MANCHESTER, N.H.—I knew John Kerry was the man of the hour, but what made the feeling more than an abstraction was the Baltimore-Washington airport bookstore. It stocked a display of Kerry’s campaign book, A Call to Service, above the latest books by Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter. Yes, it’s the Washington area, but still—it’s an airport bookstore.
Kerry continued his winning streak at tonight’s debate, the final one among the seven remaining Democrats before the New Hampshire primary. Debates have been Kerry’s best format during this campaign. He’s a TV candidate, cool and authoritative, and the time-cramped medium comes to his aid by forcibly restricting his long-winded oratorical perambulations. But until tonight’s context, Kerry’s debate performances seemed as irrelevant as Al Sharpton’s zingers.
The moment when Kerry won the debate, I thought, was when he answered Manchester Union-Leader reporter John DiStaso’s question about his decision to throw his medals (or was it his ribbons?) away in protest during the Vietnam War. “I could not be more proud of the fact that when I came back from that war, having learned what I learned, that I led thousands of veterans to Washington, we camped on the Mall underneath the Congress, underneath Richard Nixon’s visibility,” Kerry said. “He tried to kick us off. And we stood our ground and said to him, ‘Mr. President, you sent us 8,000 miles away to fight, die and sleep in the jungles of Vietnam. We’ve earned the right to sleep on this Mall and talk to our senators and congressmen.’” Kerry used the occasion to cast himself as both pro-veteran and antiwar, surely the sweet spot he hoped to squeeze his candidacy into before he got bogged down over the meaning of his vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution.
I’m beginning to suspect that Kerry’s lack of clarity on the Iraq war actually benefits his candidacy. One, because voters from a wide spectrum can find ways to square his position with theirs, and two, because his muddled ambivalence best captures the way I suspect the great majority of Democrats feel. (Kerry may have best explained his stance in October 2002 when he said, “My vote was cast in a way that made it very clear, Mr. President, I’m voting for you to do what you said you’re going to do, which is to go through the U.N. and do this through an international process. If you go unilaterally, without having exhausted these remedies, I’m not supporting you. And if you decide that this is just a matter of straight pre-emptive doctrine for regime-change purposes without regard to the imminence of the threat, I’m not going to support you.” The quote is taken from Walter Shapiro’s One-Car Caravan.)
But wouldn’t Kerry know it? Even during his rosy post-caucus glow, he can’t escape the man he once exasperatedly referred to as “Dean, Dean, Dean, Dean.” Whether the Vermont governor is riding high in the polls or flaming out, he’s the candidate the media fixate on. The local ABC affiliate in Manchester trumpeted its Nightline broadcast of the debate by mentioning only one candidate, Dean, by name. And if Dean’s last-ditch effort to save his candidacy wasn’t already the story of the day, his campaign ensured that it would be by sending their candidate on a televised triple play: the debate, his (and his wife’s) interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s Primetime Live, and his appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. I watched all three from the comfort of my hotel room.
There are advantages to watching political events on television rather than attending them in person. For one, you get to see them as the viewers do. I was on the scene in Iowa during this campaign’s defining moment, the Dean Scream, and I didn’t even notice it. The crowd was so noisy during what appeared to be typical Dean behavior during a stump speech, not unlike his listing off of the industrialized countries with universal health care (“the British and the French and the Germans,” on and on to “the Danes, the Swedes, the Japanese, even the Costa Ricans have health care!”), that no one in the room seemed to hear the “part growl, part yodel,” as the Boston Globe put it. Second, when you attend a political debate, all you really do is watch it on TV anyway, except you watch it in on TV in a room filled with other journalists. Third, I had no idea that Ernie Hudson, aka “the fourth Ghostbuster,” had his own show on ABC.
A couple things struck me from the Primetime interview. Dean said he was “speaking to 3,500 kids” on caucus night. I didn’t formally survey the demographics of Dean’s volunteers in Iowa, obviously, but his reference to the “under-30 generation” during his post-caucus speech elicited mild boos from the crowd. When I followed three Dean volunteers as they canvassed for votes in Des Moines, one was 33, one was 55, and one was 58. They weren’t atypical. From my experience, nothing tweaks Dean supporters more than the idea that they are angry children, and they’re right that the widespread belief that Dean is the kiddie candidate gives voters a reason not to take him seriously.
The second thing that occurred to me was something from Howard Dean: A Citizen’s Guide to the Man Who Would Be President, the book by a team of Vermont reporters. In it, one journalist notes that as Vermont governor, Dean never quite grasped that he was something other than an ordinary person, and that his words had unusual power. Sure, he had an uncommon job, but other than that, Dean thought he was just a regular guy. To a great extent, Dean has behaved on the campaign trail as if he still feels the same way.
Dean’s regular-guy status is one of the most appealing things about his candidacy, and it’s one of the most fun things about covering him. He’s willing to let himself be a normal person to a reporter in a way that most politicians won’t. But in another way, a presidential candidate, and especially a president, isn’t a regular guy. Presidents can’t do or say the things that even senators and governors can. Neither can first ladies. That may not be fair, but that’s the way it is.
It looks as if Howard and Judy Dean have decided that if they can’t remain “just ordinary folks,” they don’t want to be president and first lady. That’s admirable. But I also suspect that that decision, and not some pirate yell, is the biggest obstacle that would keep them from the White House.