Kerry's bio ads build a rags-to-ribbons myth.
Posted Tuesday, May 4, 2004, at 5:18 PM
From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg
After weeks of being pounded by George W. Bush for being soft on defense, John Kerry finally steps in to point out that, ahem, he's the one who fought in a war.
True, Kerry talked a lot about Vietnam during the primaries. Like other journalists, I've grown bored with this shtick. But I've also grown bored with Bush's endless talk about standing up for freedom and against terror. The stuff that bores people like us often turns out to be the stuff that swings elections, largely because most voters tune in later than we do. Until now, the campaign was shaping up as a fight between simplicity (Bush) and complexity (Kerry). Complexity never wins that fight. "I supported the Iraq war resolution because I wanted to get the United Nations involved so that we could enforce the demands of the Security Council in the right way" is not a winning message. "I risked my life while my opponent was AWOL" might be.
Does a 38-year-old war really tell you much about these two men? Kerry's new ads, "Heart" and "Lifetime," make the best case that it does. They repeatedly use the terms "fight" and "serve" to link the phases of his career. "If you look at my father's time in service to this country, whether it's as a veteran, prosecutor, or senator, he has shown an ability to fight for things that matter," says Kerry's daughter Vanessa in "Heart." Fighting is exactly what Kerry stands accused of failing to do in the Senate. The charge from the Bush camp is that Kerry flips and flops with the political winds. The point of these new ads is to transplant the testosterone of Kerry's youth to his Senate years. You're supposed to walk away with the sense that he's been fighting as bravely in Washington in recent years as he did in Vietnam long ago.
That's the "fight" half of the message. The "serve" half does the dirty work. "I enlisted because I believed in service to country," Kerry says in "Heart." "I thought it was important if you had a lot of privileges as I had had, to go to a great university like Yale, to give something back to your country." The Yale reference appears in both ads, suggesting a dig at the other Yalie running for president. The implicit message is that while Kerry viewed his fancy education as a gift and used it to help others, Bush viewed the same education as a birthright and used it to help himself. I'll leave it to you, as Slate's authority on higher education in New Haven, to adjudicate.
Several items in the ads are tactically interesting. In "Heart," Kerry says, "We're a country of optimists." His wife calls him "hopeful." This, you'll recall, was John Edwards' message in the primaries. Now it's Kerry's. It isn't the first time Kerry lifted a good theme from one of his Democratic rivals—just ask Howard Dean—and it won't be the last. In the Microsoft antitrust case, this was known as the "fast follower" strategy. If you're a software company, you get sued for driving competitors out of the market this way. If you're a presidential candidate, you get nominated for it.
"Lifetime" invokes every independent's favorite Republican: "[Kerry] joined with John McCain to find the truth about POWs and MIAs in Vietnam." It also claims that in the 1990s, Kerry "cast a decisive vote that created 20 million new jobs." That's the same boast Al Gore ran on four years ago. It feels a little greasy to hear two candidates claim to have cast the deciding vote—in this case for the 1993 Clinton budget, which passed 51-50, with Gore's vote. But if the economy had soured after 1993, you can be sure Republicans would have accused both Gore and Kerry of casting the deciding vote. That vote may not have been the kind of risk Kerry took in Vietnam, but it could easily have doomed his career. So let him share the boast.
From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan
John Kerry is spending $27.5 million to broadcast these two commercials around the country over the next several weeks. That's a huge buy—almost certainly more than he'll be able to spend on any other ads between now and November. His campaign clearly sees these spots as central to its effort to portray Kerry in a positive light and to undo some of the negative definition achieved by the Republicans in recent weeks.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Still from "Heart" from Shrum, Devine, Donilon.