A Triumph of Images

The Kerry-Edwards rollout has been almost flawless, a triumph of image that obscured uncomfortable realities. The two senators are not, as the Boston Herald merrily front-paged yesterday morning, “THEY’RE LEFT OF TED!” They are the son of a mill worker and the husband of an ‘umble immigrant.

Wednesday morning’s unveiling of the Kerry and Edwards clans at the leafy Heinz compound in what looked like exurban Pennsylvania, but which they repeatedly referred to as “Pittsburgh,” was a handsome Kennedyesque photo-op in which Mr. Kerry’s elder daughter—long, blond ponytail, lithe and chic—seemed to play the part of the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and tall, dark-haired Chris Heinz seemed like the late John Jr. The Edwardses’ towheaded children looked like John-John and Caroline when they lived in the White House. It was all very glamorous in a way that Democrats like (Hyde Park, Hyannis, Clinton in Hollywood—we like big houses and boats, we have a secret weakness for wealth!) and Republicans don’t (We’re clearing brush here, get out of the way! We sleep in two twin beds held together at the posts by old rubber bands!) Teresa Heinz had the best line of the day: “Pittsburgh taught me to be an American.”

Tuesday’s Edwards announcement was also well done, slightly weird but only mildly so for Mr. Kerry. The solid week of head-fakes on who the choice would be was brilliantly executed. It not only built what suspense could be built, it forced the networks to keep rolling out minibios of Dick Gephardt and Tom Vilsack and Dianne Feinstein. This made it look like the Democrats had a deep bench. It made it look as if Mr. Kerry had a lot of serious prospects to choose from. In 1988 Vice President Bush literally kept his choice a secret by telling no one around him until the day of the announcement of Dan Quayle. Jim Baker was as surprised as Tom DeFrank. Mr. Bush was surrounded by leakers who advanced their position with the press by feeding them tasty morsels. Mr. Bush couldn’t be sure any of them would keep the formation to themselves. Mr. Kerry must have felt pretty much the same. He must know that the primary lesson of “I, Claudius” is now the primary rule of all political campaigns: “Trust no one.”

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I continue to wonder why an accomplished athlete like Mr. Kerry handles his body with such unease. He never seems to know what to do with his arms and hands. They fly away from him. His physical actions do not seem coordinated with his expression, with what his face is doing and his eyes are seeing. And so he has taken to pointing. When he goes on stage he looks out at the audience and then makes a face as if he’s surprised to see a friend standing over there to the right, and another over there to the left. He lurchily points at them with his long arm. Sometimes he gives them a thumbs up. Sometimes it ends with a finger flutter.

He does this because Bill Clinton did it. Mr. Clinton did it because someone told him that pointing in a commanding way while the cameras click makes him look like a leader. It also makes him look as if he has friends in the audience. I used to go to Mr. Clinton speeches and watch him point. I’d swing my head around to see who he was pointing at. He was never pointing at anyone. No one knew who he was pointing at. They always thought it was the guy behind him or the girl over there. But they liked it. Anyway, the Point is a perfect Time/Newsweek cover, and often has been.

I remain impressed by Teresa Heinz Kerry’s palpable boredom and disinterest in playing the part of Mr. Kerry’s wife. Tuesday, when Mr. Kerry first came out and started to do the pointing-at-my-friends-in-the-crowd thing, he took her hand and whispered in her ear something like, “There’s Bob Smith.” Meaning, “I want you to look with me at Bob and smile.” She couldn’t hear him and shook her head, twice. Then finally when she heard him she smiled wanly as if to say, So what? She stifled a yawn on stage too. I love her.

By the way, Republicans tend not to point at the crowd in this way. They wave. I think it’s because their mothers taught them pointing is rude. Someday, in 2008 or 2012, there will, however, be a Republican pointer. And we will know history has truly changed. Because that man’s mother will not have taught him that pointing is rude, for she was working 18 hours a day in a law firm, and forgot.

In his Tuesday announcement, Mr. Kerry was 20 minutes into his remarks before he said anything interesting: “John Edwards and I would never think about sending young Americans . . . into harm’s way anywhere in the world without telling the American people the truth.” This is going down into Michael Moore territory, and it’s going to be a big theme. He also talked about American independence from oil. That’s been an issue for 30 years, but this time it may take off.

Before that Mr. Kerry did nothing but boring boilerplate—John Edwards “shares American values”—all that vague stuff. What does that mean? It means someone’s focus group said “they like the word values” But they like it when it has meaning, when it is connected to issues that mean something, not when it’s just some dumb word cynically thrown out for the boobs. Boobs are sophisticated now. They may be sophisticated beyond their intelligence, but they know rote words used to please them are rote words used to please them. And they’re not impressed.

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By the way, I continue to be impressed by how Mr. Kerry plays Vietnam. He served four months in Vietnam, and everyone thinks it was years. It’s like a guy showing up on the History Channel talking about the Pacific war, and breaking into tears as he remembers the bombardment. Gray head, sagging face, old aviator glasses. And then the interviewer says “Tell us how long you were there?” And the old guy chirps, “Oh, four months! Scratched my arm, got my ticket punched, and got out of Dodge!” If Mr. Kerry had not led with his weakness—if he had not boldly gone forth from day one presenting his candidacy as one of a Vietnam hero—the whole subject would at this point in the campaign be not a theme but an embarrassment.

The way he’s played it, putting the spotlight on his weakness—that has been a triumph of image that obscured uncomfortable realities too.