John Kerry for Dummies

His big convention speech scored some good notices, but what was the candidate really saying? Here's a translation

By Lee Walczak

Judging from what my Kerry-besotted colleagues and blogsters wrote, I gather that a lot of folks viewed John Kerry's 46-minute acceptance speech in Boston (a l-o-o-o-ng 46 minutes for your scribe) as something between a triple and an inside-the-park home run. To me, it was a blooping double that landed in center field.

Well, it's a free country. And actually, I thought the Massachusetts senator's oration was one of his finer addresses -- even though the seams clearly showed between top strategist Bob Shrum's desperate insertions of Kennedyesque poetics and Kerry's longhand scribblings about strength and moral clarity.


  Kerry's speech was pedestrian on the page, with no cliché or cheap applause line left unwritten. What mattered more for a national TV audience was his delivery, which, for a politician accused of barely showing a pulse, often bristled with conviction. The senator deserves a lot of credit for tackling George W. Bush and the Republicans head-on over the issues of national security and values.

From the moment he stepped to the podium and delighted the crowd by announcing: "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty," it was clear this was not going to be a half-hearted speech. It certainly did Kerry some good on the "weak on defense" front. But it did nothing to dispel the notion that in 20 years in Congress, he has been a trend-surfer, not a leader, bobbing from Atari Democracy to neo-liberalism to outright liberalism to New Democracy and finally back to incoherent and insincere liberalism.

The inescapable fact of Kerry's record is that he is a fairly typical of a breed found in Washington's overgrown jungle -- the political chameleon. This sets up a truly swell choice for America on Nov. 2 -- Senator Several-Sides vs. the linear-to-a-fault, egregiously pious, and often spectacularly wrong-headed George W. Bush. (Now where's that Nader ballot petition?)


  Of course, there will be plenty of time to romp ankle-deep through George W.'s deepest thoughts when the Republicans gather in New York in August for what's sure to be a tasteless celebration of their post-September 11 resolve.

The task before us today, my fellow Americans, is to illuminate that celebrated Kerry convention speech and to find out what some of his ringing phrases actually mean. This requires special high-tech tools, such as my vintage Captain Midnight decoder ring. So herewith, with apologies to Watson and the sainted Crick, is my attempt to decipher Kerry Code:

My fellow Americans, we are here tonight united in one simple purpose: to make America stronger at home and respected in the world.

My fellow Americans. I am not a habitual war protester or a "blame America Firster," and if it takes 40,000 more troops and a big slug of veterans benefits to insulate myself from GOP attacks on this front, I will fight back. As for our allies -- remember, Jacques and Gerhard -- I am the un-Bush.

My mother...taught me to see trees as cathedrals of nature.

Take that, Al Gore. I don't just hug trees -- I drop alms in their collection box.

My fellow Americans, this is the most important election in our lifetime.

They all are, folks. But this one is really important for me, because if I mess up, John "Smiley" Edwards and Hillary will leave cleat-marks on my back as they rush to New Hampshire.

We're the optimists.... We're the can-do people.

Well, we're optimists in California and New York. But in Midwest battleground states, we're the sons of Walter Reuther, playing up that middle-class angst until even the most socially conservative blue-collar worker gives our ticket a hard look. Might work, too.

And what can I say about Teresa?... She speaks her mind....

Yeah, I'll say. One more unscripted crack like the "Shove it" remark to a journalist and I'll do something really spiteful, like put her in charge of my national health plan.

Now I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities -- and I do -- because some issues just aren't all that simple.

Ah, a two-fer. George, you are a simpleton. And the reason I'm constantly voting for and against things like Iraq and intelligence funding is that I see complexities where nobody sees complexities. That's part of my je ne sais quoi charm.

We believe in the family value expressed in one of the oldest Commandments: "Honor they father and thy mother."

I will spare no expense in pandering to seniors, be it over prescription drugs or Social Security.

When I am President, America will stop being the only advanced nation in the world which fails to understand that health care is not a privilege for the wealthy -- it is a right for all Americans.

OK, so my plan doesn't really cover all of the uninsured. But heck, this is such a great applause line, I cannot resist.

When I am President, the government I lead will enlist people of talent, Republicans as well as Democrats....

Well, this bipartisan shtick is de rigeur now, so everyone has to put a member of the opposition party somewhere on his team. But after that embarrassing John McCain turndown on the Veep thing, I'll do a "Bush" and stick the hapless soul in some backwater like the Transportation Dept. where he'll never be heard from again.

It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come.

Boy, that Shrum is smooth, isn't he? But wait, isn't this closing riff awfully similar to Teddy's "The Dream Will Never Die" convention speech? And aren't these images a little, like, hackneyed? How much are we paying this guy as a consultant, anyway?

Walczak is Washington bureau chief for BusinessWeek

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