An Eight-Month Run

In a patriotic attempt to help make the next eight months more interesting and fun, some practical advice for both presidential contenders.

First John Kerry.

The Democrats this year are proving themselves bold and tough. Mr. Kerry this week has been audacious—going into Florida and warning that Republicans mean to steal it, challenging President Bush on national security when national security is Mr. Kerry’s famous weak spot. Why would he draw attention to his own weakness? To confuse things, to make them seem in play. That he isn’t hiding from his weak spot but highlighting it will convince some people it’s probably not a weak spot. This is good stuff.

But Mr. Kerry is out on a limb in his repeated charges that a Republican “smear machine” dominated by “the most crooked . . . lying group” is trying to do him in. His language is red-hot because he wants to be quoted again and again, and he wants to be quoted because he thinks it will inoculate him against coming attacks. But a man who would be president shouldn’t sound like a hysteric who can’t take the heat. He should stop that.

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Mr. Kerry has a structural weakness on the stump. It’s John Kerry. There he was this week on stage in shirtsleeves, with a handheld mike, riffing along. “I have news for George W. Bush . . .” “George Bush said he would be a uniter, but instead he is a divider . . .” “I used to do Elvis . . .” Raspy, pacing back and forth. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t place it. The blank intensity, the conviction that what’s on his mind is important, though he can’t quite remember why . . .

And then I had it. Captain Rex Kramer in “Airplane,” played by Robert Stack. At the end of the movie he’s alone in the tower at the microphone, talking to an empty plane. “Do you know what it’s like to fall in the mud and get kicked in the head with an iron boot? Of course you don’t, no one does. It never happens. It’s a dumb question. Skip it.”

There’s the same faintly disturbing aspect to his free associations. Mr. Kerry’s voice is like Robert Stack’s, the same studied actor’s baritone.

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Mr. Kerry will get better as the campaign wears down his self-consciousness and makes him too tired to act.

But he needs a new speechwriter. Bob Shrum’s work sounds too old, of another era—all that phony baloney And so a new generation stakes its claim on greatness stuff, the faux populist I look like a Brahmin but I’m really Tom Joad. It’s tired. It’s like Teddy Kennedy outtakes from 1980. Mr. Kerry sounds like an Al Gore knockoff. No, worse, he sounds like every Democratic politician of the past quarter century. And no wonder, since Bob Shrum has been the voice of every Democratic politician of the past quarter century.

Shake it up, make it new. Mr. Kerry needs a young speechwriter for whom it’s all still moving and big. Someone who’s excited to be there and who speaks the language of America as it is now, a language that is awake, concrete, sometimes awkward. People around a candidate are always beating what he’s going to say into smoothness, but it is that very smoothness—affordable health care for hardworking Americans—that makes us all want to tear our faces off and run from the room, though perhaps I understate.

A new Kerry speechwriter should be someone whose first impulse in talking about heavy industry jobs going overseas is not to type, “Once I built a railroad, now it’s done / Brother, can you spare a dime?” It wouldn’t hurt if the new speechwriter ever had to sell anything for a living, even for a few months. And it would be nice if America weren’t one big abstraction to him, but someplace real where he’s actually lived.

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In only one week, a central and significant Bush charge against Kerry has hit its target and stuck. It’s that he’s a flip-flopper who’ll vote this way and that with an eye only to short-term political gain. Kerry supporters, most famously in the New York Times, have been forced to spin this into the fantasy that Mr. Kerry has a special sense of nuance and subtlety—that he appreciates “shades of gray.” Well, mist is a shade of gray, and so far a lot of voters think he’s lost in it.

Mr. Kerry can’t escape 20 years of conflicting votes and statements. But he can try something that may subtly gives an impression of strength and conviction.

Campaigns take place, as we all know, on TV. And we all know that when you’re asked a question by a television interviewer you are not supposed to answer the question. You’re supposed to make believe you’re answering it. You’re supposed to use the question to pivot into what you really want to talk about. And so if asked, say, “Now that the administration has admitted they have found no Iraqi WMD’s don’t you regret voting for the war?,” Mr. Kerry is not supposed to say yes or no, he’s supposed to say a few puffy words that help him shift as soon as possible into a denunciation of President Bush and the abuses he has inflicted on the American people.

We’ve all been watching this kind of interview for 25 years. It is extremely boring. It contributes to the national feeling that politicians are liars and operators.

What would wake things up for Mr. Kerry and make him seem stronger? If he defied his media training and answered the question. “Yes, I do regret it. It’s the worst mistake I’ve made in my political lifetime.” Next question. No filibustering, no pivot. Interviewers come in with a list of 25 to 50 questions. Mr. Kerry should take them all, answer them, and leave the interviewer scrambling to think of more. This is a gamble—you never know what they’ll come up with—but it might also make Kerry look forthcoming and in command. And anyway, this is Mr. Kerry’s moment, he should shake the dice and throw ‘em.

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Now President Bush.

