By Mark Halperin and John F. Harris
Tuesday, October 3, 2006 6:08 PM
The following is from "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008," by John F. Harris and Mark Halperin. The book is being published this month by Random House.
The collection of winners on that Little Rock stage was the most striking image from the Clinton Library opening. But also in attendance, sitting in the crowd, was a pair of distinguished losers.
Al Gore and John Kerry had never been close, despite the many years they served together in Washington. Now they shared a special bond. Both had been beaten by a man they believed to be less articulate, less capable, less experienced, less virtuous, less worthy, and less intelligent than they. Both had been preparing for the presidency since they were young men, spurred not just by ambition, but by colleagues, friends, and mentors who for a generation had been anticipating their eventual candidacies. Gore and Kerry long had stood out as quintessential strivers, even among fellow senators. Now they looked up through the rain at a man whom almost no one had regarded as presidential material until a couple of years before he got the job. Neither Gore nor Kerry seemed to grasp the reasons for what both considered a cruel hoax of history.
Gore had had four years to contemplate his loss, but for Kerry, the sting of defeat was still fresh that morning. An instinctually competitive man, he had served notice immediately after Election Day that he was eager to try again for the presidency in 2008. To his face, Kerry got handshakes, praise for a race well run, and condolences that the better man had not won. Behind his back, in Little Rock hotel bars filled with visiting Democrats, the notion of Kerry running again for president was greeted with derision and mockery, even by people who two weeks earlier had been on his payroll.
If this were a book about all the reasons John Kerry lost the 2004 election, it would be too heavy to hold. John Kerry was beaten by John Kerry, who never overcame the limitations of his diffident personality. He was beaten by George W. Bush, who was by far the savvier politician. Deep thinkers might say Kerry was beaten by history, since Democrats for nearly forty years had been at a stark disadvantage when national security was the dominant issue in voters' minds. Here is another nominee for who beat John Forbes Kerry: Matthew Drudge.
If you are reading this book, you probably know who Matt Drudge is. It is a guarantee that most of the reporters, editors, producers, and talk show bookers who serve up the daily national buffet of news recently have checked out his eponymous website, and that www.drudgereport.com is bookmarked on their computers. That is one reason Drudge is the single most influential purveyor of information about American politics.
Drudge, with his droll Dickensian name, was not the only media or political agent whose actions led to John Kerry's defeat. But his role placed him at the center of the game -- a New Media World Order in which Drudge was the most potent player in the process and a personification of the dynamics that did Kerry in. Drudge and his ilk made Kerry toxic -- and unelectable.
Toxicity is the new defining trait of modern American politics. The toxins themselves are not new. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton initially clashed like gentlemen (albeit venomously) over the limits of federal power and the future of the economy, but when news of Hamilton's saucy mistress Maria Reynolds surfaced, thanks to nonpartisan busybody James Callender, Jefferson was content to let the accusatory pamphlets fly.
Anger, prurience, invective, conspiracy theory -- all are native flowers on the American landscape. What is new is the greenhouse in which these blossoms are cultivated and sold. This greenhouse was built on two beams. The first was the disintegration of editorial filters in the Old Media, which in an earlier age prevented the most salacious tales and bitter accusations (though certainly not all) from entering the public arena. The New Media -- talk radio, cable television, Internet websites -- for the most part never had these editorial filters. Many of its leading voices, Drudge among them, are openly contemptuous of the very idea. The Old Media, faced with filter-free competition, responded by loosening or discarding its own.
This in turn helped promote, and was promoted by, the second beam, the erosion of basic habits of decorum and self-restraint, in politics and media alike. In an earlier generation, these habits meant that people more often refrained from fully expressing how much they loathed one another. In the current generation, self-restraint is commonly regarded as a weakness and rarely is rewarded economically or politically. The result is that the extreme and eccentric voices who always populated the margins of politics now reside, with money and fame as the rewards, at the center. Michael Moore, please say hello to Ann Coulter. The collapse of filters and the collapse of civility together have changed the purpose of politics. The goal now is not simply to win, but to persuade voters (and donors and viewers and readers) that an opponent lacks the character and credibility even to deserve a place in the contest. That is Freak Show politics.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were sitting on the stage in Little Rock because they learned to navigate the Freak Show -- and even to use it to their advantage. Al Gore and John Kerry were sitting in the audience because they did not. Were it not for the Freak Show, Kerry's title today likely would be President of the United States. Instead Kerry's title is Case Study.
Kerry's 2004 presidential bid began in earnest, though unofficially, days after the 2002 midterm congressional elections. These had been a disaster for Democrats. Bush, invoking his party's credentials on national security, and revving up a turnout machine run from the White House by Karl Rove, led the Republicans to House and Senate gains. But the Massachusetts senator believed Bush might yet be vulnerable in his own reelection. What was needed was a way to make plain to voters what seemed painfully obvious to Kerry: Bush was an incompetent president. Kerry hired a campaign manager, veteran Capitol Hill operative Jim Jordan, who set out with consultant Bob Shrum and a wide circle of Kerry advisers to take inventory of the Democrat's strengths and vulnerabilities. They might have been wise to start with his hair.
