The Shadow of His Smile

When John Kerry’s motorcade wheeled into Santa Monica’s Fairmont Miramar Hotel last week, the low, rush-hour sun caused 15 Republican protesters to squint warily at the counter demonstrators with whom they shared a corner of Wilshire and Ocean.

“I’m here,” said Mark, waving an Iranian flag, “to support President Bush against John Kerry, who has the support of the terrorist government of Iran.”

And where did he learn of this new scandal?

“It’s been all over,” Mark assured me. “No one can show you the exact checks, though. The government of Iran has supported Hillary Clinton’s book parties and big mansion fund-raisers for Kerry. Some of it’s legal, but the money sent by the mullahs is not.”

It occurred to me that this tale would not be making the O’Reilly-Hannity gossip salons anytime soon — it sounded like one of those niche-marketed rumors the GOP routinely whispers into the ears of specific constituencies: Kerry will replace gun owners’ Glocks with water pistols, force Christians to use unisex confessionals, etc. As propaganda it’s a good strategy — make Kerry the sum of all fears, not so much by identifying his positions but by identifying that he is not what people value.

The tactic’s caught on — today it’s not only Bush supporters who define Kerry by calling him what he is not. The phrase “John Kerry is no war hero,” for example, turned up about 60 times in an August Lexis Nexis search of major media sources, which, even accounting for repetitions, is quite a lot. You can even break the process down into subgenres — one of these specializes in the people Kerry isn’t, including these found in August:

 

John Kerry is no John Kennedy. (Several sources, including the Chicago Daily Herald.)

Kerry is no Ronald Reagan. (Akron Beacon Journal)

Kerry is no Nixon. (Weekly Standard)

John Kerry is no Patrick Buchanan. (New Republic)

Kerry is no Michael Dukakis. (Dayton Daily News)

 

The not-another-person stuff even extends to Kerry’s wife, as noted by the Akron Beacon Journal: “Teresa Heinz Kerry is no Jackie Kennedy Onassis.” From the people who Kerry isn’t, the pundits and letter writers of August moved to the things the Democrat is allegedly not:

 

Kerry is no leader. (Anchorage Daily News)

Kerry is no friend of Israel. (Jerusalem Post)

John Kerry has no Texas ranch. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

John Kerry is no stand-up comic. (NBC’s Today show)

Mr. Kerry is no liberal. (Baltimore Sun)

 

Outside the Starlight Ballroom across the street, the coiffed and manicured mingled at a wine reception before the $5,000-a-plate-and-up dinner. Even here there was a tendency to identify Kerry with what he is not — in this case, George W. Bush. I asked one young woman from New York what brought her here.

“I’m a friend of his stepson, Chris Heinz,” she said. “I believe in all the things [Kerry] stands for — not like our current president.” A look of mild irritation passed over her tanned face when she spoke these last three words, as though even uttering Bush’s name was the same as swearing in public. No one would, in fact, mention Bush this evening. Still people had no trouble defining Chris Heinz — “He’s the most eligible bachelor in America today,” a middle-aged woman volunteered to me.

The 400 guests, who included Barbara Boxer, Gray Davis, Anjelica Huston and a raft of local pols, eventually entered the ballroom as a synthesized version of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” the dreamy anthem of coastal living from the 1960s, purred over the P.A. In the same mood, Tony Bennett opened things by crooning standards that suddenly have politically tinged titles: “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “Maybe This Time.”

Kerry himself was relaxed, warm and utterly believable as he defined himself — not the aloof robot he’s been pegged as by the media and pundits across the political spectrum: “Americans should be able to buy into the same health plan as the Senate and Congress . . . I’ll immediately sign an Executive Order authorizing full stem-cell research . . . We need to give this planet to our children in better shape than we got it from our parents.”

The only time Kerry slipped was when he mentioned the need to explore “our spiritual relationship with . . .” Here he drifted a moment — God or Deity? Supreme Being or Higher Power? Perhaps Kerry was nuanced out or jet-lagged, for he ended the thought with “the higher order of things.”

A few people at the tables looked at each other but no one seemed to mind. They had just given Kerry $3 million.

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