Can He Float Your Boat?

By MAUREEN DOWD

The New York Times

August 1, 2004

BOSTON So here's the race: the Skipper takes on the Sheriff.

(And, of course, the undercard in the fight: Bambi meets Godzilla.)

Talk about drowning in metaphor.

At least Teresa Heinz Kerry kept her subliminal message simple: She wore a ketchup-red suit to introduce the second senator in her life.

Her husband, as usual, went overboard. The Democratic convention, which was focus-group-dial-a- metered to death, needed a dose of dramamine. It was awash in allusions about Commander Kerry steering the ship of state - from the curved design of the metal and wood-paneled lectern, meant to evoke a ship's bridge; to the Massachusetts senator's arrival in Boston Harbor on the prow of a ferry, making like Washington crossing the Delaware; to the dramatic Vietnam Swift boat scenes in the biographical film; to Jim Rassman's iconic story of being saved when Lieutenant Kerry reached down and pulled him from the water over the bow, to the nominee's hokey salute and "reporting for duty."

Like the picture of Bill Clinton pumping J.F.K.'s hand at Boys Nation, there is a star-struck teenage Galahad picture of John Kerry with his idol on a Coast Guard yawl in Newport.

The convention center halls were adorned with more than 30 blown-up pictures of John Kerry in uniform. This signaled that the Navy lieutenant, who had requested a transfer to a Swift boat because he was inspired by J.F.K. and PT-109, is gunning for the flextime Texas National Guardsman.

"I learned a lot about these values on that gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta with young Americans," Senator Kerry told the Democratic delegates in his acceptance speech, adding: "We were literally all in the same boat. That is the kind of America I will lead as president - an America where we are all in the same boat."

Ensign Kerry, Max Cleland exhorted the crowd, is "the next captain of our ship of state."

Bill Clinton got on board: "Since we're all in the same boat, we should choose a captain of our ship who is a brave, good man, who knows how to steer a vessel through troubled waters to the calm seas and the clear skies of our more perfect union."

John Edwards was a synchronized swimmer in the Kerry ocean of love: "In the heat of battle, they saw him decide in an instant to turn his boat around, drive it straight through an enemy position, and chase down the enemy to save his crew. Decisive. Strong. Aren't these the traits you want in a commander in chief?"

Even Alexandra Kerry echoed the aquatic heroic theme, telling of how her dad saved the family's pet hamster, Licorice, who was bubbling "down to a watery doom," after falling off a dock. He "hunched over the soggy hamster and began to administer C.P.R.," she said, denying rumors of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

The Kerry campaign even tried to spin Teresa Kerry's "shove it" in a more nautical vein, claiming that the chatelaine of the Nantucket manse had meant to say, "shove off."

Mr. Kerry had to go the skipper route since W. had already laid claim to the West, making the cocky cowboy sheriff his motif, the dusty gorge at his Crawford ranch his milieu, and the Louis L'Amour "smoke 'em out" language his argot.

It doesn't seem to matter to his fans that he often doesn't come through on his gunslinging taunts; they feel reassured simply by the "High Noon" patois.

Mr. Bush's prized possession is Saddam's old pistol. He keeps it in the study off the Oval Office as a trophy of their desert duel in the sun.

At the White House press briefing on Friday, a reporter asked Scott McClellan: "But does the president have to present himself as not quite the, you know, kind of, trigger happy, tough, shoot him from the hip cowboy, and sort of fill out that image a little more?"

Mr. McClellan replied that the president was leading in a - yup, you guessed it - "strong and decisive" way.

Given that the Kerry convention featured a skipper brave and sure, a first mate who makes others comfortable, a millionaire called "Lovey" by her spouse, two pretty young Kerry castaways and a movie star (the ubiquitously annoying Ben Affleck), I suppose we should be grateful that Camp Kerry didn't introduce the nominee with the "Gilligan's Island" theme song.

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip