Head Over Heels
Illustration by Peter Bennett
Although Troy wobbles beneath the weight of excessive digital effects if Helens face launched a thousand ships, by god Wolfgang Petersens computers will show you every last dinghy it reminds us that war is always about violent death, shows how ideas of honor usually get twisted by political leaders and captures the overweening conceit of the demigod Achilles. Played by blond-maned, dead-eyed, sometimes-British-accented Brad Pitt, this killing machine spends days in his tent, preening, sulking or waiting to be cajoled into battle with promises of eternal grandeur.
Such pampered vainglory is, of course, familiar from L.A.s own indomitable warrior Shachilles ONeal perpetually mistreated by the zebra-striped gods. Meanwhile, back in the modern Athens of Washington, D.C., Democrats worry they may have their own diffident Achilles in John Kerry. Although acolytes hail him as a lethal campaigner When you lose to him, he finishes you, proclaims the June Esquires flattering piece on John Kerry, Political Badass the one-time war hero seems unnervingly fond of letting others lead the battle against George W. Bush. Last years vanguard warrior was bellowing, bull-necked Howard Dean. These days, its his animatronic double, Al Gore.
Where John McCain is blessed to sound like a straight shooter even when hes wrong, which is often do you want to send tens of thousands more troops to Iraq? it is Gores curse to seem inauthentic even when hes right. If you saw Gores NYU speech blasting the president, you might have cringed at his overwrought baying, arms flailing in a clumsy simulacrum of spontaneous passion. But if you read the speech, you may have been rightly impressed. Gore said the administrations foreign policy had shamed America, called Bushs handling of Iraq utterly incompetent and insisted it made the world a far more dangerous place while leaving America no safer. Noting that everything the administration had claimed about Iraq was either mistaken or a lie, he called for the resignations of Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, George Tenet and three others, including Defense Department deputy Douglas J. Feith, who even General Tommy Franks once dubbed the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the Earth.
Predictably, mainstream pundits gave Gore the special thrashing they reserve for anyone on the left who violates the official discourse. NBCs Andrea Mitchell (a.k.a. Mrs. Alan Greenspan) misrepresented his speech, falsely claiming he had expressed the prevailing Democratic sentiment that We want out. We want quick withdrawal. Nakedly right-wing columnist John Podhoretz declared Al insane, part-time liberal Maureen Dowd cheap-shotted him for representing the wackadoo wing of the Democratic Party, and in a psychological eruption Id been eagerly awaiting, The New York Times house neocon, David Brooks, still reeling from being eviscerated in his own papers book review by Michael Kinsley, unleashed his inner Ann Coulter. After comparing Gore to Ramsey Clark (now theres a blast from the past), Brooks lambasted the ex-veep for not caring enough about the future of Iraqi people. I mean, how dare Gore dwell on the past you know, those ancient blunders made a year or six months or six weeks ago? Its time to move on (unless, that is, one wants to blame Clinton and Gore for not doing enough about Osama).
The portraits of Gores speech as nuts or unpatriotic didnt merely echo the Bush teams relentlessly misleading campaign (which presidential scholars are already calling unprecedented in its negativity); they actively served it. The right knows its dangerous if a drippy former vice president (Als actually closer to Harry Potters Hermione Granger than to Abbie Hoffman) can turn concepts like lies, shame and incompetence into an acceptable part of the mainstream political conversation about Bush. Aware that their presidents great weakness is his record of reckless extremism, Republicans fear that Gores venting could make the stolid Kerry look like a reassuring centrist.
If Bushs Achilles heel is what hes actually done his approval ratings are in the dumper Kerrys may be what he hasnt. Months after earning the nomination, he still hasnt convinced anyone to vote for him; he has done little to woo women and minorities. I keep meeting people who think the best thing about him is Teresa. (In this hes like Dubya, whose own wife, says Bob Woodward, opposed the Iraq war.) Naturally, Kerry has had help in failing to win over the public. Untold millions of Republican dollars have tarred him as a flip-flopper who diddles with words while plainspoken Dubya guards our nation with steely resolve.
Such an opposition is, of course, facile. Neither man has any qualms about abusing the truth, but each does it according to our reigning political axiom: Republicans lie. Democrats weasel.
The president can look you straight in the eye and declare that his tax cuts mainly benefit ordinary Americans when, as Paul Krugman has noted, 257,000 taxpayers who make more than a million bucks a year got a bigger combined tax cut than the bottom 60 percent of the population (thats 85 million taxpayers). Bush even bristles if you doubt his honesty when hes lying. Kerry lacks such forthright dishonesty. Instead, like Bill Clinton, he tries to have things every way at once. But unlike The Man From Hope who frolicked in that moral gray zone where one ponders what the meaning of is is hes utterly hopeless at it. When Clinton offered you an on the one hand/on the other hand formulation, you knew he held something in both hands he was choosing between carefully calibrated political options. When Kerry ventures the same formulation, his hands wind up on his own throat. He ends up explaining that he voted for the war before voting against it, or claiming that he doesnt own any SUVs but his family does.
Defenders insist that Kerrys slippery circumlocutions are evidence of a ruminative intelligence drawn to nuance. If only. In fact, his ceaseless guff suggests a man so enthralled by his own droning that he cant home in on whats essential. Thats why the liberal e-zine Slate has begun supplementing its well-known Bushism of the Day feature with an equally absurd Kerryism of the Day, devoted to the senators caveats and curlicues.
Even when hes redundant, hes vague. D.C. blogger Wonkette recently posted this wondrous piece of campaign-trail Kerry-speak: I think its important to show them you have a plan. If you dont have a plan, I dont think people are going to have much confidence in you. But I have a plan. I have a specific plan about manufacturing jobs, a specific plan about how were going to fight for a fair playing field, a specific plan about science, technology investment. A specific plan about health care. I think you have to run an affirmative campaign, and I think you have to I have to show America a plan for the country. And I do have a plan. And thats what Im doing.
Well, thats a relief, comments Wonkette, Theres no way that someone who didnt have a plan would say the word plan that many times. Unless that was the plan.
Luckily for Kerry, widespread hatred of Bush is cutting him the same slack on the left that Dubya got from the right four years ago: We dont really expect him to inspire us, we only expect him to win. Sure, we wish hed been smarter about Iraq or would say something compelling about it now these days, he sounds almost exactly like Bush but better a waffler who wouldnt have started the war than the cocky liar who did. Sure, we wish he didnt mess up his applause lines with weirdly portentous pauses, but better that than a president whose clearly Freudian (not Texan) pronunciation of Abu Ghraib as Abu Grub has us grinding our teeth down to the jawbone. Sure, Kerrys cautious establishment liberalism is (as The Nations William Greider noted) every bit as frustrating as that of The New York Times editorial page, but, heck, that still beats Fox News. Its not for nothing that theres a Web site called JohnKerryIsaDoucheBagButImVotingforHimAnyway.com.
And this is the proper attitude with which to approach the upcoming election disciplined but free from any illusions. Its one of the lefts foibles, perhaps its Achilles heel, that it keeps pining for an inspirational leader who never, ever turns up. (Instead, we get Arianna and Michael Moore.) But the nonappearance of such a savior isnt a bad thing. As the great socialist Eugene V. Debs famously declared, I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you out.
We face no such risk with John Kerry. Nobody believes he is leading anyone to any kind of promised land, but unlike George W. Bush, he may let us lead him out of his tent and in that general direction.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.