March 10, 2004,
DES MOINES, IOWA It took only one speech and one joke for President Bush to frame the campaign of John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts and presumed Democratic nominee for the presidency, and John Kerry is already worried that he cannot get that frame off his shoulders.
The president was speaking in Washington just after Kerry had clinched the Democratic nomination by dint of the other major candidates quitting the race halfway through. The President joked that the country had been hearing many "diverse opinions" from the nine Democratic candidates who have been attacking him without respite since last December.
There have been positions "for tax cuts and against them," he began. "For NAFTA, and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act, and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts." The partisan crowd at the Republican dinner roared with delight.
And that's pretty much the way it's been for two weeks now. Even the mainstream press while plainly longing for Kerry to win (or at least to knock Bush down a little) has begun noting Kerry's flip-flops. And, as it happens, Kerry is fairly famous in Massachusetts for having a honeyed tongue on both sides of all issues. Most politicians straddle issues as long as they can, without definitively switching sides, but few do so as grossly as Kerry.
The reason for that seems to be that Kerry positions himself both as smarter and as more moral than anybody else, and so whatever turns up he needs to emerge smelling sweet in his own eyes. In his memory, he was always exact and precise in his earlier speeches on that: "I could not have been clearer on that in my speech in...." Usually, a careful check of the record does not bear him out.
I am out in Iowa, between lectures in the Midwest, visiting briefly with my grandchildren, and while they were in school one morning I drove into Des Moines to hear Vice President Cheney give a brief speech at a fundraising luncheon ($250 per person) for a local Republican trying to unseat the Democratic congressman now serving in Washington from this district (the Iowa Third).
Cheney gave a warm, avuncular tour d'horizon, beginning with the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, which the U.S. addressed as a crime needing a police investigation; and then on how this misdiagnosis led to blindness and weakness in the face of a series of serious bombings of U.S. embassies and warships around the world, each rising in crescendo until the awful flames and destruction of September 11, 2001.
The junior senator from Massachusetts, the vice president was able to say quite mildly and with his elfish smile, still thinks that terrorism should be addressed as a crime problem for the police. President Bush by contrast decided instantly that what the terrorists wanted was war, and war was what they got.
The junior senator from Massachusetts, he continued, stood with the president in the declaration of hostilities against the terrorists' training camps in Afghanistan, and even against the menace to the whole region in Iraq. But then, the vice president again gently slipped in the stiletto, the junior senator from Massachusetts voted against the funds needed by the U.S. military and the Iraqi-reconstruction efforts, only ten months later.
He kept drawing the contrast between decisiveness over against hesitance, and between constancy and changeability. It was gentle, and very effective. Iowa is a state very strong on common sense, and also a certain kindness in debate.
A little later, the aspiring congressman also spoke, and he impressed me by the clear case he made for replacing his rival now in office, and how he did so in a kind way. The unemployment rate in Iowa is only 4.1 percent, and the argument here is who will better represent local Iowans and their worldwide concerns (Iowa farmers sell to world markets) in Washington. Don't be wholly shocked if Stan Thompson wins the Iowa Third in November, even though he lost against the same man last term. No doubt as a challenger he is at present an underdog, but he made me a believer that he could be a man on the way up, and his opponent a nice man on the way out.
John Kerry, born at the end of 1943, served his country with distinction in a Navy swift boat in Vietnam, then came home to become famous protesting against the war (which he had also done at Yale, before he volunteered for the Navy). He became lieutenant governor in Massachusetts under Governor Michael Dukakis (Democratic nominee for president against the first President Bush), and has now served in the U.S. Senate for nearly twenty years. He is a tall, impressive, presidential-looking man. He and his wife are both Europhiles. His views on Iraq seem pretty much those of the French. He would probably be much more popular in Europe than President Bush (or Reagan) ever could be. European social democrats can tolerate U.S. Democrats, it seems, but scarcely endure Republicans.
Spring is coming to Iowa. The land is clear of snow this week, the sun is bright, and the wind is its usual March self imperious as a lion, alternately warm with the sun and chill with an arctic edge. Between now and the November election will come a long hot summer. At present, Kerry and Bush are tied in the national polls at about 45 percent each. It will be interesting to see which one wilts most in the summer sun.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak's own website is www.michaelnovak.net.This piece originally appeared in Slovakia's leading political newspaper, Domino Forum, and is reprinted here with permission.