wrong, spell out what Kerry would do right, and to do all this in short declarative sentences.

So Kerry delivered. He was cogent. He looked like a man who comes to conclusions after thinking about problems. He sounded neither flip nor flopping. There was an arc to his talk.

He started, as all speeches on America in the world must start these days, with al-Qaida. “The greatest threat we face,” Kerry said, “is the possibility al-Qaida or other terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon.”

“To prevent that from happening, we must call on the totality of America’s strength,” he went on. Said totality would include “strong alliances,” “a powerful military,” “diplomacy … intelligence system … economic power … the appeal of our values.”

And Iraq? “Iraq,” he said, “was a profound diversion” from “the battle against our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists…. Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight.”

He went on with no-nonsense denunciations – nothing subtle about them, yet he kept his logic moving. Bush has made “colossal failures of judgment – and judgment is what we look for in a president.” Bush “hitched his wagon to the ideologues.” So, in Iraq, “this administration has consistently over-promised and under-performed. This policy has been plagued by a lack of planning, an absence of candour, arrogance and outright incompetence. And the President has held no one accountable, including himself.”

Kerry explained his 2002 authorization vote as a means to get inspectors back into Iraq. In what must have been deliberate mockery of the Republican charge that Kerry sticks by that vote, Kerry grazed over into exasperated sarcasm: “Today President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious?”

While Bush in his “stubborn incompetence…every day…makes it harder to deal with Iraq,” Kerry offered what he called a four-part “strategy” for Iraq – get international support; train Iraqis; reconstruct; secure Iraqi elections in 2005. None of this would be easy. Bush can say he’s been trying. The point, though, is that because of his blundering recklessness Bush is wholly discredited from succeeding. Bush is prevented from finishing Bush’s war. Of course, the word “strategy” sounds crisper than what Kerry actually offered. Bush may have banished such wishes to the far side of hypothetical.

Still, Kerry recovered some lost ground with this effort. He roused the Democratic base, most of which has opposed the war for months if not from the start. He was earnest, forceful, methodical – and awkward. Some people, mainly his enemies, say that Kerry is awkward because he is so busy calculating – so preoccupied with figuring out where to plant his foot next that he forgets how to plain walk, and trips. I doubt that. That night, on the David Letterman comedy show – Kerry is on the obligatory show-yourself-to-the-people-in-any-available-venue tour – he even got over his awkwardness without either patronizing or being patronized. He sounded as fluid as, and funnier than, the average late–night guest.

No, I suspect that Kerry’s awkwardness is not that of a dissembler or a snob, but that of a shy man whose long ambition ill–suits a profound privateness. I spoke this week with a man who worked closely with Kerry some years ago. He told me that, the whole time, he never knew “who Kerry was.”

You hear that a lot about people in public life these days. What it really means is that we – Americans, anyway – demand the inner man. But the inner man is precisely what the public man throttles, either because concealment is one of the rigors of his political career, like remembering names and shaking thousands of hands without losing your grip, or because he chose politics as a vocation in the first place partly in order to hide in plain sight. Still, Kerry seems to be more deeply buried than most. It isn’t only because his smallish eyes are sunk deep in his large head. It’s because he is willing to display himself in the process of thought.

The man he is up against despises thought. “Nuance,” “flip–flopping” – these are Bush’s euphemisms for thought. Bush presents himself as an action figure – undaunted because undistracted, undistracted because single-minded. Speaking later that day, Bush declared that “the world is better off with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell. And that stands in stark contrast to the statement my opponent made yesterday, when he said that the world was better off with Saddam in power. I strongly disagree.”

After playing this sound bite, ABC’s Peter Jennings added, much to his credit: “And this is what Mr. Kerry actually said.” Cut to a clip from Kerry’s speech:

“Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, that was not, in and of itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction, the satisfaction that we take in his downfall, does not hide this fact, we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.”

Kerry is up against a man who is comfortable with power – whose rationale for power is power (which he calls freedom). Kerry twice used the word “wise.” Bush prefers “strong.” Kerry thinks in the round. Bush is a flat-earther. (Kerry, a bit polite, said that it was “only Vice President Cheney” who, by hanging on to the fantasies of weapons-of-mass-destruction and Saddam-al-Qaeda connection, “still insists that the earth is flat.”) Kerry is awkward. Bush is a smoothie whose forced gestures betray the pitchman’s struggle to sound glib.

America hasn’t heard this distinction near fully enough: Of all the TV channels, only CNN broadcast Kerry live. “What Mr. Kerry actually said” about life and death was heard by a few bare percent of the citizens.

And so, on the basis of impressions, glimpses, whispers and mutters, in the under-six-weeks-and-counting that still remain, the attentive and the distracted, the clear-headed and muddle-headed whose votes (in theory) are equal, all thrown together in the indiscriminate tragicomedy of democracy, will have to decide whether they want to be led by the round – bumps, whorls and all – or the flat.

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