Kerry's ill communication.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Sept. 23 2004 1:33 AM

Ill Communication

Will sickness stop the coming "Kerry surge" stories?

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.—"It's actually getting better," John Kerry says, but his voice cracks like an adolescent on "better," making the Democratic nominee for president of the United States sound like Peter Brady in the episode where his voice changes. The timing provokes good-natured laughter from the crowd. "Do you want some Tylenol?" a woman had called out, just moments before. Kerry's sick, and he's losing his voice. At times, he sounds like he can hardly get his words out. 

He gamely soldiers through the town hall, his only event on Wednesday's schedule, but not long after it's over, his campaign announces that he's taking most of Thursday off. John Edwards is called in from the bullpen to attend two events Kerry had scheduled in Iowa, one in Davenport and one in Cedar Rapids, and Kerry cancels an event he had planned to hold in Columbus, Ohio. The press is getting ready to shift from its "Kerry is staggering" storyline to a "Kerry is surging" one, and the last thing his increasingly competent campaign needs is for the candidate to show up with laryngitis at the first presidential debate next week in Miami.

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The Sept. 30 face-off is so important that Kerry plans to be "down," as campaign lingo has it, all next week, practicing and preparing for his showdown with President Bush. But before disappearing, Kerry tried out some new rhetoric late Tuesday night in Orlando and then Wednesday here. Perhaps the funniest line Kerry trots out is one about Bush's promise of middle-class "tax relief." "He gave you relief," Kerry says, "kind of like the sort of relief you get when someone comes into your home and relieves you of your TV set. You know, we've been relieved of 1.6 million jobs. Half a million kids have been relieved of child care." He concludes, "And I think it's time we relieve George Bush of his responsibilities." The crowd inside the TD Waterhouse Center—the home of the Orlando Predators, winners of Arena Bowl XIV, according to a banner in the rafters—goes nuts.

But the line that Kerry wants to emphasize, and that he returns to the next day, is one of the president's. Kerry introduces this ersatz Bushism in Orlando by saying, "This is the president of the United States today, standing in New York City, where he was answering questions about Iraq and about his speech to the United Nations." Kerry pulls out a piece of paper to read and says, "Quote, 'The CIA laid out, ah'"—pause here for laughter and a huge, screaming ovation—"I just want you to know, I'm quotin'," Kerry says. "'The CIA laid out, a—several scenarios and said, life could be lousy, life could be OK, life could be better. And they were just guessing"—pause, and more laughter—"as to what the conditions might be like.'" Kerry then asks, "Ladies and gentleman, does that make you feel safer? Does that give you confidence in this president, knows what he's talking about? The CIA was 'just guessing.' This president ought to be turning that CIA over, upside down, if that's all they were doing."

Kerry returns to this theme Wednesday. He drops the "tax relief" line—in fact, the best one-liner comes from the crowd, from a man who shouts of President Bush after hearing Kerry's riff on Social Security, "We ought to privatize him!"—but he goes back to "just guessing." Kerry alters the meaning of Bush's statement slightly, but the gist is the same: "Yesterday, George Bush said he was just guessing on the intelligence estimates about conditions in Iraq. Now, George Bush's guesswork on privatizing Social Security is gonna cost $2 trillion. The president should stop guessing about Iraq, about Social Security."

Was this "guesswork" line going to be Thursday's message, too? Would Kerry have succeeded at connecting Bush's own words to the Kerry campaign's new "fantasy" vs. "reality" critique? (On Wednesday, Kerry says, "Yesterday, I was in Orlando, next to Fantasyland. The difference between me and George Bush is I drove by it. He lives in it.") The world may never know. Instead, in Columbus, Ohio, where Kerry spent the night, reporters joked about their stories for Thursday's empty day: "Today, John Kerry nurses a cold in the battleground state of Ohio…"

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.