How Skate-Skiing Is Like Campaign Politics

Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods

I wanted to do some more serious skiing Tuesday, so I drove deep into the White Mountains to Bretton Woods. Surrounding the historic Mount Washington Hotel, where the International Monetary Fund was created in 1944, is a network of 100 kilometers of beautifully groomed trails. The very serious Dartmouth cross-country ski team trains here, and there’s even a biathlon shooting range, where Olympic aspirants practice that bizarre and sexy sporting event dominated by Spandex-clad Scandinavian women who resemble real-life Lara Crofts.

Hoping to avoid becoming the Joe Lieberman of cross-country skiing, I’d been meaning to try the vastly cooler “skating” technique that now dominates cross-country racing. So I left my touring skis in the car and asked the people at Bretton Woods Nordic center to set me up with proper equipment: shorter skis, longer poles, and boots that support your ankles more firmly. The motion of skating on skis is more like ice skating or Rollerblading than parallel skiing. You shift your weight from side to side as you push out and away with your feet. You plant the poles behind your back instead of ahead of yourself. It’s much faster and much harder work.

Keynes dined here

There was an inch of fresh powder on top of a thick base, and it was serene inside the birches. The woods provided shelter from the wind, making a temperature of just 9 degrees feel quite comfortable (I wore my woollies). Skating the flat and downhill sections was no problem, but the uphill bits were a struggle for a novice. The trick, which I didn’t master, seems to be to maintain your momentum as a downward grade turns into the next hill—sort of like coasting out of Iowa and into New Hampshire without losing steam.

Other than my sore legs, what I thought about was John Kerry, who I was planning to see later in the day. Being at Bretton Woods reminded me that he is the truest internationalist in the Democratic field. Several weeks ago, when I had lunch with Kerry and a group of reporters in New York—at a moment when his fortunes seemed to be flagging badly—someone asked Kerry on what issue he was prepared to tell Democratic interest groups that he disagreed with them. “Trade,” he responded without hesitation. Kerry is not one of what Michael Kinsley calls “free trade butters.” Unlike Edwards, he supports international trade agreements without qualification. And unlike Dean, he isn’t a free-trader posturing as an economic nationalist. Clark and Lieberman are NAFTA supporters too, but they don’t seem to feel the issue as strongly as Kerry does.

I was on the verge of thinking of other ways in which I admire Kerry, but after about 90 minutes, my shins—which bear the brunt of the skating motion—told me they were through for the day. It was also time to drive to the town of Pembroke, where Kerry was supposed to serve chili at a local high-school cafeteria.

What’s James Carville doing here?

This was Kerry’s first major speaking engagement since his Iowa victory, and there was a strong sense of anticipation among the four or five hundred people waiting for him, including contingents of veterans and firefighters. The excitement was heightened by the presence of the national press corps, which arrived in force from Des Moines yesterday. James Carville wandered around in a yellow LSU Nike jacket, avowing that he was just looking, not buying. He hasn’t signed on with Kerry—at least not yet.

Kerry didn’t dish out the chili, but he did serve up some five-alarm rhetoric. Though he sounded a bit sick and had trouble overcoming hoarseness at the outset, he seemed determined not to squander his media moment by being insufficiently passionate. Whipping off his blazer, he hurled zinger after zinger at President Bush and his “incompetent, inept, and ideological foreign policy.” Bush, Kerry said, wants national security to be the central issue in the campaign because “he can’t run on jobs, health care, or children.”

Applause for John Kerry in Pembroke

Reminding the audience of his own military record and foreign-policy credentials, Kerry continued, “If George Bush wants national security to be the central issue of the campaign, I want to tell you, I know something about aircraft carriers for real. If he wants to make national security the centerpiece of this campaign, I have three words for you that may sound familiar: ‘Bring it on!’ “

Then came the Q & A. Several of the questioners offered tales of personal woe. The first was a woman who said she couldn’t afford her prescriptions and only brought groceries once every three months, despite that fact that her college-educated husband was working like a dog at two jobs. Doing a kind of smarmy Bill Clinton routine, Kerry asked the woman a series of questions about her situation, ostentatiously feeling her pain as he explained how she perfectly illustrated the need for his policies. “Folks, you’re hearing the story that I was talking about a moment ago,” he insisted. “This is America. This is the real America!” As Mickey Kaus has noted, Kerry possesses an uncanny ability to condescend and pander to people at the same time.

Even so, he looked every inch a winner tonight—articulate, caustic about Bush, and substantive on all the policy questions raised. His performance made me think again about what Burt Cohen said when we were skiing: that he wanted to see Kerry up against Bush in a debate. Kerry really should be able to clobber Bush in a face-to-face confrontation. The biggest hazard would be the Massachusetts senator’s chest-thumping style and his inability to merely do something well when given the opportunity to overdo it.