By conventional measures, the thick mane atop Kerry's lean, craggy face should have registered in the strengths column. His hair had grayed but not receded by a single follicle over his six decades. Kerry was a bit vain about his locks, and he gave them careful attention. As it happened, folks at the Republican National Committee had been paying attention, too. Sometime earlier, a tasty nugget of news raced around RNC headquarters. Would you believe that Kerry gets his hair cut at the Washington salon of Cristophe? Yes, exactly, that Cristophe -- the same guy who did Hillary Clinton's hair. Cristophe was also the stylist who was trimming Bill Clinton that time in 1993 when Air Force One sat on the tarmac in Los Angeles for two hours while the whole world cooled its heels (never mind that reports about delayed air traffic turned out to be false).
No one at the RNC was surprised by the Cristophe news. Barbara Comstock, the party's savvy research director, had been in television green rooms with Kerry and witnessed him fussing over himself before going on air, utterly oblivious to anyone or anything around him. Jim Dyke, the party's communications director, sensed the Cristophe information would come in handy, and tucked it away for the right occasion.
On Sunday, December 2, Kerry publicly announced his candidacy to Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press. Ordinarily, this was the kind of news that would echo positively through the media for the rest of the week. With a well-timed placement, however, Dyke and his colleague Tim Griffin made sure that something else was waiting for Kerry, first thing Monday morning.
"**Exclusive**" promised the Drudge Report. "Cash and Coif!" read his headline, using the alliteration Drudge favors. "Democrat all-star John Kerry of Massachusetts is positioning himself as a populist politician while he takes the first step for a White House run. . . . But the self-described 'Man of the People' pays $150 to get his hair styled and shampooed -- the cost of feeding a family of three for two weeks!"
Like many Drudge Report exclusives, this one implied rigorous reporting, including direct quotations from well-positioned sources to whom the author supposedly talked on a not-for-attribution basis. In this case, it was a "stylist source," who allegedly told him: "When it comes to his hair, Mr. Kerry is very, very particular. The coloring and the highlighting, the layering. But the results are fabulous." Drudge also claimed he had spoken to a "green room insider" at Fox News's Washington bureau: "It's always a fight to get mirror time. He obsessively primps and poses before he goes on the air." Drudge items often quote from his roster of breathless White House insiders, top media "suits," or highly placed campaign aides, all furtively but authoritatively telling Matt Drudge the way it is. Does Drudge really get on the phone and converse with such people? Some in the Old Media speculate that he takes his tips from a single source by phone or e-mail, then creates hyperventilated quotes based on (entirely plausible) speculation about what someone somewhere probably is saying. The assumption that Drudge is casually embroidering his stories -- what would be career-ending fraud for an Old Media journalist or author -- has not caused reporters to remove Drudge from their daily reading. Whatever. It's just Drudge. And maybe he's got something there. As Jim Dyke knew, any superiority reporters and editors feel toward Drudge does not inhibit them from pouncing on his best items.
Within hours, the Cristophe story was everywhere. Rush Limbaugh chortled over it for an hour on his radio show. Later in the day, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan gave the website credit ("We learn from Drudge this morning . . .") on his MSNBC cable show. Kerry's team knew they had a genuine problem on their hands when they saw the next day's newspapers filled with accounts of "Senator Kerry's Bad Hair Day," as one newspaper put it. A Kerry spokeswoman noted indignantly that Drudge had erred: The senator did not pay $150 for his haircut, only $75 -- Cristophe charges less for men. This gave Drudge a new hook. Why, he crowed, was the would-be president patronizing an establishment that practices sexism? Inevitably, the whole fuss caught the attention of Jay Leno. By the end of the week he was joking on The Tonight Show that the "winds were so strong yesterday" in Massachusetts that "John Kerry's hair actually moved." Acknowledging that the line was a little lame, Leno explained, "You see, he's running for president -- I wanted to get the first joke in."
Leno's tone suggested the ruckus over Kerry's hair was all in good fun. And a sensible person might have paused to wonder how a candidate's hair possibly could have any impact on a presidential race in an era of war, terrorism, and looming global calamity. But the Cristophe story was a serious portent of a much larger problem for Kerry, with which he would live almost daily for the next two years.
Presidential campaigns are about storytelling. A winning presidential campaign presents the candidate's life story to voters. A losing campaign allows someone else to frame that story. In 1992, Bill Clinton's race vividly exemplified the phenomenon of competing narratives. There was plenty in Clinton's life to support his self-description as "The Man from Hope": an exceptional young fellow who grew up with few advantages but through brains and cheerful hard work had made a difference for his struggling Southern state. There was also plenty in that life to justify his opponents' description of "Slick Willie": a double-talking, temporizing, womanizing opportunist, whose private life and public record raised troubling questions about how he might behave in the White House.
In the end, more voters believed Clinton's version of his story. Kerry's personal life was not nearly as complicated as Clinton's, but his political challenge was bigger. Clinton had a detailed agenda, which he cared about and helped create. This is not true of all presidential candidates. Even rarer, Clinton had been the dominant voice in crafting that agenda. The most under-appreciated assets in presidential politics are a coherent rationale and the ability to defend that rationale, not just with words but with convictions that flow from life experience. Clinton had these in abundance, as did George W. Bush. Kerry understood the issues, but had not harnessed them to a greater vision. He had not compiled an impressive record of legislative achievements in the Senate. Nor had he been an influential or consistent voice in the conversation over the direction of the Democratic Party, a debate that overlapped precisely with his Senate career. In the public mind, he stood for no particular ideas beyond a mild and conventional brand of liberalism. His advisers believed that Kerry's primary claim on the presidency was his personal biography. In this, they were indulging an obsessive desire of the political world, and reporters most of all, for a familiar plot line, in which a heroic life climaxes in a rendezvous with history at the White House. In the past generation, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, John McCain, Bill Bradley, and John Glenn all have been lead characters in such dramas. None (so far) has ever gone to the White House except as a visitor.
