Damned Spot

Service Winner

Kerry’s bio ads build a rags-to-ribbons myth.

“Heart” and “Lifetime” were produced for the Kerry campaign by Shrum, Devine, Donilon. To watch the ads on the Kerry campaign Web site, click here. To read the texts, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

John Kerry's "Heart"
John Kerry’s “Heart”

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.

Do the ads succeed? In keeping with your admonition that political reporters view candidates in a completely different way from the way most voters do, I tried to put aside my preconceptions and watch these ads with the mindset of someone who hasn’t been paying attention to the campaign, doesn’t know anything about Kerry, and has yet to form an opinion about him. Do such people really exist? I don’t know any, but I keep hearing they’re out there.

As putative Joe Six-Pack, I came away with the following impressions: John Kerry is the son of an Army pilot from Colorado. Rising from these humble origins, he got himself into Yale. Unlike Bush, Kerry did his duty and went to Vietnam, where he was a decorated hero and saved the lives of two of his buddies. While Kerry was in the Navy, he changed his mind about Vietnam and was against the war when he got home. He went on to become a prosecutor and conservative senator, presumably from Colorado. He’s for victims’ rights. He worked with John McCain to try to rescue the POWs who were left behind in Vietnam. He broke with fellow Republicans to support a balanced budget. No, wait—he must be some kind of right-wing Democrat, since he supported health-care benefits for children and is the guy who created the 20 million jobs when Clinton was president. He has a pretty wife and daughter who say nice things about him, and who seem like regular people, though his wife has a little bit of an accent I can’t quite place. He believes America can do anything, just like Bush does.

As a swing voter, I can relate to this guy. He’s a war hero, a conservative Democrat, a doer, and an optimist. He shares my values and my centrist political beliefs. I’d definitely consider voting for him.

Of course, everything I’ve absorbed about Kerry from these ads is basically false. His dad wasn’t an Army guy from the Rocky Mountains. He was a patrician diplomat from the East Coast, who raised his family in suburban Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Europe. John wasn’t a scholarship kid at Yale. He was a privileged preppie from St. Paul’s. He was opposed to Vietnam before he even went and volunteered partly, as he says, out of an idea service to country but also out of evident political ambition. When he got home, he was an antiwar activist, who threw his own or someone’s else’s medals or ribbons on the steps of the Capitol. He’s not a conservative or even a centrist. In fact, he has a voting record as liberal as that of anyone in the Senate. He and McCain weren’t trying to find lost POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. They were trying to prove there weren’t any and thereby put the Rambo fantasy to rest. He voted for Clinton’s 1993 economic plan, but to say that this act was responsible for creating 20 million jobs is an enormous leap, as is Kerry’s contention that he cast the deciding vote (so did 50 other people). His daughter isn’t related to his wife, and his wife is a tart-tongued jet-setter worth $500 million.

In other words, these ads are masterpieces of indirection. They paint an almost entirely fictitious portrait of Kerry without saying anything that is explicitly untrue. At the same time, the Bush campaign and the RNC are spending even more money to broadcast ads that create an equally misleading portrait of Kerry as a left-wing opportunist who talks out of both sides of his elitist mouth.

Which version will prevail? With Clinton in 1992, the candidate’s own positive biographical myth overpowered the negative one retailed by the GOP. In 2000, on the other hand, the Republican view of Al Gore had more purchase than Gore’s version of his own story. Kerry, I fear, is much more like Gore than like Clinton. The stuff being thrown at him is stickier than the stuff he’s putting out.