What Kerry Means To Say...

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JAY L. CLENDENIN / POLARIS FOR TIME

Kerry boards his bus after an Ohio event

Never had John Kerry encountered a more target-rich environment than the week that saw the Bush White House hauled in to explain itself to both the Supreme Court and the 9/11 commission, not to mention the first anniversary of the aircraft-carrier landing that turned "mission accomplished" into a punch line. But what did the challenger find himself talking about for three days? The question of what, precisely, he tossed over a fence in front of the Capitol during an antiwar protest 33 years ago. The point of contention was whether the much decorated Vietnam veteran who still carries shrapnel in his thigh threw away medals, as he told a local Washington television station in 1971, or ribbons, which is how he subsequently described them to nearly everyone else. Political hands of both parties expressed wonderment over how it was that any politician could find himself on the defensive about his own medals for valor and sacrifice.

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But the flap was instructive about the kind of traps that the Bush campaign is adept at setting for Kerry, and the personality trait that makes Kerry walk right into them. That Bush allies would unearth and quietly slip the 1971 videotape to two news outlets tells you that the Republicans are doing what the Kerry campaign had expected them to do all along — playing hardball. But that Kerry could be ensnared in the ribbons vs. medals nontroversy tells you why so many Democrats start to get nervous whenever the Massachusetts Senator opens his mouth without a script.

Kerry has something of a gift for the toxic sound bite. "It's just weird," says a Democratic strategist. "It's simultaneously not a big deal and sort of unsettling." The decorations flap was only the latest evidence that Kerry's own words are turning out to be the Republicans' most lethal weapon. The Bush campaign has run millions of dollars of advertising based on Kerry's now infamous comment about having voted for an $87 billion appropriation for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before voting against it — a statement that makes sense only in the have-it-both-ways world of the U.S. Senate. Kerry last week repeated his righteous declaration that he hadn't run a single negative ad against Bush — just in time for the release of a University of Missouri-Columbia study finding that 32% of his spots have been attacks against the President. And asked yet again recently on Meet the Press just whom he meant when he said he has heard from world leaders that Bush has to go, Kerry lamely offered, "You can go to New York City, and you can be in a restaurant, and you can meet a foreign leader."

In fairness, there's a point lurking somewhere in each of these gaffes. Kerry's yes vote on Iraq funding was for an amendment that would have imposed fiscal discipline on the Administration by making the $87 billion contingent on Bush's rolling back some tax cuts. While Kerry's ad campaign hasn't been as positive as he says, it has not been as harsh as Bush's. Researchers found 52% of the Bush spots to be negative. And it's hardly disputable that Bush has alienated many foreign leaders.

But Kerry gives plenty of ammunition to those who say he considers no hair too fine to split and who charge that he tailors the cut of what he says to meet the tastes of the audience and the moment. Asked on Earth Day whether he owns a gas-gobbling SUV, the champion of higher fuel-efficiency standards first said no, then admitted under questioning that, yes, that was a Suburban parked at his Sun Valley, Idaho, vacation house. Next, he distanced himself from his own driveway: "The family has it. I don't have it." It was a far different story, however, when Kerry visited car-loving Detroit last February. Back then, he exulted to local reporters about how much horsepower he commands: "We have some SUVs. We have a Jeep. We have a couple of Chrysler minivans. We have a PT Cruiser up in Boston. I have an old Dodge 600 ... We also have a Chevy, a big Suburban."

Says a former aide, sighing: "He wants everybody to love him." That's something critics have noted about Kerry since he got into politics. In its newly published biography of Kerry, the Boston Globe reports that in 1984, Kerry went back and changed an answer on a questionnaire from nuclear-freeze advocates so he could boost his 94% rating and match the perfect score of his opponent. He said he had misunderstood the question.

Kerry's verbal meanderings are partly a reflection of a mind that sees complexity in almost every issue. The son of a diplomat, educated partly in boarding schools in Europe, Kerry learned to look at current affairs from multiple perspectives. Says an adviser: "It's not like he's trying to shade the truth. He overintellectualizes his explanations." Asked by TIME in a March interview whether the Iraq war would be worth the costs if no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, Kerry replied, "No, I think you can still — wait, no. You can't — that's not a fair question. You can wind up successful in transforming Iraq and changing the dynamics, and that may make it worth it, but that doesn't mean [transforming Iraq] was the cause [that provided the] legitimacy to go." Kerry may in fact be right when he argues that a successful outcome does not justify an illegitimate war, but a listener has to work hard to understand his point.

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