John Kerry's mystifying appeal.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Jan. 26 2004 3:48 PM

Landslide Kerry

The mystifying appeal of the Massachusetts senator.

John Kerry
Kerry's mysterious pied-piper act

HAMPTON, N.H.—As Kerrymania sweeps the Granite State, the latest Zogby Poll notwithstanding, I'm still scratching my head over the phenomenon. Politics is full of truisms, one of which is that voters never elect a résumé, and another is that they don't vote strategically. But in John Kerry's case, voters appear to be doing both. They've decided, whether he's their favorite candidate or not, that he's the Democrat with the CV to go up against President Bush in November.

A third political truism—that negative campaigning hurts both the attacker and the attacked—helped explain the results of the Iowa caucuses, as voters ran away from the Dean-Gephardt slugfest and toward Kerry and John Edwards and, to a lesser extent here in New Hampshire, Wesley Clark. But I'm straining for an iron law of politics that explains how Kerry went from presumptive embarrassment to presumptive nominee in less than a month (though the race isn't over by a long shot). He's not the best or most skilled speaker in the race. He hasn't raised the most money. He wasn't leading in the national polls on Jan. 1.

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Kerry is the Einstein of this race, upending the known Newtonian laws and replacing them with new ones. Perhaps the candidate who uses the most superlatives is now guaranteed victory. Kerry loves two expressions: "in all my time in public life" and "in the modern history of the country." For example, to take a Kerry favorite, President Bush has conducted "the most arrogant, inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of the country." Similarly, Kerry said Sunday in Nashua, "This is the most antiscience administration in the modern history of the country." Or, during this month's National Public radio debate, "We're witnessing the greatest period of crony capitalism in the modern history of the country."

"Never in all my time in public life have I seen the workplace so unfair," is another Kerry favorite on the stump. Or, here's Kerry last week on the PBS NewsHour: "This is the most say-one-thing do-another administration I've seen in all my time in public life." In last week's debate, it was, "This is the worst environmental administration that I've ever seen in all my time in public life." At a Friday event in Manchester, Kerry declared that the Republican campaign against former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland (who's been campaigning with Kerry) was "the most craven moment I have seen in American politics." Presumably it broke the record held by a 1996 William Weld ad that Kerry then called "the most duplicitous and brazen distortion I've ever seen."

Or perhaps the candidate who receives the worst introduction speech of the campaign wins. At that Friday event in Manchester, Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., introduced Kerry with a long, rambling speech that included the word "Chinaman." As Hollings was explaining that "50 percent of the furniture in this country comes from China," a shockingly loud pop crackled through the speakers and startled most people in the room. "Some Chinaman got mad at that," Hollings said to laughter. (Later, when more noises popped through the speakers, Kerry politically corrected the joke to, "This Chinese guy is still around.") Hollings also declared that Dick Cheney "is the Jesse Jackson of the Republican Party. He wants it all, his time has come!" A few people applauded when Hollings said he was about to finish.

Or perhaps the spoils go to the candidate who has the most difficulty reading his crowd. In Manchester, Kerry gave a touching speech about the importance of veterans and of "keeping faith with those who wore the uniform." As soon as it was over, a woman stood up and said, I'm not a veteran. What are you going to do for the average person? At a firehouse in Hampton yesterday, a man told Kerry that he thinks it's unfair that people say a New Englander can't connect with people from varying backgrounds. And to prove that you can do it, he says, explain the importance of the icon on my hat. Kerry is mystified. "The Latin? The Ten?" he asks. Malcolm X, the man explains.

I don't want to overstate Kerry's flaws. He's not Al Gore. He comes across as good-humored, decent, and likable rather than phony. And he doesn't pander mindlessly on every subject. On offshore job losses, "The solution is not to sit there and pretend that you can stop every job from going overseas," he says in Hampton. On the subject of religion, he believes that presidents should "recognize the diversity of faiths and even of agnosticism and atheism," and he takes the politically risky stance of admitting to a "questioning, agnostic stage" after his experience in Vietnam.

But Kerry also seems to keep a little intellectual distance from his public persona, unlike Dean or Edwards, who are pretty much "method politicians." The goofy grin that Kerry invariably breaks out at the end of his stump speech communicates the idea that he thinks this is a little, well, goofy. In a sense, that might be one more reason to like him, but it doesn't get me any closer to explaining his success. Going after Dean on taxes seems to be working—"I'm going to protect the middle class. I'm not touching your child care credit, like some candidates. I'm not going to put back in place the marriage penalty. I'm not going to take away your 10 percent bracket and raise it immediately to 15 percent, as some candidates are," Kerry says—but Democrats aren't supposed to vote on tax cuts in a primary. Military experience is part of it, too, but that brings me back to the résumé truism.

I'm left with one answer: He's taller.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.