A candidate who runs principally on his or her biography is acutely vulnerable to the accusation that this biography is embellished. Such a candidate, in other words, is a fat target for the Freak Show. One signature of Freak Show politics is a fixation on personality and alleged hypocrisy. Another is the ease with which shrewd political operatives can manipulate the Freak Show's attention to hijack the public image of an opponent.
Kerry and his political team knew exactly the story they would impart to voters. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger's famous line, the story had the added advantage of being largely true. It began with a bright, earnest young man whose interest in politics was sparked in the early 1960s by John F. Kennedy, and whose idealism led him to don a Navy uniform and fight heroically in Vietnam. Coming home, and recognizing that the war had become a terrible national tragedy, he stood on principle to oppose that war, and in so doing revealed his patriotism as valiantly as when he was fighting. Devotion to public service carried him to the United States Senate. The 2004 presidential campaign would bring this forty-five-year journey full circle, as the legacy of one JFK in the White House would be honored by a new JFK in the White House -- a nearly mystical convergence of history. It was a powerful enough narrative to help make Kerry the Democrats' consensus front-runner for the presidential nomination from late 2002 through the spring of 2003.
But there was another way to tell the story. It was of a man who had been nakedly ambitious since his youth and had been willing to trim his sails to suit the moment ever since. The decision to go to Vietnam had been an obvious stepping-stone to politics. His tales of combat valor had been deliberately inflated, perhaps even manufactured. Sensing an opportunity to preen for the cameras in the antiwar moment, Kerry made a big show of discarding his war medals, but secretly hung on to a prized few. He affected a Kennedyesque accent and went before a Senate committee and prattled on fallaciously about alleged war crimes by his fellow servicemen. Elected to the Senate, Kerry found a natural home for himself as a vain and, thanks to two advantageous marriages, wealthy politician, with his finger in the wind and his hair under a blow-dryer.
Would the real John Kerry please stand up? Of course, both versions of his life had truth to them. Whenever Kerry's self-image tried to stand up, it was knocked over by a Freak Show interpretation. Every positive element of Kerry's existence was neutralized or turned into a weakness. Every vulnerability was maximized. By the end, this proud man was lying on the bloodied ice like a freshly clubbed harp seal.
One reason political operatives such as Jim Dyke value Freak Show politics is that it is never entirely clear who is swinging the club. From the average voter's vantage point, the Cristophe item just seemed to materialize. But the purpose and timing of Freak Show attacks are almost never coincidental, and they always landed at inopportune moments for Kerry.
A month after the Cristophe exposure, Kerry took his first trip as a candidate to Iowa. The Republican National Committee researchers again had done their jobs well. They had found a Boston Globe story from 1996 in which Kerry said: "I hate going to places like . . . Dubuque to raise large sums of money. But I have to. I hate it. I detest it." Kerry no doubt did not even remember saying such a thing, or the context in which he said it, but others made it their business to unearth these kinds of statements. Drudge was again the beneficiary of the RNC research. He reported this "breaking news" during an appearance on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes. The date was January 16, 2003. By design, this was only two days before Kerry was scheduled to make an appearance in Dubuque. Hannity closed his interview by telling Drudge: "It's great for the country that you are out there. And keep giving the elites a tough time." On the Drudge Report, the dispatch quoted an outraged "Dubuque resident Marsha Vittal" who demanded to know where Kerry gets off by claiming he "wants to be my president, but he detests, detests coming to where I've chosen to live my life to ask for my support."
Curiously, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald could not find anyone named Marsha Vittal listed in local phone books, Internet directories, or county voting records. By this point, though, it did not matter whether she existed or not. The Drudge item was dominating advance coverage of Kerry's visit in both the Iowa and the national media. Kerry and his aides were left to brainstorm over how to put the best face on their circumstances. As he stood up before Dubuque Democrats, Kerry said, "I'm thrilled to be here, contrary to all . . ." The next phrase was drowned out as the crowd erupted in laughter.
The Drudge Report may be the leading platform for Freak Show politics, but it is not the only one. Under the right circumstances, even the New York Times can play a role. In April 2003, a Times story by chief political writer Adam Nagourney and White House reporter Dick Stevenson quoted an unnamed Bush adviser commenting on Kerry's appearance. "He looks French," the adviser cracked. Whether a planned insult or a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, it was one of the most ingenious remarks of the entire campaign. It brilliantly combined two Freak Show themes that were central to the Bush case against Kerry. One was that he was an exotic, even feminine, character. The other was that he was a virtual quisling, since the French were the most vocal foreign opponents of Bush's war in Iraq. Nagourney and Stevenson played the dig deep in their story, but it hardly went unnoticed. Teresa Heinz Kerry, the candidate's wife, perhaps did not help her husband's cause the next day when she responded with a shot of her own at White House advisers: "They probably do not even speak French." The Times story showed that one of the Trade Secrets of politics is truer than ever in the new environment: Little things can become big things.
