John Kerry's Haunted Heart

  • Share
  • Read Later
A month or so ago, when John Kerry was dead, the Atlantic Monthly ran a stunning excerpt from historian Douglas Brinkley's book about Kerry's military service in Vietnam — stunning not so much for the events depicted but for the excerpts from Kerry's letters and diaries, which were as moving, candid and powerful as the best Vietnam War writing. Skeptics will say that Kerry, who seems to have had an exaggerated sense of destiny since the sandbox, was writing for posterity even then. Perhaps, but the words reveal a young lieutenant of uncommon grace and intelligence.

At one point, Kerry watched a Vietnamese scout die in a field hospital: "His head was arched back and his eyes, only half open and dazed, were searching for something. There was nothing close here for this man — his was a moment of complete loneliness ... Everywhere there was blood pouring out of him. Even the transparent, plastic splints around both legs had assumed a red tint. I felt weak. My stomach began to twist and sweat poured all over me. I sat down on the floor because I thought I was going to be sick ... It seemed absurd — a man dying alone in his own country. I wanted to cry but I thought that I couldn't let myself and so tears just welled up in my eyelids. Now I wonder why I didn't and I'm sorry."

Watching John Kerry circumnavigate the English language on the stump, I often think about the sparse clarity of his writing — and wonder why he is so much more compelling on the page than in person. Even now, after his victory in Iowa and surge in New Hampshire, the Senator manages to entangle himself regularly in grandiloquent and impenetrable rhetoric. There is a cardboard pomposity to it that drives his staff, the press corps — and a fair number of regular human beings — nuts. The people of Iowa had months to study Kerry, weed through his oratory, and finally came to the conclusion that the Senator has the knowledge in both foreign and domestic policy and the steadiness to be President. The rest of the country won't have that luxury.

Why is Kerry such a god-awful speaker? He's not aloof, really, but formal in an old-fashioned way. He also suffers from a severe 40-year John F. Kennedy hangover. He has a weakness for "ask not" rhetorical switchbacks: "Right now, most Americans are working for the economy. We need an economy that is working for Americans." This flourish can be deconstructed — working people are underpaid and don't receive sufficient benefits (health, education, pension) from the world's most powerful economy — but the language is abstract and overly fancy. It creates a distance between the candidate and the audience, as does Kerry's frequent use of "and I say to you" and "and you know it, and I know it and everyone in this country knows it" and other antique formulations. There is also a claustrophobic and slightly narcissistic quality to Kerry's speech; it's all about his leadership, his vision. John Edwards, by contrast, works overtime to demolish the distance between himself and the crowd. "People have told me all my life that I couldn't do this or that — couldn't go to college, couldn't go to law school," Edwards often tells a crowd. "You've probably been told that too." The difference between John Kerry and John Edwards on the stump is simple: Edwards, the trial lawyer, is trying to convince a jury, and Kerry seems to be trying to convince history.

Another Kerry problem: too much information too sloppily delivered. In Nashua, N.H., last week the Senator found himself wandering from a rant about prescription drugs for the elderly — and the high price of medicine for the rest of us — into an incomprehensible, if worthy, cul-de-sac about the need to reform the federal patent office. It sounded as if Kerry realized that he was straying, felt guilty about it, rushed the explanation, understood that he had rushed the explanation, lost his way, worried that he was losing the audience, raised his voice and sought solace in some variation of "and you know it, and I know it and even the children of Latvia know it."

Kerry can make sharp, tough arguments — he can even, at times, explain his vote for war in Iraq — as he did in the New Hampshire debate last week. Recently, he has taken to telling specific stories about real people (a woman with breast cancer who had to keep working to maintain her health insurance), which makes him seem less chilly. He uses statistics well — corporate profits up 46 percent, average wages up 3 cents in the Bush recovery. But Kerry's gaunt, somber aspect is more eloquent and reassuring than anything he says.

Glimmers of that sobriety can be seen in the young lieutenant writing from Vietnam, a boy suddenly shocked into an absurd maturity — friends dying, women and children slaughtered — and he records it all with prematurely ancient eyes. Edwards has known tragedy too, and Wesley Clark has seen combat — but John Kerry's haunting advantage in this race is a lifetime of old age.