From the outset of his candidacy, John Kerry was always going to be the tough dove, the war vet who knew how to fight the scourge of al Qaeda smarter and more effectively than President Bush did. Biography is Kerry's inoculation against the Bush-Cheney campaign's accusations of weakness, and this convention -- and an unusually high percentage of Kerry's acceptance speech, by the standards of previous acceptance speeches -- was all about Kerry's record under fire and his credentials for becoming commander in chief.
But this emphasis on biography isn't limited to Kerry alone. A big part of the Kerry message isn't only what happened to John Kerry and how he responded to it. It's about what happened to Max Cleland and how he responded to it.
For the purposes of the Kerry campaign, the story of the man who introduced John Kerry Thursday night is second only to Kerry's own. Cleland, who lost both legs and one arm in Vietnam, was the first nominee-introducer I can recall who talked about himself, and rightly so, before he talked about the nominee. About his own sacrifice, his own despair and his initial contact with Kerry, who, in his antiwar activism, pointed to a way to extract a life of purpose out of the catastrophe of Vietnam.
Cleland did just that -- as a legislator, then the head of President Bill Clinton's Veterans Administration, then a U.S. senator from Georgia. But it's the second sacrifice of Max Cleland that has made him such a potent symbol for Kerry, for Cleland is also a victim of the Karl Rove-Ralph Reed school of gutter politics. In the summer of 2002, with the midterm elections drawing near, the Bush White House reversed itself -- some might even call it a flip-flop -- and embraced the idea of a Department of Homeland Security, which had originated with Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut. But when the Republicans passed the bill out of the House, Rove had made sure it contained an utterly gratuitous poison pill for Democrats: a provision, strongly opposed by unions, that threatened the right of the new department's employees to organize. Senate Democrats knew that their wafer-thin majority was at risk but decided they would not sacrifice the economic security of homeland security workers to satisfy the political machinations of Karl Rove.
In November the guy who lost his job was Cleland. On behalf of GOP Senate nominee Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican Party head Ralph Reed ran a scabrous campaign against Cleland, accusing him of indifference to terrorism and national security, all but painting him as an agent of Osama bin Laden. Max Cleland, said the Republicans, was no patriot and not worthy of sitting in the Senate alongside such pillars of American ideals as Trent Lott. (Reed, of course, was once the organizing genius behind the Christian Coalition, where he read his Bible and evidently took the serpent in Eden as a figure for emulation.)
As far back as Vietnam and, indeed, the good old days of Joe McCarthy, Republicans have accused Democrats of insufficient love of country. But when they shattered the unity of a reeling nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks by manipulating the war on radical Islamic terrorism for political gain, when they used the attacks to justify a war on Iraq that had strikingly little to do with those attacks, when they said that those who opposed even their most deceptive and rash acts were unpatriotic, and most certainly when they demonized Max Cleland, they went too far. Not just morally, if I may invoke so quaint a concept. They went too far politically.
John Kerry accomplished a number of things in his strong acceptance speech, and one of them was to call the Republicans out on the kind of Lee Atwater-Karl Rove politics that appropriates God and country for Republican campaign ads. Patriotism and faith are not partisan values, he said, "they're American values."
The Kerry people sense that George W. Bush and his hit men have overplayed their hand, both generally and among moderate voters, with their relentless partisanization of church and state, with their attacks on Democrats for flouting national values. There was in Kerry's acceptance speech a faint echo of attorney Joseph Welch's thunderous protest to Joe McCarthy as McCarthy was casually slandering some young attorney during a 1954 congressional committee hearing: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" And the only person working more tirelessly than Kerry to unmask, as Welch once did, the scoundrels claiming to be patriots is the guy who introduced Kerry on Thursday night.