The Prince of Tides, Tacking and Attacking

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

September 23,2004

LOS ANGELES I had to come all the way to Hollywood to find Democrats who can actually sound sincere when they say John Kerry has turned a corner.

Mr. Kerry is looking for corners to turn in his campaign just as frantically as the president is looking for corners to turn in Iraq. (I rate Mr. Kerry's chances higher.) But even here, among the right's despised liberal cultural elite, some disenchanted Democrats are already lusting for the Clinton restoration in 2008.

"Kerry's always trying too hard to prove his guy-dom," one influential Democrat sighed, "while Bush comes across as more of a real guy."

Republicans back in Washington are not only mocking the spandex-coated Mr. Kerry's windsurfing video in their ads; they scoff at the notion that the wind's at his back.

"I'm not sure it's turning a corner to do Regis and Kelly," sneered one who has taken to talking about Mr. Kerry in the past tense.

The Bushies' perverse private calculation about why Mr. Kerry can't get traction would be comic if it weren't tragic: he can't effectively argue that he could do something differently in Iraq because W. has so bollixed up the place that even a change at the top wouldn't help.

"He'd never be able to get any other countries to help us," one Bush insider said. "Even the British only have 7,000 troops in Iraq, compared to our 150,000." (The London Observer reported that despite growing dangers in Iraq, the main British force will soon be cut by a third.)

Mr. Kerry has finally begun to fight back and put the focus on Iraq instead of Vietnam. His speech on Monday was compelling and, unlike W.'s toxic cotton-candy spin, has the additional advantage of being true.

Going after Saddam, as the senator says, was a diversion from our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden. We have "traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."

We have, as Mr. Kerry says, a president and vice president who are "in denial" in a fantasy world, and who are guilty of "colossal failures of judgment." W. did "hitch his wagon to the ideologues who surround him, filtering out those who disagreed, including leaders of his own party and the uniformed military."

America's credibility in the world has plummeted, as Mr. Kerry says, just at the time we have to deal with the truly scary spokes in the "axis of evil": the ones who are a real nuclear threat, not an imaginary one.

Yet Mr. Kerry's case has a hollow center. He was asked at his press conference on Tuesday about W.'s snide reminders that his rival gave him authority to go to war (and, playing frat pledge to W.'s rush chairman, inanely agreed that he would still have voted to give that authority even if there were no W.M.D.).

That vote, he replied, was correct "because we needed to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for weapons. That's what America believed."

Not all Americans.

The administration rolled the Democrats on the authorization vote. It was clear at the time that going after Saddam to punish Osama made no sense, that Cheney & Co. were going to use Saddam as a lab rat for all their old neocon agendas. It was clear, as the fleet sailed toward Iraq, that the Bush crew had no interest in diplomacy - that it wanted to castrate the flaccid U.N., the flower child Colin Powell and his pinstriped State Department, snotty Old Europe, and the despised Saddam to show that America is a hyperpower that is not to be messed with.

As I quoted a girlfriend saying in September 2002, a month before Mr. Kerry's authorization vote, "Bush is like the guy who reserves a hotel room and asks you to the prom."

When Mr. Kerry says it was the way the president went about challenging Saddam that was wrong, rather than the fact that he challenged Saddam, he's sidestepping the central moral issue.

It was wrong for the president to take on Saddam as a response to 9/11, to pretend the dictator was a threat to our national security, to drum up a fake case on weapons and a faux link to Al Qaeda, and to divert our energy, emotions and matériel from the real enemy to an old enemy whose address we knew.

It was wrong to take Americans to war without telling them the truth about why we were doing it and what it would cost.

It wasn't the way W. did it. It was what he did.