October 26, 2004,
Carefully, silent lest he alert his foe, crouching, hunched, sometimes crawling, a camouflaged and heavily armed John Kerry makes his way across the harsh terrain. Later he emerges from this test by fire, this ordeal, to run for the White House on the back of tales of hardship and triumph, tales that some who were not there have the impudence to question, tales like this: "I go out with my trusty 12-gauge double-barrel, crawl around on my stomach. I track and move and decoy and play games and try to outsmart them. You know, you kind of play the wind. That's hunting"
Yes, hunting. Did you think that I was talking about something else?
For reasons that have a little to do with the Second Amendment and a lot to do with Serotta John's need to bond with the Cabela's crowd, the Democratic candidate has been at carefully choreographed pains to show what a keen hunter he is and always has been: "When I was a kid I used to hunt woodchuck, predators on the farm. I started with a BB gun, moved up to a .22, then a .30/30, and a shotgun. And I've shot birds off and on through my life, some game, rabbits, deer I've been on Massachusetts deer hunts."
Yup. No nuance there, bub, no way.
Ah, but there is. Just in case some of Kerry's more sensitive supporters are offended by the thought of too many carcasses, nuance comes slithering back in: "I once had an incredible encounter with the most enormous buck I don't know, 16 points or something. It was just huge. And I failed to pull the trigger at the right moment." And if that sounds to you just a teeny bit too much like that moment in The Deer Hunter when Michael Vronsky (a decorated hero of the Vietnam war, you know) gets a deer in his sights and decides not to shoot, well, you should be ashamed of yourself.
But, as Kerry tells it, this encounter seems to have been a rare armistice in his war against wildlife. For as his election campaign has continued, so have the bird bloodbaths and so, as the Washington Post's Laura Blumenfeld had the bad luck to discover, has the gory small talk: "Carve out the heart, he said over dinner, pull out the entrails and cut up the meat."
His victims? Well, there were the poor pheasants that perished in Iowa, a month or two before that state's critical primaries, and, most recently, the hapless geese butchered in Ohio just a few days ago (the New York Times noted that the Massachusetts Nimrod emerged from the fray with a hand "stained with goose blood"). Wisely, perhaps, in the context of a wartime election, Kerry has refrained from dove-shooting, but the senator still has fond memories of gunning down everyone's favorite bird of peace. According to the clearly traumatized Ms. Blumenfeld, this cornfield Krueger likes to watch doves "flutter and dart" before he fires. Then (PETA folk, look away) he will, he says, eat them. "You clean them. Let them hang. It takes three or four birds to have a meal. You might eat it at a picnic, cold roasted. I love dove."
Dove may or may not taste good (like the late President Mitterand, Kerry seems more like an Ortolan fan to me) but in stressing that he at least eats what he kills (the Iowa pheasants were, we were informed, sent to Kerry's home the one in Boston and two of the unfortunate Ohio geese, would, an aide told the New York Times, "soon be sent back to Mr. Kerry for consumption") the senator is almost certainly making a, well, let's use the word, nuanced, gesture to supporters such as the Humane Society of the U.S., which has somehow managed to endorse the great hunter despite, ahem, its own stern opposition to hunting and, indeed, its rather dim view of snacking on dove ("minimal sustenance," apparently).
If the Humane Society is comfortable with Kerry, many hunters are not. Some of them have been treating his hunting history with the same lack of respect that other naysayers have shown his stories of Christmas in Cambodia, the Boston marathon, and Chinese assault rifles. Doubtful about those Iowa pheasants? Well, check in with the ambiguously named website Sportsmen for Kerry/Edwards? There you can find Bush-bulge-style analysis of John Kerry's dog, John Kerry's thumb, and, to complete the murky picture, John Kerry's trigger finger. Other skeptics have claimed that no one, no one, would ever "hang" a dove (no, I really have no idea), while at least one blogger has even questioned whether any geese in those Ohio killing fields were really shot by Kerry.
But it was Kerry's claim that he crawled around on his stomach, "playing the wind," in pursuit of deer that stirred up the most suspicions. While this is what you do in Scotland (I write from sodden, scratched, and muddy experience), it is not the approach usually taken in America. To the NRA's executive director, Kerry's description was "so utterly bizarre" it made him "wonder whether Kerry has ever hunted a deer in his life." Anyone thinking of trying his deer-hunting tactics should "at least wear some blaze orange" so other hunters don't confuse him with "a snake slithering through the brush." And then there's Mark Steyn. Neither he nor "any of his New Hampshire neighbors" had "ever heard of anybody deer hunting by crawling around on his stomach, even in Massachusetts. The trick is to blend in with the woods and, given that John Kerry already looks like a forlorn tree in late fall, it's hard to see why he'd give up his natural advantage in order to hunt horizontally."
Sensing trouble over Crawlgate, the Kerry campaign turned for help not to his band of brothers, but, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel explained, to a cousin, one Bruce Droste, "who said he hunted deer with Kerry roughly half-a-dozen times in Massachusetts, most recently about seven years ago... The hunts were tied to an annual house party on private property, and the hunters used buckshot, partly for safety reasons, because of its short range. 'When you see (a deer), you absolutely freeze. Then the game is to see how you can get closer. . . . So you crawl along until you know you have a dead ringer shot.'" The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports. You decide.
In reality, of course, the devil in this case is not in the details, not in the crawling hunter, the hanging dove, or even those notorious geese, but in the broader suspicion that Kerry's hunting fables are yet more evidence of a candidate unable both to be himself and to be elected. It's his awareness of this, more than anything else, that explains those infamous flip-flops, and it's that awareness plus the understanding that Kerry needs the Hank Hill vote that explains this odd, awkward, aloof pretense at being one of the boys.
Now, there's nothing too unusual about a politician who panders, but there is something disconcerting about what Kerry's outreach to outdoorsmen reveals about his view of their political sophistication. They are, Kerry appears to think, simpletons who can be won over by sportsman's tales, talk of his "beloved" Red Sox, and the illusion that the senator's supposed fondness for hunting signals a deep belief in the Second Amendment an amendment that has, in fact, far more to do with the right of self-defense than the ability to chase, or crawl, after deer.
Meanwhile, the candidate's grimly entertaining and appallingly patronizing, pandering pastiche of a regular guy is likely to continue down to the wire. In Pike County, Ohio, the proprietors of the Buchanan Village Store were subjected to the newly dumbed-down grammar of ("Can I get me a hunting license here?") of the Yale intellectual who is fluent in French, but no longer, it seems, his native tongue. What will Kerry say if he goes on the campaign trail into deepest Appalachia?
"Squeal like a pig?"