Westerns and Easterns

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

September 12, 2004

It's a remarkable feat, but teeter-tottering John Kerry is even managing to land on both sides of the ambition issue.

For his entire life, he was seen as so ambitious to be president, as so eager to consort with heiresses, that it was off-putting; his St. Paul's classmates played "Hail to the Chief" on kazoos when he walked by, and in the Senate, Bob Dole mocked the Massachusetts senator's love of cameras by nicknaming him Live Shot.

But this summer, when that lust for power should have been coursing through his veins, Mr. Kerry grew timid and logy. He let the Bush crowd and Swift boat character assassins stomp all over him and, for the longest time, didn't fight back. He stumbled into every trap Bush Inc. set.

Finally, the only Democrat who has fended off the WASP Corleones reminded the nominee of the prep-school mantra: punch the bully in the face, and do it in the same news cycle.

When he hasn't been busy with his quadruple-bypass operation, Bill Clinton has been chatting with John Kerry on the phone from the hospital, urging him to juice it up. The Clinton posse - James Carville, Paul Begala, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, Stan Greenberg, Lanny Davis - has intervened to prop up the sagging leadership of Bob Shrum, who had advised Mr. Kerry not to go negative (and allowed the once-hot John Edwards to vanish without a trace).

Mr. Kerry listened to Shrummy, despite the fact that the strategist renowned for his speechwriting talents had not even given his candidate a single stirring speech.

Writing about the Curse of Shrummy in The Washington Post, Mark Leibovich said: "It is common to see him in the back seat of a car driven by a young aide, an image that reinforces a somewhat regal bearing. He loves gourmet food and fine wines and has his suits handmade by a Georgetown tailor."

Democrats were rolling their eyes at the spectacle of a former president in a hospital bed resuscitating a would-be president.

"Howard Dean had the base all warmed up and now Kerry's turned into a girlie-man," said a Democratic insider, comparing it with the scene in "The Godfather" when the singer Johnny Fontane shows up at the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter and whines that a studio chief is being mean to him.

The godfather slaps the singer and barks, "Act like a man!"

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney jumped in the polls because they cast their convention as a Western. They were the "Magnificent Seven," steely-eyed, gun-slinging samurai riding in to save the frightened town: Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Zell Miller, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Poppy Bush, who was on "Imus" comparing Mr. Kerry with Jane Fonda.

The vice president played up the Western motif by giving ABC an interview at his Wyoming ranch.

"The cowboy riding tall in the saddle and holding the reins for a little girl on her pony could have been Shane," wrote Alessandra Stanley in her TV Watch column in The Times.

After 9/11, Americans want tough guys who will protect them from Al Qaeda. They seem to be willing to settle for an impersonation of tough guys by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who were so busy with their vanity war in Iraq that they missed critical opportunities to vanquish Al Qaeda and spent money on a foreign occupation that could have been used to secure American ports and come up with plans before the Beslan tragedy to protect children from terrorists.

But the White House has cleverly co-opted the imagery of Westerns, leaving Mr. Kerry to star in a far less successful movie genre: the Eastern.

In Westerns, the heroes are men of smoke-'em-out edicts and action, played out in gorges on their ranches; in Easterns, the heroes have windy, nuanced dialogue, delivered with a lockjaw in mansions on Beacon Hill and on windsurfing expeditions off Nantucket.

In Easterns, the effete heroes get upset when the wrong kind of people join their Boston clubs, and quibble, in the style of the "Late George Apley," about the rules when suit jackets must be worn.

In Westerns, the heroes treat womenfolk with gallantry, but tell them to stay back. In Easterns, Teresa rides shotgun and calls the opposition "idiots." There's a reason Easterns never caught on in Hollywood. High tea in a drawing room is just not as compelling as high noon in the town square.