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.
"If Democrats wanted a screamer, we would have nominated Howard Dean," said Mickey Rodriguez, an unemployed teacher at the Kerry rally at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
"I'm not here to attack. I'm not here to tear down," Kerry said at the rally. "I'm not here to create a partisan divide between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. Throw the labels away. Just think for a moment." He was all about "common sense, not ideology." It was a palpable echo of "This election is not about ideology, it's about competence," in the words -- some say epitaph -- of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Kerry's attacks on the administration have been muted and subtle. En route to the West Palm Beach airport, Kerry met Joey Balboa, a local Democrat, who urged him to be more direct and feisty.
"Don't be afraid to call this president what he is," Balboa told Kerry, to which Kerry replied, "We're trying to be civil in our discussions."
There will be no open-mike mishaps as there was in March when Kerry called the Bush administration "the most crooked . . . lying group I've ever seen."
Now, Kerry says he is actually rooting for Bush. "I want the president to be successful," he said during a news conference in Tampa. He said this twice.
Making Points Not News
Even if Kerry were in dogfight mode, it's unlikely that he could hurt Bush more than events are. "The manipulative process of campaigns has been completely overwhelmed by the top stories," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and longtime adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt. By this, Carrick means casualties in Iraq, the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet and the continued threat of terrorist attacks here and abroad. The Bush campaign, Carrick said, "thought Kerry would be chopped meat by now. They expected to have defined him. Instead, they're playing defense, and Kerry is surviving."
The campaign is in a natural period of ebb. Excessive political noise would likely fall on deaf ears anyway. "The audience is small," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the former presidential candidate who accompanied Kerry during part of his Florida swing. "People are focused on their summer plans, not presidential politics." Graham, who was interviewed before Reagan's death, said Kerry is trying to establish credibility with opinion makers and "local molders of influence." The Democratic base has been unified -- less by Kerry than by Bush himself. Graham says this is Kerry's time to stay slightly below the radar and talk in great detail on matters of grave importance.
"The number of Americans who will sit down and think seriously about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists is not large," Graham said.
Yet Kerry had just completed a speech about same at the Port of West Palm Beach. He spoke while standing before a flag-draped tanker, surrounded by boxy cargo containers -- the kinds of things that demand better inspection amid the specter of catastrophic weaponry. Osama bin Laden, Kerry pointed out, has said that obtaining such weapons is a "sacred duty."
"As president, my number one security goal will be to prevent terrorists from gaining weapons of mass murder," Kerry said. He said he will create an office in the White House charged with tracking down and securing unaccounted-for nuclear weapons around the world. He vowed to do this during his first term, a goal called "simplistic and naive" by the Bush campaign.
Kerry's 30-minute speech was detailed and, in the 95-degree heat, punishing. The audience includes 300 people -- invited guests, local Kerry supporters and a smattering of port workers and "first responders" (hospital workers, firefighters, EMTs). At one point, a man in the audience collapsed from heat exhaustion and several first responders hauled him into an ambulance. Several other people left the event early under their own power.
As a general rule, speeches about loose nukes don't lend themselves to applause lines. When Kerry chanted a series of stem-winding questions -- "Have we reached out to our allies and forged an urgent global effort to ensure that nuclear weapons and materials are secured?" -- he drew only a smattering of halfhearted "Noooooo's" from the crowd.
But the local TV coverage was plentiful and the crowd received Kerry well -- as invited crowds tend to do. "I'm a Kerry guy," Tony Zambello of Lake Park said after the speech. "But Bush is the one I'm voting on this year," meaning against. Kerry's speech was okay "for a hot day," Zambello said.
The Big Question
The next day, Kerry walked into a small auditorium at the University of South Florida in Tampa, to hold a "conversation with first responders and public health officials" about bioterrorism.
The next hour and a half featured a panel of experts in a dire discussion of the unthinkable, a fact that Kerry acknowledged. "This is a daunting topic, I know," he said. "And some people will just turn off." Or just leave, which several people do at various points during the program.
As with his proposal for a White House czar of loose nukes, Kerry said he will appoint someone to oversee all bio-terrorism related activity in his administration. He will convene a meeting of academics, health workers, scientists and first responders within his first 100 days in office.
While the experts spoke, Kerry sipped bottled water and swished it around in his mouth. He leaned his chin on his folded fists and occasionally ran his left index finger up and down his temple. He nodded gravely while one expert -- Thomas Paine, of USF's Center for Disease Management and Humanitarian Assistance -- spoke of vectors, epidemiology, catastrophic events and post-traumatic stress. Kerry looked almost pained at times. But also purposeful and at home in the backwater of another news cycle, happy to leave the big headaches and headlines to the current White House.
Kerry invited questions from what was left of the audience. And naturally, after 90 minutes of discussion about the surreal, devastating and calamitous -- after it's clear that we're all going to die -- the first question involved a matter of even greater concern.
Senator, would you consider picking John McCain as your running mate?
The audience broke into laughter and applause, and Kerry smiled for the first time that afternoon. "As if I don't already have 5,000 people in the media breaking down my door about that," he said. He said what he always says: He is committed to a "private, personal" process in picking his running mate.
"I hope you will take that in the spirit that it's meant," Kerry told the man. It's not clear what that spirit is other than evasion. "Thank you, though," Kerry added. "I appreciate the question. Good try."