The "looks French" line was picked up on Rush Limbaugh's show. Ann Coulter devoted a column to it. House Republican leader Tom DeLay delighted audiences with his new opening line: "Good afternoon. Or, as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour!' "
As 2003 stretched on, Kerry faded as a laugh line. But only because his presidential ambitions were similarly fading, under the weight of his own lassitude and disorganization, and in the face of the fleeting rise of Howard Dean. Jim Jordan was sent packing by Kerry; some other staff, startled by the candidate's lack of loyalty and the discord he tolerated on his own team, chose to leave with Jordan. Yet one of Kerry's virtues as a politician had always been an ability to rise to the occasion. In January of 2004, he roared past erstwhile front-runner Dean and a field of others to win the Iowa caucuses, and then the New Hampshire primary. For a flickering moment, people seemed to be viewing Kerry in a new, more favorable light.
The golden light quickly turned harsh again. In mid-January, there had been passing references in the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Herald, and elsewhere to speculation that Kerry was freshening his look through injections of Botox. But this speculation did not ignite until it was highlighted on the Drudge Report on January 28: "New and Improved Kerry Takes New Hampshire." There were before-and-after photographs with analysis of the respective furrows. Kerry and his spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, both denied that he had received Botox injections. Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee once described a certain type of especially delicious story: "Too good to check!" Kerry's alleged Botox treatments fell in this category. Whether true or not, it fit so neatly into the existing image of Kerry as a popinjay that the story scurried through the news.
CNBC, MSNBC, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer -- all of them, and lots of others, did Botox stories. Dean, then fighting vainly for a comeback, made a public gibe. The former Vermont governor, who had hardly concealed his dislike for Kerry, laughed aloud in conversations with reporters about the Botox rumor. You know it's true, he roared, throwing his head back in mirth. By March, even Vice President Dick Cheney was joining in the fun. At the Gridiron Dinner, an annual gathering of the Washington Establishment, he joked that the administration had dispatched weapons inspectors to "search for the bio-warfare agents we believe are hidden in Senator Kerry's forehead."
Another Drudge-driven story was not such a laughing matter. On February 12, the Drudge Report posted a "World Exclusive" stating various news outlets were investigating suspicions that Kerry had had an affair with a young woman, and that she had "fled the country, reportedly at the prodding of Kerry." Drudge wrote, accurately, that rival candidate Wes Clark had earlier told reporters, in an off-the-record session, that he believed Kerry's campaign would "implode over an intern issue." (Trade Secret for candidates: Make sure journalists you are speaking with have the same understanding of "off the record" as you do.)
In an earlier era -- after Gary Hart but before Monica Lewinsky -- rumors about a Kerry affair would have prompted editors and producers to hold lengthy, brooding meetings about what to do with the information. These discussions would drag on inconclusively for weeks or months. Reporters would be dispatched to investigate discreetly, and perhaps confront the campaign with the suspicions, but perhaps no story would run, even if the rumor proved true. This essentially took place in 1996 at the Washington Post, where editors debated how to handle the account of Bob Dole's affair in the 1960s, before finally tucking it in a story buried inside the paper.
Kerry's rumored dalliance, as with all such stories in the Internet Age, unfolded in real time. It soon was known to every American with a modem and a discernible interest in politics. On cue, Limbaugh devoted the first hour of his show to the story. Kerry, meanwhile, kept a previous appointment on the Don Imus radio program and, when pressed, said only, "There is nothing more to report." Later in the day he was more emphatic: "It's untrue, period." The denial was widely reported, earning a few lines from ABC's Peter Jennings on that evening's World News Tonight. From Africa, the woman in question, journalist Alexandra Polier, also issued a denial. Polier later traced the story to its apparent source: a former high school acquaintance who was aware that Kerry and Polier had once shared dinner after meeting at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and had wrongly assumed a romance. Polier theorized that the gossiping friend told her boss, who happened to be Republican lobbyist Bill Jarrell. He allegedly gabbed to others, and a rumor was born.
After the denials, the affair story quickly faded, if only because there was no oxygen, in the form of new details, to feed it. The news organizations Drudge claimed were working on the story never published a word about the alleged facts of the accusation, only about Kerry's denials. But at least some damage had been done to Kerry's image, set off by whoever gave the initial tip to Drudge.
By March, with the nomination in hand but many scars to show for it, Kerry felt he had earned a vacation. The candidate and his wife decamped for a skiing holiday in Idaho. Drudge was still hovering: "Spring Break: Kerry Retreats to His Sun Valley Mansion for 5-Day Luxury Unwind." As Republicans delighted in emphasizing, the Kerrys between them owned five properties. Drudge highlighted the fruits of some excellent Republican research on Kerry's Idaho home, including reference to the size, value, and taxes on the "compound," and the detail that the "mansion's 'Great Room' is a 500 year old barn" imported from England and reconstructed on site. Several newspapers began reporting on the other lavish Kerry-Heinz homes as well.
If retreating to Sun Valley was a dubious choice, it was aggravated in the coming days. The athletic candidate was snowboarding when he collided with a Secret Service agent detailed to him and took a spill on the snow. A reporter and cameraman were there for the encounter. "I don't fall down," Kerry snapped defensively, when the reporter asked him what happened, and he called the agent a "son of a bitch."
