Kerry, Speaking Softly About the Big Stick
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page C01
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- One of the ritual dances of the modern presidential campaign takes place whenever a candidate "casually" ventures from his seat in the front of the campaign plane and visits with reporters in the back. John Kerry was eating this bit of political broccoli shortly before takeoff on a recent flight to Tampa. He stood in the aisle of the press section, placed his hands atop two seats and talked about how he liked the new World War II Memorial in Washington. After a few minutes, he walked a few rows forward and reasserted this for those who didn't hear him the first time.
One reporter mock-complained that Kerry "made news" with her competitors in the front of the press section, a charge he denied. "I gave no news, I gave no news," Kerry said, shaking his head. His word choice is revealing: News is his to "give" as he pleases, like candy. And he is committed to a fair and equal distribution of non-news:
He won't say what he bought Teresa for their ninth wedding anniversary. That's personal, he said.
His injured shoulder is healing, Kerry said. He can almost loft babies again.
Barry Goldwater loved gadgets.
Sen. Pat Leahy loves music.
Kerry fiddled with an air vent. He yawned. He rocked back and forth.
And so went Kerry's brief exercise in Zen and the Art of Newslessness. His new campaign plane was ready for takeoff. His campaign itself is in something of a calibrated holding pattern, and that was true even before Ronald Reagan's death prompted Kerry to stop campaigning through the end of this week. This hiatus is not bad given the alternative: The incumbent's turbulent flight of newsmaking with a capital N -- Iraq, high-level resignations, damning inquiries.
Kerry, meantime, concluded an 11-day tour of sober speeches on national security last week. His aim has been to project solemnity and statesmanship, a mission that continues seamlessly even with the news dominated by Reagan's death.
He was discussing the nation's vulnerability to biological and nuclear terror attacks, the need to adapt the military to unconventional threats, detailing the "architecture" of his foreign policy, increasing the role of the National Guard in homeland security.
Kerry was -- surprise -- touting his own military credentials. He was saying "strength" and "security" several times a day, using this post-primary, pre-convention window to administer a steady drip of reassurance to an electorate that, according to polls, is predisposed toward Bush on foreign policy and homeland defense.
This was Kerry's Credibility Tour. He was less concerned with winning over voters, aides say, than he was with reassuring them that he meets a threshold of wartime leadership. He has surrounded himself with sober grown-ups such as Richard Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador; Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser; and William Perry, the former secretary of defense.
In a sense, Kerry was playing to his strongest asset in the eyes of many: that he is not George W. Bush. ("I don't care if John Kerry is a sack of cement," former Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower said in a speech in Washington on Thursday. "We're going to carry him to victory.")
In recent weeks, Kerry has seemed less concerned with distinguishing himself from Bush than from Al Gore -- specifically the Gore who two weeks ago gave a screaming, arm-flailing speech in which he blistered the president, referred to Abu Ghraib as Bush's "gulag" and seemingly called for half the administration to resign.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company