The common wisdom the past weekend was that the more people talked about the Bush ads and 9/11, the more the president would benefit. The repeated linking of Mr. Bush and 9/11 only underscores his history and leadership.

The common wisdom this weekend will be that last week’s common wisdom was wrong. Bush got no discernible bounce from the spots, though in the long term he may. It’s too soon to say.

The media this year are to an unusual degree—even for them—keen to give Mr. Bush a hard time and Mr. Kerry a boost. The daily anti-GOP pounding is taking a toll.

We all know the reasons the press is doing what it’s doing—its biases, its need for a horse race. But this year the press is also taking it on itself to make up for the disparity in war chests. They don’t think Mr. Kerry is going to catch up with the president in terms of money, and they’re trying to even the score.

There’s also the impact of the endless buzz of cable news. Fox, CNN and MSNBC have to fill 24 hours a day with something. When the Bush campaign commercials came out they filled it—gratefully, hungrily, thirstily—with the free playing of the commercials over and over.

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The Bush campaign had given them the kind of big fat subject they could fill an hour with. But they couldn’t just play the Bush commercials; they had to have conflict, an interesting story line, and it couldn’t be pro-Bush because that would be unfair. “Here are the Bush commercials. Is Mark McKinnon great or what?”

The first story cable came up with: Laura Bush is in the commercials and Dick Cheney isn’t, because she’s the president’s chief character witness and Mr. Cheney’s a drag on the ticket. (If it had been Messrs. Bush and Cheney sitting there in the commercials warmly remembering administration high points, they would have called it a subtle play for gay votes.) The Laura Bush story didn’t really take off. So it was replaced by, “Bush is cynically using 9/11!” (If the commercials hadn’t mentioned 9/11, they’d all be saying, “He left out 9/11 and the brave who died there—an implicit admission that his leadership there failed!”)

This took off. With tens of thousands of relatives of 9/11 victims, there have to be some who are Democrats or dislike Bush. Even better, they can show up in a studio and act as physical counterpoints to the hundredth playing of the commercials.

It is true that cable news outlets have only a fraction the ratings of network news. But networks and newspapers keep cable on all day in their newsrooms. Thus are media waves born.

Did this one capsize anything? No. But it probably kept the Bush ship from making timely progress.

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The media are going to fight Mr. Bush hard until just about two weeks after they all decide he is definitely going to lose. (I think this will be around mid-October.) Then they’ll start to pound Mr. Kerry, at least for a while. He’ll scream bloody murder. It’ll be great.

I agree with those around the president who felt he had to move now, criticize Mr. Kerry now, begin the campaign early. Or rather bow to the fact that it has begun. Right now the key to Mr. Bush’s success in defining both himself and Mr. Kerry is joy. The joy of the battle. And what joyous battlers bring to the proceedings: humor and wit and grace.

The one thing cable TV can’t resist, and can’t ignore even if it comes from a Republican, is wit. Wit brightens their copy. They love humor and joy. They will use a pithy putdown over and over. That’s why Mr. Bush got so much mileage out of even a wan joke about Mr. Kerry having been in Washington long enough to take two sides on every issue.

Mr. President, keep it up but do it better.

Don’t make the country mad at John Kerry, make them laugh at John Kerry. And use wit not only for wit’s sake but to make political and philosophical points.

This year comedy’s a cannon. It’s the only thing right now that will break through the media wall.

The other day I was thinking of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner a couple of years ago at which Ozzy Osbourne was the big attraction. He stood up when the president entered the room and gestured to his own long hair. He yelled out something like, “You should grow your hair too.” Mr. Bush looked and laughed and shouted, “Second term, Ozzy!” That’s the spirit.

It was funny. Wound up all over the news.

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Two other thoughts. The president needs to be surrounded by young people who love him. One reason: Because this is great to see. The campaign should get Mr. Bush to college campuses a lot, in the middle of big, well-advanced rallies. Mr. Bush needs to be surrounded by young people, to whom he talks about Iraq and the war on terror and its meaning and implications. He needs to rock.

And Mr. Bush needs backup. Hello congressional surrogates, that would be you. I heard a rumor the other day that Republicans are in control of the Senate and House. Could this be true? I ask because every day on the news Teddy Kennedy is at a hearing toasting the posties of some Republican or administration figure. Yesterday it was George Tenet. Mr. Kennedy was, as usual these days, hostile, provocative and showily contemptuous. Cable and the networks are loving it. Thursday it was Joe Biden yelling at steroid-using athletes for being the kind of people who used to knock him down.

Could a Republican please say something interesting?

President Bush needs his team to be alive and awake and hold its own hearings on issues that are important to Republicans on the ground.

GOP senators and congressmen seem to me to be acting not like they’re excited by this moment in history but intimidated by it. As if they’re thinking, “Oh no, we’re in charge now and everyone will blame us when things go wrong!” They need a little spirit of 1994: “We’ll make the very dome of this Capitol vibrate with our energy.”

Guys: wake up. There’s a battle outside.