Two Sides of JFK 

The arrival of the reckless and cautious John Kerry

Thursday, Feb 26 2004

There are two Democratic front-runners to be the next president of the United States.

One is a poster boy for America’s Statue of Liberty myth, the grandson of Eastern European immigrants, a man who worked his way through school doing hard labor on fishing boats, volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, spent nearly a decade prosecuting criminals and putting them behind bars, loves to indulge in ice hockey, motorcycle riding, windsurfing and other extreme sports, a man who enjoys taunting George W. Bush as an effete, faux “man of the people,” panning the would-be warrior president’s famous aircraft carrier landing at the end of major hostilities in the Iraq War as an exercise in “dress-up.”

The other is a Brahmin scion of a Mayflower family, the son of a diplomat, educated in Switzerland and tony prep schools, who dated a Bouvier and went sailing off Newport with JFK, a fellow member with the privileged current president of Yale’s most elite secret society, a famous leader of the movement to end the war in Vietnam, serial dater of Hollywood stars, a politician known not for his populist rhetoric but for a near terminal case of Potomac-speak, a man who has wanted to be president for at least 40 years, who thanks to a fortunate late-in-life marriage to the widow of a Republican colleague is now the richest man in the United States Senate.

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These opposing figures both reside in the tall, lanky, arguably Lincolnesque form of one John Forbes Kerry, junior senator from Massachusetts. While the fortuitous initials, same as his idol’s, are real, the moniker is more recent. Kerry isn’t really his name, if one takes a historical point of view. His Czech grandfather, with the acquiescence of his Hungarian grandmother, changed his name from Kohn to Kerry, the name of a famous county in Ireland, and a good name to have for a Boston businessman. For years, Kerry was thought to be part-Irish and part-Brahmin, which was only part true. It’s a confusion of personal identity that mirrors a larger confusion about political identity.

“With Kerry, you don’t know whether he is coming or going,” complains Slate columnist/über-blogger Mickey Kaus. “He seems to break with paleoliberalism on affirmative action or teacher tenure, then the firm pronouncements turn to mush. He votes for the Iraq War, then ties himself into knots, then denounces it. I think he used up all his boldness in the Vietnam era.”

Indeed, Kerry at times seems a profile in caution. Kerry began last year as the Democratic favorite, but a series of lackluster speeches — he spoke for 50 minutes at a California Democratic Party convention cocktail party, oblivious to the chatter from half the crowd — coupled with his difficulty articulating his position on the war and the rise of Howard Dean to leave him seemingly in the dust. But with the help of the Kennedys, Kerry rebooted his campaign last fall, began editing his sometimes-rambling Beltway-oriented remarks and was well positioned to take advantage of Dean’s sudden collapse.

Going into the 10 Super Tuesday primaries, Kerry has won 18 of 20 state primaries and caucuses. He has a big lead in the California primary and, if nominated, likely will carry California in the fall against President Bush, who appeared very competitive here just two months ago.

As he points his campaign west, Kerry shows major improvements from the stiffness of last year. Before an overflow crowd of 2,000 at a Las Vegas high school the night before the Nevada caucuses, which he swept with 63 percent of the vote, Kerry is compelling. Doffing his senatorial suit jacket but, like Gray Davis, not loosening his tie or rolling up his sleeves, Kerry roams the stage of the high school gymnasium, skillfully weaving an impromptu speech from the shards of his program. Aside from the environmental talk, Kerry is a longtime champion of renewable energy and foe of global warming, his speech is a pretty standard Democratic line these days — scorn for Bush’s handling of the war and relations with other nations, opposition to the big tax cuts and deficits, anger about the offshore outsourcing of jobs, support for universal health care — but Kerry has the crowd roaring repeatedly as he jabs at Bush.

But it is on national security, when he is able to refer to Vietnam, where Kerry seems most engaged by the battle with Bush.

Kerry has been battling a cold for weeks — and just now has been slimed by conservative Internet gossip Matt Drudge about a purported affair with an intern who was not an intern — but up close seems relaxed and confident. His eyes take on a particular intensity when he bats around Bush’s tough-guy rhetoric, making the words his own.

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