Can John Kerry sell John Kerry?

Politics and policy.
Jan. 27 2004 9:43 PM

Death of a Salesman

Can John Kerry sell John Kerry?

HAMPTON, N.H.—Tonight, John Kerry heads south and west from New Hampshire, widely acclaimed as the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee. "Dated Dean, Married Kerry," goes the slogan of the hour. But before this rebound relationship drifts to the altar, maybe Democrats should ask what they're getting in Kerry. After watching him for a year and seeing him work New Hampshire, here's my warning: You're getting a guy who has plenty of selling points but can't make the sale himself.

Like my colleague Chris Suellentrop, I've watched the Kerry surge with amazement. I've asked myself how Kerry is persuading previously skeptical voters to change their minds about him. The answer is, he isn't. Other people are doing the persuasion. Other people are doing the testimonial ads, as first lady Christie Vilsack did for Kerry in Iowa. Other people are firing up his crowds. Other people are telling his story. Other people are touting his virtues at rallies because he doesn't reliably display those virtues himself. The man who stood up to serve his country as a soldier is being propped up as a candidate.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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Two days ago I went to a Kerry rally in Nashua, an hour west of here. Kerry had the biggest and best of everything. I had just come from a John Edwards rally in a beaten-up, slightly cramped school gym a few miles away. The gym hosting Kerry's rally was gorgeous, capacious, and brand new. Edwards' event was at the local junior high; Kerry's was at the high school. Behind Kerry hung an American flag 30 feet tall and 50 feet wide, the hugest I've seen on the campaign trail. The opening act was New Hampshire's most beloved Democrat, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

At Edwards' rally, the candidate was introduced for maybe three minutes and spent the rest of the event making the pitch himself. A Kerry rally is nothing like that. It's more like a roast. First Shaheen sang Kerry's praises. Then a former state senator sang Kerry's praises. Then Ted Kennedy sang Kerry's praises. Then Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., sang Kerry's praises. Then Kerry spoke for a bit and handed the mike to his stepson and wife, who sang Kerry's praises. It's like going to a concert and sitting through a bunch of speeches in which the musician's friends attest, "This guy can sing."

Shaheen told Kerry's Nashua audience that New Hampshire voters were listening to the candidates and "examining their records." The former state senator talked about Kerry's "intelligence" and "experience." Record, intelligence, experience—these are descriptions of a résumé, not a personality. That's what all the "Real Deal" banners hanging from the rafters were about. The message is that there's something uniquely authentic in the Kerry you don't see, if only you can get past the Kerry you do see. It's like that horrible euphemism, "She's beautiful inside," which always means she's ugly.

Not that the Kerry campaign shuns cosmetics. There's nothing more cosmetic than endorsements, and Kerry is loaded with them. On the risers behind him in Nashua stood so many members of Congress that even one of their own, Patrick Kennedy, couldn't name them all—and believe me, he tried—without help from Kerry and from Ted Kennedy. Patrick told the crowd that his dad saw Kerry as a "winner" and that nobody was better than his dad at "sizing up political talent." In other words, you can count on Kerry's electability because Ted Kennedy says so, and Patrick Kennedy says you can count on whatever Ted Kennedy says. Vouching upon vouching upon vouching.

Ted Kennedy's liberal credentials are only one of the reasons he's been warming up crowds for Kerry the past two weeks. The other reason is that Kennedy is twice the barn-burner Kerry ever could be. Kennedy's voice booms. At each stop, he makes well-worn stories sound fresh and ad libs the rest. The shirt hanging out of his belt reflects his boisterous ease. Kerry's stepson is another natural. At the Nashua event, he improvised deliciously witty remarks on Kerry's behalf, treating the crowd to a first-rate Arnold Schwarzenegger impression.

Kerry can't ad lib to save his life. Sometimes, in small gatherings, when he's late, tired, and punchy, he escapes his script and gives people a glimpse of the human being beneath the senator. There were flashes of that in Nashua. At first, Kerry bounced across the stage and arched back his shoulders, letting his jacket slip off with a smile you'd expect to see from a stripper. But soon enough, he tightened up. As Kennedy entertained the crowd, Kerry sat in the background with his fingers clasped together, sucking his lower lip and patting his hair nervously to make sure it was still in place. Just before Kerry rose to speak, his wife placed both hands on his shoulders, trying to impart strength. Hundreds of fans waved Kerry signs and applauded his every word. He wasn't there to inspire them. They were there to inspire him.

Physically, Kerry's repertoire is painfully limited. He thrusts his index finger at the audience in an overhead arc again and again, as though launching a projectile. He seems to be trying not to animate his thoughts but to expel them. Above the neck, nothing but his mouth moves. If you showed anyone a video of Kerry with his lips blacked out, they'd never know he was speaking. On television, it often seems as though Kerry is looking at you but not seeing you. In person, you realize he is looking at you but not seeing you. His words are even more stilted, particularly when he ruins a good line by adding prepositional phrases—"in this country … as a fundamental commitment … to all our citizens … regardless of circumstance"—until everyone is silently begging him to stop.

It's strange that a man who charged into enemy fire should prove so physically inferior, as a politician, to a man whose greatest athletic feat during the Vietnam era was swimming ashore at Chappaquiddick. I couldn't decide whether to laugh or wince as Kennedy, the lifelong legislator, exalted Kerry's "two terms" in Vietnam—then corrected his description, incorrectly, to "two sessions." (Pssst, Senator … the word is tours.) But as Kerry turns South, it won't be Kennedy who joins him on the campaign trail. It'll be Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator who lost three limbs in Vietnam and then lost his Senate seat in 2002 to a Republican attack on his commitment to national security.