Kerry had been in the Senate for twenty years and in public life for more than thirty, but he appeared not to appreciate the reality of a presidential candidate's life. While the New York Times put the snowboarding morsel far down in its story about how the weary candidate needed a rest, Drudge trumpeted it on his site, and added, based on his own quasi-reporting, that Kerry and the agent had clashed before. The Boston Globe picked up the baton and noted, "Republican operatives even circulated to reporters and party members news of Kerry's jab at his Secret Service escort," and quoted one GOP strategist as pronouncing the incident "perfect material showing that Kerry will say anything, and can't control what he says." Republican officeholders fanned the falmes. Weeks later, Republican congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia went to the House floor to give a speech about Kerry's five residences, listing the locations and prices of them all. "I will ask you, Mr. Speaker, how many guys do you know over 60 years old who know how to snowboard?" Kingston said. "I guess he bought five ski resorts to learn how. He wanted to flaunt it a little bit. But, to me, if you have a guy that age and he knows how to snowboard, he has not only too much money, but he has too much time on his hands as well."
As Kingston's remarks demonstrated, there were so many cartoon image themes available in the Republican toy chest that sometimes it was difficult for Kerry's opposition to choose which characteristic to mock. In the GOP conception, Kerry alternatively wore sandals (hippie), French loafers (mon dieu!), or flip-flops (enough said). And a negative Kerry theme, once floated, never really evaporated.
Eleven months after the New York Times got the Gallic ball rolling, a new round of the Jacques-ification of Kerry started up. In a March 15, 2004, story with a Paris dateline, the conservative-leaning New York Sun wrote that "the French are going wild for John Kerry." The line Drudge picked up was from the director of the French Center on the United States, Guillaume Parmentier, who described Kerry as having "a certain elegance." A few days later, an Associated Press story quoted Kerry's French cousin, Brice Lalonde, the mayor of St.-Briac-sur-Mer, the town where Kerry spent his boyhood summers, saying helpful things such as "John Kerry is incredibly American. He has absolutely nothing French about him."
Right around the same time, Kerry played into his opponents' hands by boasting of support he claimed to have from unnamed foreign leaders with whom he had met in New York (presumably some French among them). The Republican Party produced a video entitled John Kerry: International Man of Mystery. It was put on the Internet with the goal of earning free television news coverage, which it did, with its irresistible homage to the popular Austin Powers movies. By now, some Americans may have been convinced, Monsieur Lalonde's assessment notwithstanding, that there actually did seem something French about John Kerry.
Republicans also were quick to take advantage of Kerry's more blatant errors, most significantly when he declared at a West Virginia town meeting that he "was for" funding of the Iraq war "before he was against it," and when he decided to go windsurfing within camera view while vacationing on Nantucket, the graceful Massachusetts island where he and his wife owned a sumptuous multimillion-dollar oceanfront cottage. These two episodes, one about a serious matter and the other trivial, were cited by Bush aides as turning points in the election.
Kerry's opponents also leapt on his embrace of some Hollywood liberals who performed distinctly blue sets at a Radio City Music Hall fund-raiser he attended. President Bush and his campaign made Kerry pay over and over again for praising coarse-tongued entertainers as the "heart and soul of America" (a phrase highlighted on Drudge before it hit the newspapers and network TV). The line encroached on coverage of the selection of John Edwards as his running mate, which had occurred three days before.
The big controversies coupled with the petty images (John Kerry ordering a Philly cheesesteak with -- take a deep breath -- Swiss cheese; Teresa Heinz's barking at a conservative reporter to "shove it" on the eve of the Democratic convention; Kerry mispronouncing the name of the Green Bay Packers' fabled Lambeau Field) added up.
The stories about Kerry's vacation habits, his houses, his ties to Europe, his complexion, his hair, and all the rest had been deliberately promoted in order to exploit what Republicans long recognized as the candidate's greatest vulnerability: that he lived a life beyond the experience or even imagination of most of the people he hoped to lead.
The piece de résistance of the Freak Show in the 2004 campaign was taking Kerry's greatest asset, his military record in Vietnam, and transforming it into a liability.
In the winter of 2004, this thirty-five-year-old period in Kerry's life was resurrected, as Dean faded and Kerry improved his campaign trail performance. The final lift came when former Navy colleagues -- the "Band of Brothers," as they became known -- showed up in Iowa to vouch for the candidate. A flailing campaign was revived. The political logic seemed unassailable to Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire: There is no way a candidate with Purple Hearts on his chest and shrapnel in his leg can be portrayed as weak. The old Republican strategy of painting Democrats as unreliable on national security could not possibly work against this Democrat. Within days of the New Hampshire triumph, however, there were signs that such a strategy might indeed be effective.
Once more, the Drudge Report served as a leading indicator of the potential potency of an anti-Kerry scheme. On February 11, Drudge's opposition-research friendships were again in evidence. Someone alerted him to a 1970 Harvard Crimson article, which he rendered into the headline "Radical Kerry Revealed. Old Harvard Interview Unearthed." The story was interesting and relevant, too, as a historical document illuminating the thinking of the candidate as a young man. "I'm an internationalist,'' Kerry said then. "I'd like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations.'' He also said he wanted to "almost eliminate CIA activity." A few days later in the New York Times, Newt Gingrich announced that Republicans were not going to allow Kerry to go through the campaign portraying himself as a war hero. The reality, Gingrich said, was that he was a "Jane Fonda anti-war liberal."
