John Kerry, comedian.

John Kerry, comedian.

John Kerry, comedian.

Politics and policy.
June 16 2003 7:06 PM

Merry Kerry

Senator Stuffy lightens up.

If he loses, there's always stand-up comedy
If he loses, there's always stand-up comedy

For years, I've been dreading John Kerry's inevitable presidential candidacy. His precocious pomposity and corny Camelotisms convinced me both that he would run for president some day and that he would lose. And he was on his way to doing that until last week, when he attended a living-room reception in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Somebody seems to have removed the pole from Kerry's tuchis. He was funny, relaxed, and self-deprecating. If he keeps this up, he might actually become president.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Maybe the credit belongs to the bad weather that made him horribly late, throwing him off script. Or maybe it was the odd layout of the room, with some people seated on the floor and others on a sofa facing away from him. The senator's rumpled shirt sagged over his trousers. He thanked the audience for waiting, praised its "good humor," and launched into an impromptu comic routine. His timing was excellent; his deadpan was worthy of late-night TV. Gesturing to a nearby piano, he joked that for a minute there, he thought he'd been booked for a recital. He recalled Bill Clinton's suggestion that presidents be allowed to serve three terms. "I promise just to serve two terms," said Kerry, adding, "Republicans do it differently. … They just have the son repeat the father's whole first term." His language was salty and boisterous. "What the hell's going on?" he teased. As the audience got into it, he demanded, "Yeah, applaud! Come on!"

Turning serious, Kerry reeled off several good lines I'd never heard from him before. He charged that President Bush's tax cut had "trickled on" the middle class. He accused the administration of "opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in American cities." He dismissed Bush's conservative reputation, arguing that "no conservative Republican in America would run up the deficits" as Bush had done. Referring to Bush's Iraq victory speech, Kerry cracked, "I know something about working with aircraft carriers for real. I think it takes more than having a very skilled Navy pilot land you on an aircraft carrier to make up for two and a half million jobs lost."

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Kerry couldn't resist a few flowery allusions to President Kennedy and the moon landing. But overall, his presentation was refreshingly human. He dropped some of his G's. He raised both hands to his forehead to convey how crazy he thought Bush's tax cut was. It's hard to imagine Kerry mustering this much body language without Viagra. "This is a choice between common-sense American values—down-to-earth common sense—and a bunch of extremists who are prepared to undo 50 years of progress in this country," Kerry declared. Down to earth? John Kerry? Heavens.

My favorite moment was Kerry's response to an elderly woman who asked whether he was reconsidering his support of the Iraq war in light of Bush's failure to find weapons of mass destruction. For months, Kerry, the only man in the race to have risked his life for his country, has been the most cowardly candidate on the Iraq war. He's never walked into a sentence on that subject without leaving himself a way out. When I heard the question, I assumed Kerry would bend with the wind, attacking Bush's failure to find the WMD, but leaving himself an escape hatch in case the weapons turned up. I was wrong.

"I don't know yet" about the WMD, Kerry told the woman. "There are people who yet have to be debriefed. There are sites that yet need to be inspected. … I'm not going to jump to any conclusions." The words were uncertain, but Kerry's expression was perfectly at ease. He wasn't focusing on how to protect himself from the question. He wasn't afraid. He was just trying to tell the truth as far as he knew it, and no more.

Leaving the reception, Kerry climbed onto a motorcycle outside. A woman who had just seen him speak called out, "Senator, you're not arrogant, and you're not aloof." Kerry didn't answer. He just looked up at her, raised a devilish eyebrow, and gunned the motor.