Head Over Heels

Illustration by Peter Bennett

Although Troy wobbles beneath the weight of excessive digital effects — if Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, by god Wolfgang Petersen’s 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 O’Neal — 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 Esquire’s 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 year’s vanguard warrior was bellowing, bull-necked Howard Dean. These days, it’s his animatronic double, Al Gore.

Where John McCain is blessed to sound like a straight shooter even when he’s wrong, which is often — do you want to send tens of thousands more troops to Iraq? — it is Gore’s curse to seem inauthentic even when he’s right. If you saw Gore’s 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 administration’s foreign policy had “shamed America,” called Bush’s 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. NBC’s 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 I’d been eagerly awaiting, The New York Times’ house neocon, David Brooks, still reeling from being eviscerated in his own paper’s book review by Michael Kinsley, unleashed his inner Ann Coulter. After comparing Gore to Ramsey Clark (now there’s 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? It’s time to move on (unless, that is, one wants to blame Clinton and Gore for not doing enough about Osama).

The portraits of Gore’s speech as nuts or unpatriotic didn’t merely echo the Bush team’s relentlessly misleading campaign (which presidential scholars are already calling unprecedented in its “negativity”); they actively served it. The right knows it’s dangerous if a drippy former vice president (Al’s actually closer to Harry Potter’s 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 president’s great weakness is his record of reckless extremism, Republicans fear that Gore’s venting could make the stolid Kerry look like a reassuring centrist.

If Bush’s Achilles’ heel is what he’s actually done — his approval ratings are in the dumper — Kerry’s may be what he hasn’t. Months after earning the nomination, he still hasn’t 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 he’s 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 (that’s 85 million taxpayers). Bush even bristles if you doubt his honesty when he’s 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” — he’s 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 doesn’t own any SUVs — but his family does.

Defenders insist that Kerry’s 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 can’t home in on what’s essential. That’s 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 senator’s caveats and curlicues.”

Even when he’s redundant, he’s vague. D.C. blogger Wonkette recently posted this wondrous piece of campaign-trail Kerry-speak: I think it’s important to show them you have a plan. If you don’t have a plan, I don’t 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 we’re 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 that’s what I’m doing.

“Well, that’s a relief,” comments Wonkette, “There’s no way that someone who didn’t 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 don’t really expect him to inspire us, we only expect him to win. Sure, we wish he’d 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 wouldn’t have started the war than the cocky liar who did. Sure, we wish he didn’t 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, Kerry’s cautious establishment liberalism is (as The Nation’s William Greider noted) every bit as frustrating as that of The New York Times’ editorial page, but, heck, that still beats Fox News. It’s not for nothing that there’s a Web site called

And this is the proper attitude with which to approach the upcoming election — disciplined but free from any illusions. It’s one of the left’s 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 isn’t 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.

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