Seconds before John Kerry enters the Brookings Institution auditorium for a Tuesday afternoon speech on postwar Iraq, a guy in a suit next to me announces, "I'm going to go watch this from my computer." With that, the guy heads upstairs to his office. It seems ridiculous, abandoning the in-person experience to watch the event on a tube. Reporters do this only under duress, when they're herded into an observation room.
But as Kerry starts speaking, I begin to understand. He makes little eye contact with the audience, focusing on the TelePrompTers and the cameras in the back of the room. If we were voters in New Hampshire, I'm sure he'd care. But we aren't. We're reporters and wonks. We vote in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. To Kerry, we're transcribers and props. If you want him to look at you, you're better off watching on TV.
I've seen Kerry be loose and funny, so I know he can do it. But today's speech confirms what others have suggested: Loose and funny come less naturally to this candidate than to almost any other. I've seen Al Gore address the same general topic in this room. I've seen Howard Dean do it down the street at the Council on Foreign Relations. When it comes to looking like wax, neither of them holds a candle to Kerry. The hands braced on the podium, the shoulders fixed, the head pivoting like a doll's, the eyes pausing only at the prompters. You worry his batteries will run out.
The problem is verbal as well as physical. Dean and Gore can sound normal even when reading from prepared texts. So can Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards. But Kerry's speeches are invariably pointlessly ornate. Today's low point is his concluding pronouncement: "Failure is no excuse for its own perpetuation." It's an important insight, once you translate it from Camelot to human. But you shouldn't have to translate it.
The other thing I've begun to notice since Kerry announced his candidacy in South Carolina four weeks ago is his anxiety. At the announcement event, he kept doing little things like touching his hair to make sure everything was in place. The man introducing him, fellow veteran Max Cleland, suggested that when Kerry turned his boat directly into an ambush in Vietnam, he had done so to make himself a "thinner target." I began to see how thoroughly a defensive mentality consumes Kerry. Today I see it again in his concern about "the target on the back of young Americans" in Iraq, and in the way he keeps his eyes on the TelePrompTer even when pausing to improvise, lest he lose his place.
Kerry makes several good points. He criticizes President Bush for refusing to admit error or to ask sincerely for help or directions. He points out that we're paying other countries to give us the appearance of a coalition. He asks who in the world will believe the next U.S. secretary of state who delivers a presentation on intelligence at the United Nations like the one Colin Powell delivered in February. While conceding that the United Nations' record of reconstructing countries isn't perfect, he points out that the United States' ability to do the job is worse.
Kerry also tries out two new themes that may help him or the Democrats in the general election. One is the promise Bush made in 2000 to restore integrity to the White House. Kerry juxtaposes this with the current uproar over who in the administration punished a critic of its Iraq policy by exposing the critic's wife as a CIA agent. The other theme Kerry deploys creatively is sacrifice. Other Democrats have complained about Bush's tax cuts, but Kerry uses his war record to make the issue one of patriotism. He pairs Bush's request for $87 billion in Iraq with an equivalent windfall that he says would come from repealing Bush's tax cuts for people earning $300,000 a year or more. This repeal, he argues, would be a proper "sacrifice" for the rich to make, particularly in light of the sacrifices being made by soldiers, reservists, and their families.
Like other Democrats, Kerry sees no penalty in hyperbolic denunciations of Bush's Iraq policy. "This may be the most arrogant, deceptive moment in foreign policy in decades," he fumes. He calls postwar Iraq a potential "quagmire" and compares it to Vietnam. He describes our coalition of Mongolians and Estonians as "a cover-up" for unilateralism. Like curse words, these exaggerations are already beginning to lose their punch.
What Kerry can't get past, even as he shifts his focus to the postwar, is his vote to authorize the war. Today, he argues yet again that his vote meant no such thing.
When I voted to give the president the authority to use force, I said arms inspections are "absolutely critical in building international support for our case to the world. That's how you make clear to the world we are contemplating war not for war's sake, but because it may be the ultimate weapons inspection enforcement mechanism." But the Bush administration, impatient to go into battle, stopped the clock on the inspectors … despite the call of many in Congress who had voted to authorize force as a last resort.
No matter how many times Kerry says this, it makes no sense. If you vote to authorize war as a weapons inspection enforcement mechanism, and the offender drags his heels and jerks around the inspectors, sooner or later you have to use the mechanism. An enforcement mechanism that's so ultimate and last-resort that you never resort it, even after 13 years, is no mechanism at all. If Bush had given the inspectors another two or six months, and Iraq had continued to frustrate interviews with scientists and turn over no records of the destruction of previous weapons stockpiles, and France and Russia had continued to insist on more time, and Bush had decided to go in at that point, I have every confidence that we'd be hearing the same speech from Kerry today about how Bush "stopped the clock" and rushed to war. Unless, of course, the postwar had turned out not to be a threat to John Kerry's career.