In April, several Republican members of Congress marched to the House floor to deliver speeches about Kerry. The occasion was the thirty-third anniversary of his 1971 antiwar testimony to a Senate committee, when Kerry had alleged, among other things, that war crimes by U.S. servicemen were commonplace in the Vietnam theater. The congressmen, themselves Vietnam veterans, assailed Kerry for the "slander." One of them, Sam Johnson of Texas, showily entered Kerry's 1971 testimony into that day's Congressional Record.
In any era, the complexities and puzzles about Kerry's life in Vietnam and his subsequent return as a prominent antiwar leader would have been a subject of widespread attention in the Old Media. It was only in the context of the Freak Show, however, that this convoluted tale was forged into a powerful weapon by Kerry's opponents.
As the story of Kerry's Vietnam-era history played out, the Bush campaign and the White House made it a point to avoid addressing the allegations directly. The strategy was clear: Rhetorically honor Kerry's war service, selectively question his protest activity, repeatedly savage his "votes and quotes" on national security over the years, and make sure the Old and New Media received the results of their top-notch opposition research in a well-timed manner.
Most of this was on display during two critical days in late April -- Sunday the 25th and Monday the 26th. First, Bush's close confidante Karen Hughes appeared on CNN and was asked by Wolf Blitzer if too much was being made of Kerry's past. Hughes said she wanted to divide her answer into two parts, the first of which was a splendid critique (and denunciation) of the Freak Show's basic dynamics as she experienced them in Bush's 2000 campaign:
[D]uring our own campaign, there was all kinds of gossip and innuendoes and rumors, and many of them were reported, and they were put on the Internet, and then the mainstream media thinks they have to pick them up. And I think that's very troubling to people. It's almost as if . . . a candidate has to disprove a negative, rather than someone has to come forward and make a charge against the candidate. And I worry that does prevent good people from entering the democratic process.
Hughes then went on to say that she was "very troubled" by Kerry's charges of atrocities committed by Americans, although she acknowledged that Kerry had retreated somewhat from his statements of the 1970s.
She also said that she was "very troubled by the fact that he participated in the ceremony where veterans threw their medals away, and he only pretended to throw his. Now, I can understand if out of conscience you take a principled stand and you would decide that you . . . were so opposed to this that you would actually throw your medals. But to pretend to do so, I think that's very revealing."
It was one of the first (and last) times that a Bush campaign adviser directly raised questions about Kerry's Vietnam-era conduct. Kerry spokesman Phil Singer told CNN that Hughes's remarks "confirmed her membership in the right-wing smear machine . . . with her misleading attacks."
Whatever impact Hughes's words by themselves would have had was overtaken a few hours later when Matt Drudge posted the following dispatch:
XXXXX DRUDGE REPORT XXXXX SUN APRIL 25, 2004 16:52:38 ET XXXXX
1971 VIDEO: KERRY ADMITS THROWING OWN MEDALS; CONTRADICTS CURRENT CLAIMS
In an interview published Friday in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, Dem presidential hopeful John Kerry claimed he "never ever implied" that he threw his own medals during a Hill protest in 1971 to appear as an antiwar hero.
But a new shock video shows John Kerry -- in his own voice -- saying he did!
ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA is set to rock the political world Monday morning with an airing of Kerry's specific 1971 boast, sources tell the DRUDGE REPORT.
The video was made by a local news station in 1971.
It directly contradicts Kerry's own website headline: "RIGHTWING FICTION: John Kerry threw away his medals during a Vietnam war protest."
Kerry's campaign refused comment Sunday afternoon, citing a policy not to respond to the DRUDGE REPORT.
Developing . . .
How did Drudge know what would be on Good Morning America the following morning? And how was it that the New York Times, also that Monday, would have a story based on the same 1971 video? (CNN's Candy Crowley, a believer in the divine, reported that the New York Times and ABC "found" the tape. But the Washington Post stated that "copies of the tape were provided to [the] two news organizations by the Republican National Committee, according to several media staff members familiar with the situation.")
In the fourth paragraph of its Monday story, the Times antiseptically noted that it "obtained a videotape of the interview late last week." The only indication of where the tape might have come from was in the comment "Republicans, nervous about questions regarding President Bush's Air National Guard service, have raised the issue to revive accusations by some veterans that the discarding of medals dishonored those who served and died in the war. At the same time, the Republicans have said that Mr. Kerry's explanation of what happened at the ceremony is an example of his proclivity to fall on both sides of every issue."
As for the Good Morning America airing of the tape, the stakes were raised by Hughes's remarks and the anticipation fostered among the Chattering Class by Drudge's hype. The stakes were raised even higher when Kerry agreed to appear live to proffer a response. The interview with ABC News's Charles Gibson was contentious, and after the segment ended, a heated Kerry, still wearing his microphone, bellowed, "God, they're doing the work of the Republican National Committee."
Kerry's aides posited that there was a coordinated effort by Hughes and the RNC, whose communications director, Jim Dyke, told the Washington Post, "It is interesting that John Kerry, confronted with his own words, blamed the RNC. Where the tape came from, the place to start would be the National Archives."
There are several Trade Secrets of the Freak Show represented by this episode. First, getting Drudge to build suspense for an exclusive is very helpful. Second, if you have a vintage video of the opposing candidate saying something controversial, exercise the patience to hold it until the candidate's contemporary words contradict the video. Third, if your opposition research not only forces your opponent to lose control of his public image but also makes him lose his temper on network television, give yourself bonus points.
