Who Is Johnny?

The strange world of the presumptive candidate


So the rumors that John F. Kerry is running for president apparently are true. After months of generating little more than mildly diverting intern-sex rumors and the occasional snowboarding photo op, he even appeared on Meet the Press this past weekend to admit that yes, he would like to be the next resident of the White House and, yes, the current occupant there is an idiot and a fool.

Kerry has been running almost exclusively on the ABB platform: Anybody But Bush. That he is decidedly not George W. Bush is clearly Kerry's main (read: only) appeal, even, one suspects, among Democratic voters. (How the hell did he win the nomination, anyway?) His Meet the Press performance underscores that that is sound strategy indeed. The more people see of Kerry, the less likely they are to find him anything but risible. Presidential initials aside, American voters are starting to learn why Kerry, after a hundred or so years in the Senate, never managed to project anything like a memorable, much less inspiring, public persona or identity.

Consider his response to Tim Russert—hardly the Torquemada of television yak fests—with regard to the claim that sundry foreign leaders had privately told Kerry they wanted him to beat Bush this fall. The exchange is worth quoting in full:

MR. RUSSERT: Let me see if I can clean up a comment that you made in March that created an awful lot of controversy and stir. "I have met more leaders who can't go out and say it publicly but, boy, they look at you and say, 'You gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy, we need a new policy'—things like that. So there is enormous energy out there. Tell them, wherever they can find an American abroad, they can contribute." The Washington Times added this: "Although Mr. Kerry indicated that he had met in person with foreign leaders who privately endorsed him, he has made no official trips abroad in the past two years. Within the United States, he has had the chance to meet with only one foreign leader since the beginning of last year, according to a review of his travel schedule."

Specifically, which foreign leaders have you met with who told you that you should beat George Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Tim, first of all, that is an inaccurate assessment of how I might or where I might be able to meet or talk to a foreign leader, number one.

MR. RUSSERT: But you have talked to foreign leaders who told you…

SEN. KERRY: Number—Tim, what I said is true. I mean, you can go to New York City and you can be in a restaurant and you can meet a foreign leader. There are plenty of places to meet people without traveling abroad. Number two, I'm under no obligation—I would be stupid if I were to sit here and start saying, "Well, so-and-so told me this," because they have dealings with this administration. This administration doesn't talk about its private conversations, and nor will I. I invite you, I invite The Washington Times editorial [board], go to European, go to foreign capitals, travel in the world. Talk to any American businessman who has been abroad, talk to any of our colleagues who've traveled abroad, and the conversations they've had. Never has the United States of America been held in as low a regard internationally—and polls have shown this—as we are today. We're not trusted and this administration is not liked.

MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by your statement, you met with foreign leaders who told you…

SEN. KERRY: I stand by my statement.

What is it that Buzz Lightyear says to Sheriff Woody in the first Toy Story movie? "You are a sad, strange, little man. You have my pity." Has Kerry been so blinded by standing in the bloated, distended shadow of Sen. Edward Kennedy for his entire career that he has no idea how to act now that the spotlight is on him. Does he have any idea how positively Al Gore-esque—such a half-boast sounds? He won't talk about his "private conversations" with foreign leaders—at least not in any way that might make them verifiable. That's precisely what we need in a chief executive, especially one to replace George W. Bush, who has been accused of fetishizing secrecy in the Oval Office.

Of course, one stupid gaffe, however mindlessly repeated, is hardly enough to sink a campaign. But when you combine it with Kerry's unmemorable policy proposals (e.g., he wants to increase troops in Iraq but put them under UN command; he's against gay marriage, but for something like civil unions; he's for some tax cuts, but not "irresponsible" ones; etc.), even his most ardent supporters—if he has any—must be getting weak in the knees.

But perhaps the secret strength of Candidate Kerry is the weakness of his opponent. In his most memorable recent TV appearance—last week's press conference—George Bush reminded us that there's something really off about him, too. If Kerry's insistence on secret backing from foreign leaders is weird, there is something truly disturbing about a president who is self-evidently scared of testifying alone before the independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, between the situation in Iraq and economic issues—not to mention the alienating of small-government conservatives and libertarians—Bush is doing his best to keep the race extremely competitive. Whether we'll see another plurality president in the fall is unclear, but no one will be surprised if the winner yet again fails to crack the 50 percent mark in the popular vote.