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"It is sort of like dealing with Averell Harriman or one of the wise men," says former Kerry speechwriter Andrei Cherny, speaking of the Brahmins who dominated U.S. foreign policy after World War II. "On policy issues, he will grill his advisers in a way that seems a throwback: What will this mean for America 10 years down the road? How will it affect the global economy? It made me feel good to be working for someone that serious."
Harriman was a dreadful politician, though. After one dour term as Governor of New York, he was trounced by the ebullient Nelson Rockefeller. Politics doesn't seem to come naturally to Kerry either. His mother's civic propriety and his father's diplomatic propriety are a crushingly noble legacy. They haunt his every move. My guess is that Kerry's near death process works like this: He starts a campaign trying to do the right thing, but successful politics requires all sorts of creative roguery. His sense of civic propriety limits his ability to act ruthlessly (firing his campaign manager, for example) or flamboyantly (giving an entertaining, personal, red-meat stump speech). Kerry's sense of policy propriety renders his attempts at political expediency--the promises and compromises necessary to woo constituencies--tortured and unconvincing. He writhes about, descends into rhetorical abstractions, spends too much time thinking about what he is doing wrong and comes across as distanced, distracted, aloof. A perfect phony. And then Kerry's primordial sense of survival on the battlefield, honed and burnished in Vietnam, kicks in, and he does what he must to win: he acts like a real politician. From a distance, the process seems like a comic-book-hero transformation. Kerry enters the phone booth sipping French wine and emerges with a knife in his teeth, ready for battle.
In the 2004 Democratic Primaries, Kerry's near death experience had everything to do with his vote to support the war in Iraq. I remember seeing Kerry at a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) cattle show a few months before the Iraq vote, in the summer of 2002, and he stood out among the various Democratic pretenders for one simple reason: he talked clearly and concisely about the war against al-Qaeda. He blasted "a new conventional wisdom of consultants, pollsters and strategists who argue ... that Democrats should be the party of domestic issues only." He then criticized President Bush for not using U.S. troops to capture al-Qaeda leaders trapped at Tora Bora after the Taliban government fell in Afghanistan. Instead Bush had "turned to Afghan warlords, who only a week before were on the other side," to make the attack. It was a bold stroke by Kerry, challenging Bush from the right, calling for a more vigorous military strategy. And it worked. The Senator from Massachusetts--not John Edwards or DLC favorite Joe Lieberman--was the candidate who made the deepest impression that day.