Kerry's Craft

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

July 31, 2004

Over four days of the Democratic convention, we have come to suspect that John F. Kerry may have served in Vietnam.

The Democrats have wised up. They have not only stolen much of the Republican playbook on foreign policy but also on stagecraft. This was the convention that may have finally disproved the famous Will Rogers joke about belonging to no organized political party because "I'm a Democrat." Never before have so many stayed so completely on message for so long.

The Democrats and their candidate are optimistic. They are patriotic. They believe in religion and they believe in God. Kerry's brilliantly crafted acceptance speech revealed that his mother helped him with his homework, his dad gave him a baseball mitt, and — oh yes — he served in Vietnam. He loves the flag. The sun will rise again.

Fair enough. The GOP has tried, often successfully, to paint the Democrats as godless pessimists, and barely American. And the material is there — in Kerry's aristocratic background, his wealth and his exotic, foreign-born wife — to do it again. So inoculation against such an attack was wise. By the end of the convention, the Democrats had pulled off the daunting feat of humanizing John Kerry.

Kerry's speech generally avoided the dangers of specificity on policy matters, with one somewhat surprising exception. He spelled out his exit strategy for Iraq. It is to bring in other nations to share the financial and human costs. But why should other nations be willing to do that now, after the United States started the war against their advice and wishes? By putting Iraq near the top of the speech, before jobs and the economy and healthcare, Kerry made it official that he is going to make opposition to the war his big issue. Possibly the best of many great lines in the speech was: "I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war." Kerry voted for the war. Is he now prepared to say he was misled? If Iraq is going to be Topic A, he will need a smarter strategy of evasion, or more brutal frankness, than he has managed so far.

Kerry cleverly transmuted the debate about "values," which has been a code word for social issues, into a broader one encompassing the economy and President Bush's conduct in Iraq and elsewhere. This sleight of hand was accomplished by evoking, of all things, Vietnam, and Kerry's boat in particular, as a kind of idyll where no one paid any attention to race or class, just merit.

The 1960s have, in Kerry's telling, become a paradise that was lost by conniving politicians, much as the promise of the 1990s has been squandered by the Bush administration. Kerry deftly depicted himself as the skipper who would haul on board any Americans left hanging on the side. It's only malcontents who won't want to steer in the direction he's mapped out. Kerry's skill at seamlessly drawing upon Vietnam produced a portrait of master and commander.