John Kerry, International Man of Nuance

Posted: Sep 10, 2004 12:00 AM

In the 1980s, when it seemed like the "squishes" in the Reagan White House were getting the upper hand over the Reaganites - or, if you prefer, the hardliners - in the battle for Reagan's ear, the call went forth, "Let Reagan be Reagan." The argument was that Reagan's instincts and principles were better than those of his New York Times-pleasing handlers, and they shouldn't try to make the Gipper be somebody he wasn't.

Today we're witnessing the same thing in reverse. A host of Democratic operatives, elder statesmen, consultants and pundits have launched a campaign that says in effect, "Don't let Kerry be Kerry."

Here's the problem. Kerry is, as he's been known to brag, a "man of nuance" or of "complexity." What he means by these terms, of course, is that he should be permitted to say whatever he wants - or whatever the audience at a particular moment wants to hear - without feeling like he's contradicting, or making an ass of, himself.

The little examples are legion. "Who among us doesn't like NASCAR?" Kerry asked not too long ago, about as convincingly as a French chef lauding Spam. More recently, he tried to convince a crowd of farmers that even though he grew up the son of a diplomat, spending most of his time in Europe or boarding school, he was actually a farmer at heart because as a kid he got to ride a tractor a few times at a relative's house. By this standard, I joined the circus as a kid because I once got to ride an elephant when Barnum and Bailey came to New York.

Now, it's in the nature of all politicians to want to be liked by as many people as possible. What distinguishes a statesman from the common run, however, is what he is willing to be disliked for. And the answer, in John Kerry's case, is "almost nothing" - even on the central issues of the day, such as Iraq and the War on Terror.

During a primary debate in Minnesota, Kerry was asked if he'd call himself a "war president" the way George Bush does. He responded: "I'd see myself first of all as a jobs president, as a health care president, as an education president, and also an environmental president. So I would see myself as a very different kind of global leader than George Bush."

And, as we all know by now, Kerry's position(s) on the war have more possible combinations than a Rubik's Cube. He voted for it, but he was really against it. He voted against the $87 billion funding for reconstruction, but he was really for it. He said recently that he would vote for the war all over again, given the opportunity.

Even more recently Kerry said that Bush did everything wrong. He said he wants major troop reductions in Iraq within six months. Then he said he wants to add troops. Now he says that he'll get America out of Iraq during his first term. When the 1,000th American died in Iraq, Kerry said they died fighting the "war on terror," even though he insisted that same week that Iraq was not part of the War on Terror.

He told Time earlier this year that the war was a failure, but also that it might end up being a success. Presumably, if the war turns against the United States, Kerry will claim he was right to oppose it; if it succeeds, he will be right to have supported it. See how nuanced he is?

This is all familiar territory for anybody who's been paying attention for the last year, and I don't want to rehash any more of it than is necessary. Indeed, I'd rather take John Kerry at his word. He endlessly reiterates that he's been "perfectly consistent" about the war. Perhaps he is. Perhaps Kerry is being Kerry.

Perhaps, unlike most of us, he doesn't see a yes/no vote as an on/off switch so much as a huge wall of dials, knobs, levers and switches that he can endlessly fine tune. Maybe he has a capacity to grasp complexity most of us do not, and he's being entirely sincere when he takes positions that seem contradictory to conventional Earth Logic.

And that's what I find so fascinating in the ongoing search by Kerry's handlers for a single coherent position their man can take against George W. Bush. Everybody in Washington agrees that it was this quest that produced Kerry's latest broadside against "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." Never mind that when Howard Dean made almost exactly the same charge during the primaries, Kerry disagreed. Again, we cannot unfairly hold this man to the standards of Earth Logic. The problem is that, at this point, any coherent position on Kerry's part would be a contradiction and, hence, a lie.

Perhaps it's expecting too much of the liberal establishment that it should feel moral qualms for exhorting Kerry to take a position he doesn't believe on the war, just to win the election. Maybe they should worry, however, that if elected, President Kerry would be Kerry.