For days, talk radio, cable TV, and the blogs were consumed with the tape, Kerry's emotional response, and the question of his veracity. Politics has always been an unpredictable business -- more so, without question, in the Age of the Freak Show. And yet this strategy worked as if plotted play by play on a locker room chalkboard. By taking advantage of the new media environment, Kerry's foes painted him as an angry, unpatriotic liar. And the effective efforts to damage Kerry using his Vietnam-era past barely had begun.
In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth started out on the margins of the presidential race. In an era of Old Media domination, they might have stayed there. When the group's founders held a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on May 4, there was nothing in the next day's Washington Post, and the episode got scant attention elsewhere. A conservative website, FreeRepublic.com, however, covered the news conference and listed the fax numbers of Establishment news organizations, urging readers to send missives demanding to know why they were "blacking out" the event. A day later, the Post and New York Times carried short stories inside the paper. The Post report included the Kerry campaign's response that the Swift Boat Veterans was a "politically motivated organization with close ties to the Bush administration."
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was organized by Vietnam veterans who profoundly resented Kerry's role in the antiwar movement. Some of the men personally had served with Kerry in Vietnam. The group was funded and promoted by prominent Republicans, several of whom had ties to both President Bush and Karl Rove, though no evidence of a coordinated effort ever emerged.
As it happened, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth need not have worried about the amount of coverage they would receive, in either the New Media or the Old. And the spasm of publicity would come at the worst possible time for Kerry. On July 28, one day before Kerry formally accepted the Democratic nomination at the party's national convention in Boston, Drudge touted the imminent release of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. On the morning of Drudge's report, the book was ranked at #1,318 on Amazon.com. The next day it had jumped to #2, and within a couple of days it hit #1. The book, published by the conservative Regnery Publishing, alleged that key elements of Kerry's account of his Vietnam service were false. Most dramatically, it claimed that Kerry's Bronze Star for heroic service, earned on March 13, 1969, was based on fraud. The group also questioned other aspects of Kerry's versions of his tour of duty and his involvement with the antiwar movement.
Beyond the book, the Swift Boaters started with relatively modest purchases of television advertising time. But their sophisticated political advisers knew that cable TV, talk radio, and, eventually, the Old Media would pick up on the ads themselves as controversial content, and give them the equivalent of millions of dollars in free coverage. This, of course, promoted their message and drove up awareness of their cause, traffic to their website, and donations to their coffers. In the end, the group was able to purchase additional millions' worth of television ads. Democratic polling showed widespread awareness of the group's message, even in places where the advertisements never aired. The group's work also lit up the blogosphere and talk radio for weeks, giving the Old Media another hook in covering the coverage of the story.
The Swift Boaters pointed out authentic flaws and contradictions in some of Kerry's assertions about his war service and protest activity. But their most sensational claims were either unsupported by evidence or contradicted by independent journalistic inquiries. This nevertheless did nothing to diminish the group's significance in the 2004 campaign: It inflicted crippling damage on Kerry. Many of his strategists in retrospect regard the Swift Boat Veterans as the single biggest reason he is not president today.
Initially, coverage was limited, and what did appear was sympathetic to Kerry. A Washington Post story from August 6 led with John McCain, a prominent Republican but a longtime Kerry friend, defending his fellow senator. The Post cited McCain's interview with the Associated Press in which he attacked the group's campaign as "dishonest and dishonorable."
Yet within a couple of weeks the Swift Boat Veterans charges were dominating the front pages, and reporting teams were assigned to ascertain the truth of the group's charges.
One reason the controversy moved from the margins to front-and-center was that Bush's reelection team -- which had been watching the story with delight -- helped push it there. While there is no evidence that the Bush campaign orchestrated the group's allegations, surrogates gave the charges respectable validation. The party's 1996 nominee, war veteran Bob Dole, appeared on CNN on August 22 and declared that the Vietnam criticism was fair game. If nothing else, Dole said, it exposed Kerry as a hypocrite: "I mean, one day he's saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons. The next day he's standing there, 'I want to be president because I'm a Vietnam veteran.' " As for the merits of the accusations, Dole suggested that the Swift Boat Veterans could not all be "Republican liars -- there's got to be some truth to the charges." What about Kerry's war wounds? "I respect his record. But three Purple Hearts, and [he] never bled, that I know of. I mean, they're all superficial wounds. Three Purple Hearts and you're out [of the combat zone]." A week later, the president's own father weighed in similarly on CNN. From what he could tell, the forty-first president said, the claims of the Swift Boat Veterans were "rather compelling."
The Swift Boat Veterans' offensive presented Kerry with a classic political dilemma. If he responded, it might only elevate the prominence of the allegations. The alternative was to let damaging charges go unrebutted. It was not an easy question at the time but, in retrospect, there plainly was a right and a wrong answer. Kerry chose the wrong one. He and his team allowed themselves to imagine that, because the Swift Boat Veterans at first were not getting wide coverage in the Old Media, they could not be gaining much traction with the public.
Like many Democrats, Kerry and his team believed that presidential campaigns are fundamentally about which candidate has the best thirty-two-point policy plan and who snags the most endorsements from top-tier newspapers. The reality is that campaigns are also character tests. And, unlike gossip about a possible affair, the Swift Boat controversy went to the heart of Kerry's leadership character. As August dragged on, a debate grew in Kerry's campaign about whether to get off the sidelines and defend aggressively against the Swift Boat Veterans. The debate was resolved with a bold decision: Let's wait for polling to settle the matter. By the time the numbers came back, it confirmed for Democrats what Republicans already knew. The Swift Boat blitz was raising serious doubts among some swing voters about Kerry's veracity and values. Kerry's team finally responded, with a demand that Bush apologize for the Swift Boat attacks. That wan parry, which Bush swatted away, was so late and so lame that it hardly projected an image of strength, or solved the problem.
