Monday, October 11, 2004

The mind of John Kerry

It's the John Kerry quote all the bloggers are quoting, the gotcha statement that Kerry was so afraid of making:
When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."
The reason it's a "gotcha," though, is that it reveals an attitude toward terrorism that a lot of people find disturbing in someone who wants to be the chief executive. "We have to get back," he says, to where the terrorists were a nuisance. A nuisance. Like when yet another suicide bomber topped the news. Like when yet another hotel was bombed. If it hadn't been for 9/11, would Americans have reacted in the same way to the Madrid train bombing, the Beslan school bombing, the Bali nightclub bombing? I don't know the answer to that, but until you've experienced something, it's hard to enter into it. Before 9/11, it was a nuisance.

The NYT article opens with Kerry leaving the Capitol after the Pentagon was bombed. He related in another context that he and his colleagues spent 40 minutes after the bombings unable to think. I can relate. It was more like a couple of days or weeks for me, but I can relate. Kerry tells the NYT reporter that he hasn't changed as a result of 9/11. The reporter at first thinks Kerry is afraid of being accused of flipflopping, but then he says:
What I came to understand was that, in fact, the attacks really had not changed the way Kerry viewed or talked about terrorism -- which is exactly why he has come across, to some voters, as less of a leader than he could be. He may well have understood the threat from Al Qaeda long before the rest of us. And he may well be right, despite the ridicule from Cheney and others, when he says that a multinational, law-enforcement-like approach can be more effective in fighting terrorists. But his less lofty vision might have seemed more satisfying -- and would have been easier to talk about in a political campaign -- in a world where the twin towers still stood.
All that is interesting, why should it take a good reporter to tease it out of him?
When I asked Kerry's campaign advisers about these poll numbers, what I heard from some of them in response was that Kerry's theories on global affairs were just too complex for the electorate and would have been ignored -- or, worse yet, mangled -- by the press. "Yes, he should have laid out this issue and many others in greater detail and with more intellectual creativity, there's no question," one adviser told me. "But it would have had no effect."

This is, of course, a common Democratic refrain: Republicans sound more coherent because they see the world in such a rudimentary way, while Democrats, 10 steps ahead of the rest of the country, wrestle with profound policy issues that don't lend themselves to slogans. By this reasoning, any proposal that can be explained concisely to voters is, by definition, ineffective and lacking in gravitas. Other Kerry aides blame the candidate and his coterie of message makers, most of whom are legendary for their attack ads but less adept at thinking about broad policy arguments. "If you talk about this the right way, then the American people, or most of them, will get it," one of Kerry's informal advisers told me. "But you've got to have guts."
It takes "guts," not only to fight terrorists (and at the debates Kerry sounds like he's planning to go Rambo and hunt them down and kill them with his bare hands) but also to tell the electorate what you've got in mind. He doesn't really trust us to understand what's in our best interest. He has the same view of democracy in the Middle East:
Kerry, too, envisions a freer and more democratic Middle East. But he flatly rejects the premise of viral democracy, particularly when the virus is introduced at gunpoint. "In this administration, the approach is that democracy is the automatic, easily embraced alternative to every ill in the region," he told me. Kerry disagreed. "You can't impose it on people," he said. "You have to bring them to it. You have to invite them to it. You have to nurture the process."
What he's not observing is that our guns are not pointed at the electorate in Iraq or Afghanistan, but at the people who would prevent them from voting.

But here's the exchange that reveals the Kerry who could become president:
On an evening in August, just after a campaign swing through the Southwest, Kerry and I met, for the second of three conversations about terrorism and national security, in a hotel room overlooking the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier. A row of Evian water bottles had been thoughtfully placed on a nearby table. Kerry frowned.

"Can we get any of my water?" he asked Stephanie Cutter, his communications director, who dutifully scurried from the room. I asked Kerry, out of sheer curiosity, what he didn't like about Evian.

"I hate that stuff," Kerry explained to me. "They pack it full of minerals."

"What kind of water do you drink?" I asked, trying to make conversation.

"Plain old American water," he said.

"You mean tap water?"

"No," Kerry replied deliberately. He seemed now to sense some kind of trap. I was left to imagine what was going through his head. If I admit that I drink bottled water, then he might say I'm out of touch with ordinary voters. But doesn't demanding my own brand of water seem even more aristocratic? Then again, Evian is French -- important to stay away from anything even remotely French.

"There are all kinds of waters," he said finally. Pause. "Saratoga Spring." This seemed to have exhausted his list. "Sometimes I drink tap water," he added.
We need someone who can actually answer a question about what sort of water he'll drink, not to mention his philosophy about how the world should be organized.

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