Kerry's fatal flaw

Posted: Apr 28, 2004 12:00 AM

 It would appear that John Kerry is running for president for the same reason that chickens cross to the other side of the street: just to get there. Can anyone, including Mr. Kerry, state in one sentence why he wants to be president? Usually, presidential aspirants at least fake some intense sense of mission.

 Dwight Eisenhower was going to end the Korean War. Kennedy was going to get the country moving again. Nixon was going to bring the country together and end the Vietnam War. Jimmy Carter was going to return honesty to the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan was going to defeat communism and cut taxes. George H.W. Bush was going to make a kinder, gentler country (whatever that meant) and save the Pledge of Allegiance from the ACLU. Bill Clinton was going to focus on the economy like a laser and end welfare as we know it. George W. Bush in 2000 was going to return decency to the Oval Office and have a more humble foreign policy (one out of two isn't bad). Even that old scalawag, the 29th president, Warren Gamaliel Harding, won a historic victory on the promise of a return to normalcy. (A promise he kept, if one considers corruption and philandering normal.)

 Losers, also, usually have a campaign theme. George McGovern wanted to end the war in Vietnam (a perennial favorite). Walter Mondale wanted to raise taxes (Yes, it was only 20 years ago that liberal tax raisers openly and honestly ran on their convictions.) Al Gore was going to be for the people and against the powerful. (Bad call; the meek may inherit the Earth, but they rarely win elections. But at least Mr. Gore had a theme.)

 Certainly, Howard Dean had a mission: End the war in Iraq, and crush Washington politicians like they were cockroaches. He would have been the sentimental favorite on the second point, and might yet have won on the first one.

 Quickly, think of the phrase that catches John Kerry's theme. ... I can't either. Only two phrases come to mind at all: Bring It On, and Work With Our Allies in Europe and the U.N. Who amongst us will put down our beers (or cognacs) and remote controls on Nov. 2 to go to the polls and vote for either of those phrases?

 The ancient Greeks believed that a person's personality defined one's destiny. John Kerry would seem to be making that case. While his opponents and some of his Senate colleagues consider him an opportunist, a true opportunist would ruthlessly say and do whatever is necessary to win. If he is an opportunist, he would have to be considered a singularly inept one. And John Kerry does not strike me as inept.

 His friends say he is just instinctively nuanced in his thinking. That may be closer to the mark. According to Webster's Dictionary, the etymology of nuance is from the middle French (Hmm!) word nuer: to make shades of color; from nue: clouds, akin to the Greek; nythos: dark. That would seem to be Mr. Kerry's problem. He thinks and talks in shades that create clouds and darkness around him. No one knows what he is saying, and thus what he is thinking. This makes things rather awkward for an American politician.

 The rhetoric of American politics is binary, not gradational: Give me liberty or give me death; our nation cannot exist half slave and half free; are you pro life or pro choice; are you for or against capital punishment; pro or anti-war; for or against tax cuts.

 Some cultures admire subtlety of thought and expression in their politicians. No, not just the French. The Chinese, the Hindus, the old Persian culture all admire such traits in their leaders. But the Anglo-Saxon cultures, and preeminently we Americans, admire decisiveness and clarity. We instinctively suspect deceit or indecision where we hear subtlety. We are often right to do so.

 Seeing seven sides to an issue is useful in the study of metaphysics. But men of action -- and world events always have required American presidents to be men of action -- must be capable of decisive action. A candidate for president who is incapable of clearly expressing a single principle or goal he will fight for is inevitably going to be an ineffective candidate. And if he can't even decide what to say with clarity, he is unlikely to be able to act as president under the crushing pressure of world events.

 John Kerry's personality drives him to hedge -- a fatal instinct when running against a decisive Bush.