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Richard Cohen

Needed: Straight Talk From Kerry

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page A21

NEW YORK -- John Kerry, the Democratic Party's not-so-happy warrior, is breaking with tradition this week and making at least one campaign appearance while the Republicans dominate the news and hold their nominating convention (a real cliffhanger). In a sense, I applaud this aggressiveness, because Kerry could use every day he's got left until the election. On the other hand, now would be the time to pause and wonder what has gone wrong and what can be done about it. Kerry could start by clearing his throat.

At the moment, the Democratic nominee seems to be speaking from under water, making glub, glub sounds as he tries to explain his original vote in support of the Iraq war resolution, his subsequent vote against funding the war and now his conduct in Vietnam lo these many years ago and what he said afterward. The man carries a heavy burden -- a long and complicated public record that can be mined for the occasional negative nugget. It does not help any that as a public speaker he is no public speaker.

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It just so happens that a man has appeared among us here who can show Kerry what to do. Sen. John McCain has been the toast of the town in New York this week, his birthday (68) being celebrated like the 12 nights of Christmas, only maybe a bit longer. On Sunday, though, McCain was all business when he appeared on "Face the Nation" and was asked right off the bat whether Kerry's recent dip in the polls was attributable to those wretched TV ads attacking his war record. McCain did not launch into praise of George Bush as almost any other politician would have done, but instead ripped the muggy air with candor. "I can think of no other reason," he said. Maybe you heard the thunder.

The irrepressible blurting out of the obvious, a McCain trait for many years, not only stood in marked contrast to what I had been watching before he came on -- George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani in full insincerity about the marvels of the Bush presidency -- but to politicians in general. It is a magical thing McCain does: Tell the truth, tell it simply and get on with life. The formula is so obvious, you'd think more politicians would adopt it, if only because it works -- never mind any silliness about truth being its own reward. Bluntness is, bluntly speaking, what Kerry could use in abundance.

At the moment the issue is Kerry's Vietnam service. He was first attacked for being a hot dog and a phony who did not really earn his medals. George Bush himself has now sort of put that matter to rest by conceding that Kerry is a hero -- although apparently not enough of one for Bush to denounce the ads. Now a second front has been opened. New ads attack Kerry for what he said after returning from Vietnam and becoming a leader of the antiwar movement.

This is a moment for Kerry to speak plainly, to embrace all Vietnam veterans and say that any suggestion that they were war criminals does not represent how he feels now and how he felt then -- and if he gave the opposite impression, he's sorry. If it takes an apology -- if it takes saying he was once an angry young man who saw blood spilled in a dubious cause -- then that's what he should say. Otherwise Vietnam and its immediate aftermath will stick to him as has his complicated and too-nuanced position on the Iraq war.

Kerry's inability or refusal to walk his cats back to the origin of his problems -- a wrong vote on Iraq and some incautious words on Vietnam -- has trapped him in a kind of rhetorical molasses. He's always trimming weeds that need to be yanked out by the roots.

Either by happenstance or design, I've been with John McCain for three nights in a row and have watched the magic he works on people. At a dinner one evening, someone asked the secret of his appeal. A colleague and I looked at each other in disbelief. It's his honesty, his willingness to (mostly) say what's on his mind. He just clears his throat and says what has to be said. John Kerry ought to try it. It could make him president.


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