JFK Disease

John Kerry certainly looks like a president—the thick steel-wool hair, the Lincolnian planes and shadows of his face. He is tall and slim and seems serious. He also has the guts to wear salmon-colored ties. A red tie is red and a blue tie is blue, and red and blue know what color they are. Salmon is a more delicate hue. Salmon can’t decide what color it is. Sometimes it’s pink and sometimes it’s orange. It’s like wearing ambivalence on your shirt. This is an unusual thing for a politician to do if it’s thought through, and it takes courage.

Mr. Kerry seems to me not a man of deep belief but of a certain amount of sentiment and calculation. One has the sense he is a liberal Democrat because of the time and place in which he was born, that he inhaled a worldview as opposed to struggling through to one.

I have been wondering how much of Mr. Kerry’s career is an essentially unreflective meditation upon the life of John F. Kennedy. Or to put it more directly, how much of his professional life has been a case of JFK disease.

*   *   *

The murdered president dominated the imaginations of more than a generation of Democratic politicians, and continues as their most formative role model. President Clinton had a famous JFK complex. No one who was there will ever forget the moment at the 1992 Democratic Convention when the famous picture of teenage Bill Clinton pushing himself forward to reach out to shake hands with President Kennedy flashed across the screens that loomed over the convention floor. I was there in Madison Square Garden, and the impact on the crowd was electric, as if Michelangelo’s painting had come alive and they were actually seeing God touch Adam.

Gary Hart in 1984 took JFK disease to the point of physically imitating Kennedy on the campaign trail, shoving his hands distractedly in and out of the pockets of his suit jacket, tugging at his hair (actually this was more like Bobby Kennedy). I saw Mr. Hart do this with my own eyes the night he won New Hampshire. I was a young writer at CBS, working on Dan Rather’s copy. I thought Mr. Hart attractive and his imitation suggestive of deep weirdness. It turned out he did a fabulous verbal imitation of Teddy too.

Sen. Kerry has had his JFK moments too. The other day I watched a clip of Mr. Kerry’s famous testimony to Congress on Vietnam 30 years ago. Have you ever heard it? It was a total JFK impersonation—“hoff” for half, etc. In the pictures that exist of Lt. Kerry in Vietnam he seems startlingly similar in pose, squint and physical attitude to pictures of John Kennedy with his crew in World War II. PT boats, Swift boats; “Mahs-CHEW-sitts,” the initials JFK . . .

If you saw a generation of Republican candidates doing a physical imitation of Ronald Reagan or George Bush the elder, would you find it weird? I think you would. The only person in politics who has ever tried to morph himself into Ronald Reagan was Al Gore in his first debate with George W. Bush. He even wore makeup that echoed the heightened color of Mr. Reagan’s cheeks. He wound up looking not like Mr. Reagan but like a turn-of-the-century madam in a San Francisco whorehouse, but that’s not important. What’s important is the jarring weirdness of seeing one politician trying to make you unconsciously experience him as another politician.

*   *   *

JFK was an interesting man, privately complicated and publicly merry. When his motorcade went by in 1960, women—especially nuns, I once read—couldn’t help themselves; they jumped up and down in excitement. The Kennedy campaign called them the jumpers. Mr. Kerry on the other hand—well, no one jumps for him.
I didn’t think a man with a face that anguished would make it this far. I mean without other qualities that overwhelm and even counter the message of the face, which is: I suffer from mild clinical depression, do you?

Mr. Kerry also has me pondering the now-uneasy relationship of Democrats and class. JFK was a millionaire’s son and all the happier for it. He benefited from it. To be a millionaire in those days was strange and glamorous. And he’d been to Harvard. An Irish Catholic who’d gone to Harvard: Go Jack. Mr. Kerry has used his wealth to get ahead but it does not work as a plus for him. Wealth doesn’t have the patina it used to for Democrats.

He can’t play regular guy, he’s clearly not a regular guy. He seems very much like a man who keeps a secret stash of Grey Poupon. This was said of George Bush the elder but seems more true of Kerry.

*   *   *

When he speaks, both in prepared text and off the cuff, Mr. Kerry is boring. I don’t mean he doesn’t make you laugh, nod or swoon, I mean he doesn’t make you think. A speech should be a text in which, ultimately, the speaker and the audience are thinking, together. Mr. Kerry’s crowds seem to put up with his remarks and wait patiently till they end so they can begin to cheer.