The entire episode, like Kerry's earlier encounters with the Freak Show, revealed the combination of indignation (How dare they attack me!) and insecurity (This is a crisis -- let's take a poll!) that was at the heart of Kerry's campaign. In his defense, it must be said that this combination is characteristic of many Democrats. So, too, was the reaction of his party: pervasive grumbling to Old Media reporters about its candidate's incompetence in standing up to New Media abuse.
Kerry was hardly blameless. Most of the attacks against him were predictable, however unfair. Indeed, they were predicted. The failure of Kerry and his team to anticipate and prepare for such assaults was a lapse that fully justified the grousing of Democrats in Little Rock about their defeated nominee.
Bush certainly had his own Freak Show moments. The September 2004 controversy over whether he had evaded his commitments to the Texas Air National Guard was an example. That story, however, promoted by the Old Media warhorse CBS News, promptly was demolished by New Media critics. And though Bush survived it, the episode illustrated that he, too, had a life of competing narratives. According to some, he was a man born to privilege but with a common touch, whose life had been infused with new purpose once he embraced religious faith. This faith was the core of a presidency that had led the nation through the worst attacks on native soil in American history and was keeping the country safe in a dangerous new era.
There was another narrative, too. Bush was a daddy's boy and a lifelong mediocrity who was comically unprepared for the presidency and was elevated to the office by a Republican-weighted Supreme Court. With hawkish surrogates making the decisions, Bush had blundered into a disastrous war and had led the nation to the brink of catastrophe. As in 2000, the country in 2004 divided almost perfectly down the middle over which version of George W. Bush they found more plausible.
But new negative information coming to voters about Bush during the 2004 campaign was less likely to hurt him than negative data about the challenger. As Kerry's pollster Mark Mellman explained, "When an incumbent faces a challenger there is a fundamental asymmetry in information. Voters knew very little about John Kerry so each new fact, each new impression constituted a very large proportion of their total storehouse of knowledge about Kerry. That [made] attitudes toward him quite malleable. By contrast each new fact about or impression of George Bush constituted an infinitesimally small percentage of their knowledge about the President, making attitudes toward him harder to shape."
Sometimes in focus groups during the campaign, Mellman remembers, voters would have no idea Kerry had fought in Vietnam, but they would bring up Botox treatments and Kerry's "rich" wife.
Mellman's polling data demonstrated the impact the Swift Boat Veterans had on his candidate's public image. Just after the Democratic convention, voters who thought Kerry would keep America strong militarily outnumbered by 19 percentage points voters who said he would not. After Labor Day the margin was 3 percentage points. Over the same time period, Kerry saw comparable declines on "strong leader" (from 18 to 1) and "trust John Kerry to be commander in chief" (16 down to 3).
Because of the Swift Boat attacks, Kerry had to shy away from discussing Vietnam, which the campaign had planned to use as its entrée into presenting Kerry as a regular guy (through his crewmate relationships), illustrating his mettle, displaying his ideas for national security, and positioning him as a wartime president. Within Kerry's campaign, there was a roiling debate about when and how to take the issue on, but there was always more talk than action.
The Bush campaign and the Republican Party simply were better organized than the Democrats. Their research files on Kerry (and on Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards) were significantly more thorough than the Democrats' files on Bush -- and on themselves. Republicans had thick and frequently updated research books, clip files, video archives, and real-time tracking of new data, as well as a full appreciation of the value of such tools. With the speed of a cable modem and the ease of finger painting, Bush's supporters regularly circulated to New Media allies tidbits about Kerry's actions and statements. Kerry, meanwhile, often seemed uncertain about the facts of his own life. And his staff was unwilling and unable to get its reticent and private candidate to cough up enough details to mount a serviceable defense. Some of the anti-Kerry stories were patently false, some were patently true, some hovered in between. But over time, the accumulation of negative imagery was left largely unchallenged. And the merits of Kerry as a man, as a senator, and as a possible president were lost in the shuffle.
It should be noted that just because Republicans used the Freak Show's vast powers of simplification and amplification to disseminate these attacks does not mean they did not reveal some information to voters about what kind of president John Kerry might be. But the Freak Show is decidedly indifferent to the truth of such charges and elevates the personal and the negative over an impartial appraisal of an allegation's relevance in determining a person's qualifications for the office.
The bottom line was that the Bush campaign and its allies did a better job than the Kerry campaign and its allies in using the Freak Show -- its magnification of the personal and negative -- to define the opposing candidate. But the story as told in this chapter is a tactical one. What is more important for the next presidential election is the strategic reality that the Freak Show does not affect both parties equally.
The dynamic in 2008 will be the same as it was in 2004. There are structural issues in politics and media that now favor Republicans over Democrats. Freak Show politics will represent only a moderate threat to Republicans and give them a major advantage as they try to define the opposition on unfavorable terms. On the other side, Freak Show politics offers virtually no advantages for Democrats, but will again present a huge threat to any politician hoping to keep control of the narrative of his -- or her -- life story.
Harris is The Washington Post's national politics editor; Halperin is political director of ABC News. Read more about the authors.