"THERE IS no there there."
Gertrude Stein said it about Oakland, but she could have been talking about John Kerry. Thirty years in public life, 20 years a senator, 18 months on the presidential campaign trail, $80 million in advertising — and still nearly half of all Americans, according to The Economist's latest nationwide poll, say they cannot figure him out.
It is the oldest rap on Kerry, and the truest: He seems to have no bedrock of conviction, no deeply held first principles — nothing like Ted Kennedy's passionate Great Society liberalism, which the Democratic convention so lustily celebrated on Tuesday. Kerry is disciplined, smart, and studious; he does his homework, isn't lazy, eats his peas. But the questions never go away: Who is he? What does he stand for? Why does he come down on every side of almost every issue? Is he driven by anything more than ambition? Underneath it all, is there any there there?
Kerry's acceptance speech at the Fleet Center tonight will be the climax of the convention. There will be more eyes on him as he takes the podium than at any point since the campaign began. And who knows? Maybe the Democrats' standard-bearer will have found his true north at last. Maybe he'll tell us where he wants to lead the nation, not merely what he thinks most voters want to hear. Maybe after tonight no one will ever again wonder who the real John Kerry is.
But I wouldn't bet on it.
After all, what could Kerry possibly say tonight that he couldn't nuance to a nullity next week? He has spent his political career trying to have every issue both ways, always leaving himself an out, never showing the courage of true conviction. And look how far it has gotten him: In 14 weeks he could be elected president. Tonight of all nights, would he cross a Rubicon that couldn't be uncrossed?
All candidates are slippery sometimes. But Kerry is slippery as a matter of course. His rhetoric may be forceful, even aggressive, but his positions don't stay still. In Boston yesterday, the Republican Party released an 11-minute compilation of Kerry's ever-shifting stands on Iraq. It is a remarkable video — both for the sheer number of Kerry's lurches on the war, and because of the adamance with which he expresses incompatible views. (Kerry in July 2002: "I agree completely with this Administration's goal of a regime change in Iraq." Kerry in August 2003: "The fact is, in the resolution that we passed, we did not empower the President to do regime change.")
It is a hallmark of Kerry's political career: Rarely does he take a tough stand and hold his ground — not if there may be a price to pay for doing so. A John McCain he isn't. The blunt truth about Kerry the 60-year-old politician is that he is devoid of political courage. That is why he has to borrow so much of it from Kerry the 20-something soldier.
A running joke of the 2004 campaign is that Kerry cannot go three sentences without bringing up his combat tour in Vietnam. Even so, the extent to which those four months in Southeast Asia have become the central rationale of the Kerry campaign is truly something to behold.
The Democrats' convention bristles with military images and symbols. Inside the Fleet Center are Vietnam-era pictures of the candidate: Kerry with his officer class, Kerry on shipboard, Kerry and his friend David Thorne in uniform, Kerry being pinned with a medal. Speaker after speaker hails his Vietnam record. Kerry's Swift boat crew members have been seen and heard all over Boston. Democrats had even hoped to bring an actual Swift boat to the convention, but the cost was too steep.
Last night, delegates heard from retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, a past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jim Rassman, the Green Beret Kerry pulled from the river during a firefight, will address the convention today. So will Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator who lost three limbs in Vietnam.
John Kerry poses with Navy crewmates during the Vietnam War. (AP file photo)
Meanwhile, the campaign is airing a commercial in which John Edwards exhorts a crowd: "There is no one better prepared to keep the American people safe than this man. And if you have any question about what John Kerry's made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him 30 years ago."
Kerry would make a strong president in the 2000s because he was a good Swift boat skipper in the 1960s? It isn't exactly a logical argument. But it's the argument the Democrats are going with because the nation is at war, and because nothing else in Kerry's long and ambiguous public record gives any hint that he would make an effective commander-in-chief.
Kerry's party brandishes his Vietnam bravery so incessantly because it is one element in his career that hasn't been nuanced to a pulp. But when has he shown bravery in the three decades since? What reason is there to think he would show any in the Oval Office? A compelling answer to that question is one many of us have been waiting a long time to hear. I'd be surprised if we hear it tonight.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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