That Mr. Kerry is a boring man means the election will be dirty and vicious. If he were interesting and dynamic and sunny, if he seemed both experienced and sincere, he arguably could win the upcoming race without letting his campaign get unduly nasty. But he is a charm-free zone on the stump, and he has offered no galvanizing political philosophy or higher meaning. His people will feel the only way he can win is to be uniquely destructive.

How do we know that is coming? It has already begun. First the sustained attack on the president’s National Guard service. It is early for such attacks. Second, the indiscreet threat by an unnamed Kerry adviser as reported weeks ago in the New York Times: “Everything—everything—is on the table.” He, or she, has since been silenced. But the point was made. And there is the repeated insistence of those around Mr. Kerry that they’re just not going to take it the way Michael Dukakis did; they’ll fight when they’re attacked. In this they are peddling a story line to the press: Democrats are unfairly attacked and have been too polite, too gentle, too liberal to fight back.

Will this work? I haven’t experienced liberals as too gentle to fight, and I don’t think anyone who pays attention to political and cultural issues has. I have a feeling voters will experience this tack the way a mother might experience two kids fighting in the back of the car. Johnny screams, “Timmy hit me!” Timmy, who in fact nudged Johnny after Johnny called him stupid, says, “I did not!” Mother admonishes Timmy: “Leave Johnny alone.” Johnny waits till she turns to smile at Timmy triumphantly and pinch him. Timmy smacks him. “Mommy, Timmy hit me!”

Mothers in this position wind up irritated with both children, but know in their hearts Johnny is going through a stage in which he’s a weenie, and a whiner too.

*   *   *

Many intelligent people think Kerry will decide to pick Hillary Clinton for vice president. This is almost touchingly absurd. First of all, Hillary isn’t waiting at home for the guy to call. If she wants it she’ll let him know, but she doesn’t want it. Why should she? She’s already been president, as it were. She’s already worked hand in hand in a White House with a guy who wasn’t as sharp as she was. Moreover, she needs more distance between her and the many scandals of the Clinton era. By 2008 or 2012 they’ll be ancient history. Then she will run, and not for vice president. For now, Kerry doesn’t want anyone who’ll overshadow him, and she would. With her on the ticket he’d be B-roll. Very soon now she’ll squelch vice presidential talk. “I made a promise to the people of New York . . .”

The other woman of the moment, Teresa Heinz, is going to make things fun. I saw her on C-Span give an eloquent speech a few weeks ago in Wisconsin—notes, no text, and she didn’t refer much to the notes. She spoke interestingly of her youth, her political views. She has been wealthy, connected and powerful for so long she has grown mildly bored with her good fortune, and in all her time in public life she has not developed much of an edit button. She seems in interviews like someone who’s walked through many smoke-filled rooms, waved her arms impatiently, and told the maid to plug in a few air fresheners. She is not awed by media people; she thinks producers and anchormen are people who are lucky she invited them to dinner at Louisberg Square.

Mark Leibovich of the Washington Post did a brilliant and rather too detail-rich profile of her last summer. People didn’t know she considered her late husband, John Heinz, to be her real husband until then. It was startling, and delightful. She hasn’t given an indiscreet interview since. But she will. Before that, however, there will be a series of long and glowing interviews from big media reporters who a) need to foster a relationship with a possible future first lady, and b) want to be the first to change the narrative line from “known crazy woman” to “colorful, earthy and authentic presence—and secret power in the campaign.”

*   *   *

The good news about Mr. Kerry, and I mean this seriously, is he does not appear to be insane. We now know Howard Dean was frightened he might become president, and this perhaps led to what might be called irrepressibility and irritability. We know Wesley Clark was . . . well, he seemed a little mad too. The untold story of the Democratic race is that one of our two great parties had a remarkably shallow bench. They had no one. But Mr. Kerry is not crazy. You can imagine him as president. You can imagine him struggling, like Mr. Clinton, to know what precisely he wanted the presidency for once he had it, but at least you can imagine him having it.

If he were president he would surround himself with the same foreign-policy people Clinton did—Richard Holbrook et al. It wouldn’t be insane—Incompetent maybe, confusing certainly, and uncertain certainly too. They would struggle. The great unmentioned fact of Democrats in power and foreign policy right now is that they try hard to do nothing, because if they were to do something it would be what Republicans do. And they don’t want to do that.

They’d be a little lost, maybe a little like JFK.