Kerry's bio ads build a rags-to-ribbons myth.

Kerry's bio ads build a rags-to-ribbons myth.

Kerry's bio ads build a rags-to-ribbons myth.

Political ads dissected and explained.
May 4 2004 5:18 PM

Service Winner

Kerry's bio ads build a rags-to-ribbons myth.

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Do the ads succeed? In keeping with your admonition that political reporters view candidates in a completely different way from the way most voters do, I tried to put aside my preconceptions and watch these ads with the mindset of someone who hasn't been paying attention to the campaign, doesn't know anything about Kerry, and has yet to form an opinion about him. Do such people really exist? I don't know any, but I keep hearing they're out there.

As putative Joe Six-Pack, I came away with the following impressions: John Kerry is the son of an Army pilot from Colorado. Rising from these humble origins, he got himself into Yale. Unlike Bush, Kerry did his duty and went to Vietnam, where he was a decorated hero and saved the lives of two of his buddies. While Kerry was in the Navy, he changed his mind about Vietnam and was against the war when he got home. He went on to become a prosecutor and conservative senator, presumably from Colorado. He's for victims' rights. He worked with John McCain to try to rescue the POWs who were left behind in Vietnam. He broke with fellow Republicans to support a balanced budget. No, wait—he must be some kind of right-wing Democrat, since he supported health-care benefits for children and is the guy who created the 20 million jobs when Clinton was president. He has a pretty wife and daughter who say nice things about him, and who seem like regular people, though his wife has a little bit of an accent I can't quite place. He believes America can do anything, just like Bush does.

As a swing voter, I can relate to this guy. He's a war hero, a conservative Democrat, a doer, and an optimist. He shares my values and my centrist political beliefs. I'd definitely consider voting for him.

Of course, everything I've absorbed about Kerry from these ads is basically false. His dad wasn't an Army guy from the Rocky Mountains. He was a patrician diplomat from the East Coast, who raised his family in suburban Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Europe. John wasn't a scholarship kid at Yale. He was a privileged preppie from St. Paul's. He was opposed to Vietnam before he even went and volunteered partly, as he says, out of an idea service to country but also out of evident political ambition. When he got home, he was an antiwar activist, who threw his own or someone's else's medals or ribbons on the steps of the Capitol. He's not a conservative or even a centrist. In fact, he has a voting record as liberal as that of anyone in the Senate. He and McCain weren't trying to find lost POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. They were trying to prove there weren't any and thereby put the Rambo fantasy to rest. He voted for Clinton's 1993 economic plan, but to say that this act was responsible for creating 20 million jobs is an enormous leap, as is Kerry's contention that he cast the deciding vote (so did 50 other people). His daughter isn't related to his wife, and his wife is a tart-tongued jet-setter worth $500 million.

In other words, these ads are masterpieces of indirection. They paint an almost entirely fictitious portrait of Kerry without saying anything that is explicitly untrue. At the same time, the Bush campaign and the RNC are spending even more money to broadcast ads that create an equally misleading portrait of Kerry as a left-wing opportunist who talks out of both sides of his elitist mouth.

Which version will prevail? With Clinton in 1992, the candidate's own positive biographical myth overpowered the negative one retailed by the GOP. In 2000, on the other hand, the Republican view of Al Gore had more purchase than Gore's version of his own story. Kerry, I fear, is much more like Gore than like Clinton. The stuff being thrown at him is stickier than the stuff he's putting out.

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

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.