If you want to see a photograph of John Kerry, you're more likely to find one on a milk carton than in your daily newspaper. After his gracious concession speech on the morning after, he disappeared. To the winner goes the spoils of victory. The loser gets media obscurity.
The senator says he's assessing the "feasibility" of another run in 2008, but nobody is paying attention. The names bandied about by the scribes and Pharisees a week after the election include Howard Dean, Evan Bayh, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson and John Edwards as "some Democrats to keep an eye on." And of course Hillary Clinton. She's in a category by herself.
With 20/20 hindsight, it's clear that John Kerry was the wrong candidate at the wrong time from the wrong place. (Massachusetts is the poisoned well of American politics.) Despite all the Bush-bashing, the negative caricatures of John Kerry as the windsurfer whose convictions depend on the way the wind blows dominated the perception of the majority of voters. For all the Bush-bashing, the caricature of the president as cowboy ("le cowboy," as the French put it) stuck to him, too. But Americans like cowboys. He was Shane, the Duke, the poke in the white hat, evoking the essence of the myth of our Western heritage.
John Kerry and his team never understood the America of the heartland. Bill Richardson recalls the time in New Mexico when he put a cowboy hat on the candidate's head and someone on Kerry's staff demanded that he take it away. Says the governor: "This is I think an example of the East Coast not connecting with the West Coast and with the rest of the country."
The current conventional wisdom is that John Kerry never forged a coherent message. But to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the man is the message. The candidate can kiss babies, munch on enchiladas, flip pancakes and we can be amused by the show, but a certain consistency of character underneath the showmanship must carry the day. The candidate must persuade us that he is comfortable with who he is. George W. persuaded us and John Kerry didn't.
John Wayne was the archetypal movie cowboy and he irritated the cultural elite in the same way George W. does. You can't fake authenticity. When someone asked the Duke how he learned to walk his distinctive walk, he stood up, laughing, and demonstrated the famous stride simply by putting one foot in front of the other. The way he walked, like the way he talked, wasn't something he thought about. It was who he was.
George W. is a lot like that, for better and for worse. The only time he looked ill at ease was in the debates, a formal occasion that didn't suit his temperament and where he was as skittish as an "overhandled" racehorse. Although John Kerry was considerably taller than the president, we only noticed when they stood next to each other on stage. At the other times, we saw George W. as standing tall.
Everyone could see how passionately the president wanted to be re-elected, but we also knew that if he lost he could enjoy life in Texas after Washington. John Kerry, by contrast, seems to have everything a man could want in the way of money, status and elegant houses, but can anyone believe he will enjoy returning to his old life in the Senate? He wasn't a distinguished senator and the Senate was merely a station on the way to somewhere else. The presidency was to be the end of the line. Now what?
Every analyst has a piece of the truth of the differences between the candidates - on moral issues, the war on terrorism, Social Security, the economy and all the rest. But ultimately we're all left with feelings, not facts, in trying to figure out what happened. Of all my liberal friends, Bush-bashers to the man (and woman), not one actually likes John Kerry. He was the grin-and-bear-it candidate: "We must do it for the Democratic Party."
Exit polls can illuminate issues, not character. If you don't like the cowboy comparison, try this one from the funny pages. Like Popeye, the president is the man who will look you in the eye and tell you: "I yam what I yam what I yam." The message to the bashers is plain: "Eat your spinach."