Kerry's lessons of the fall

Posted: Mar 31, 2004 12:00 AM

When Sen. John F. Kerry fell - or was toppled by a Secret Service agent - from his perch on a snowboard recently, the would-be president clarified events with rare grace:

"I don't fall down," he said. "That son-of-a-bitch ran into me." Or "knocked me over," depending on which version you read.

Spoken like a true 7-year-old. Any parent will recognize the template: Little boy falls down, then jumps to his feet and declares for the benefit of anyone who will indulge his fractured ego: "I meant to do that."

Sometimes the little tyke will run over to his mother if she's nearby and hit her for good measure. Smart mommies understand that the lad can't bear the humiliation and has to blame his one true love, the one who is supposed to protect him from both mortal and psychic pain.

Similarly, the presumptive Democratic nominee verbally backhanded the Secret Service fellow, who was supposed to protect the senator, not deck him in the snow.

When little boys blame their mothers, it is an altogether adorable and forgivable moment. Grownups appreciative of the sweet fragility of little boys let the moment pass.

The same symbolic gesture by a 60-year-old presidential contender - who by now ought to have worked out such narcissistic kinks - is altogether unadorable. And we just can't let it pass, or fail to mention that while Kerry's quoting scripture this week, he might linger over Proverbs 16: 18: "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."

There's no shame in falling from a snowboard, after all, which is what most people do no matter their age. How much more gracious and charitable had Kerry, clearly an able athlete, managed to forgive the poor clumsy chap who mowed him down. And, we might add, how much more manly.

Despite our nation's Gay Moment, an image of manliness remains a criterion for American presidents. Which brings us unavoidably to Kerry's choice of sports and photo ops.

You see President George W. Bush whacking brambles at his Texas ranch, jogging sweat-streaked through blistering heat, chopping wood - all universally recognized as manly tasks, even if performed by a former cheerleader.

Then you catch Kerry, who shouldn't need to prove his manhood - he served in Vietnam, you know - engaging in preppy sports that require resorts and expensive equipment: skiing, snowboarding, windsurfing. Not exactly the populist sports of choice.

Can't the man shoot hoops? Or toss a football while, say, not skiing in Aspen? Catch much?

To each his own and all that. Presumably he's trying to demonstrate to America's youth and renegade Deaniacs his total coolness. Dewd! But Kerry needn't bother courting the Bubba vote, no matter how many peanut farmers join him on the dais, as long as he keeps choosing activities that include resort wear and outfits.

When Kerry does join the human fray - on a bicycle for instance - he wears those little padded shorts and a helmet. I'm sure biker shorts are helpful and headgear is certainly safe. Give the man points for obeying the rules and setting a good example for all the other boys and girls. But it was precisely in anticipation of Kerry fully decked for bicycling that the word "dork" was invented.

They say you can learn a lot about a man by engaging him in sports. Plenty of businessmen play golf expressly for this purpose. Get a man out on the green and find out what he's made of. Or across the net for a few sets of tennis. Or in a duck blind if, say, you've got an important Supreme Court case hanging in the balance.

In the lighter play of sport, man's truer nature tends to reveal itself. You can observe how he conducts himself under pressure, in the heat of competition, whether he displays anger, self-control or humor. Whether he takes the game (or himself) too seriously. Whether he's a team player or a prima donna. Whether you want to do business with him. Or whether you want him to lead your country.

Every man gets bruised from time to time. There's no dishonor in it. Where there's potential dishonor is in that instant of humiliation when we're no longer in control. In that moment, the world gets a glimpse of who we really are.

And contrary to what Kerry said that day, we all fall down.