Both candidates gave speeches late last Thursday night. George W. Bush was more or less expected to do so. John Kerry didn’t have to, but reported for duty though nobody wanted him to. Unnerved by sagging numbers, he decided to start the post-Labor Day phase of the campaign three days before Labor Day.
The way things are going, Democrats seem likely to launch the postelection catastrophic-defeat vicious-recriminations phase of the campaign by next Sunday.
At any rate, less than 60 minutes after President Bush gave a sober, graceful, droll and moving address, Mr. Kerry decided to hit back. In the midnight hour, he climbed out of his political coffin, and before his thousands of aides could grab the garlic from Teresa’s kitchen and start waving it at him he found himself before an audience and started speaking.
As in Vietnam, he was in no mood to take prisoners: “I have five words for Americans,” he thundered. “This is your wake-up call.” Is that five words? Or is it six? Well, it’s all very nuanced, according to whether you hyphenate the “wake-up.” Maybe he should have said, “I have four words plus a common hyphenated expression for Americans.” I would suggest the rewrite to him personally, but I don’t want him to stare huffily at me and drone, “How dare you attack my patriotism?”
By about nine words into John Kerry’s wake-up call, I was sound asleep again. But this was what he told Ohio’s brave band of chronic insomniacs:
“For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander in chief. Well, here’s my answer. I’m not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve.”
Oh, dear … growing drowsy again …. Losing the will to type … . What’s he saying now? ” … two tours of duty … .”
Ah, yes. As usual, he has four words for Americans: I served in Vietnam. Or five words if you spell it Viet Nam.
So we have one candidate running on a platform of ambitious reforms for an “ownership society” at home and a pledge to hunt down America’s enemies abroad. And we have another candidate running on the platform that no one has the right to say anything mean about him.
And for this the senator broke the eminently civilized tradition that each candidate lets the other guy have his convention week to himself? Maybe they need to start scheduling those Kerry campaign shake-ups twice a week.
There was an old joke back in the Cold War:
Proud American to Russian guy: “In my country every one of us has the right to criticize our president.”
Russian guy: “Same here. In my country every one of us has the right to criticize your president.”
That seems to be the way John Kerry likes it. Americans should be free to call George Bush a moron, a liar, a fraud, a deserter, an agent of the House of Saud, a mass murderer, a mass rapist (according to the speaker at a National Organization for Women rally last week) and the new Hitler (according to just about everyone). But how dare anyone be so impertinent as to insult John Kerry. No one has the right to insult Mr. Kerry, except possibly Teresa, and only on the day she gives him his allowance.
Several distinguished analysts have suggested the best rationale for a Kerry presidency is that it would be a “return to normalcy” — a quiet life after the epic pages of history George Bush has been writing these last three years.
Even if a “return to normalcy” were an option, I doubt John Kerry would qualify. As we saw in those two Thursday speeches, Mr. Bush takes the war seriously but he doesn’t take himself seriously — self-deprecating jokes are obligatory these days, but try to imagine Mr. Kerry doing the equivalent of Mr. Bush’s gags about mangled English and swaggering. The president is comfortable in his own skin, which is why he shrugs off the Hitler stuff. By contrast, Mr. Kerry doesn’t take the war seriously because he’s so busy taking himself seriously.
If “return to normalcy” means four years of a grimly humorless touchy self-regarding Kerry presidency, I’ll take the war.
That’s surely why Mr. Kerry is running his kamikaze kandidacy on biography rather than grand themes. Sen. Kerrikaze is running for president because he thinks he should be president — who needs a platform? One of the most revealing aspects of the campaign this last week were the interviews given by his various surrogates. Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, went on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, and was asked about the Swift Vets ads and he laughed and blustered and stalled and floundered. That sounded weird.
This thing has been going on a month now and the Kerry campaign still hasn’t come up with a form of words to deflect questions about it. If they had an agreed spin, Mr. McAuliffe and Co. would be out using it. But the seared senator feels it’s lese majeste even to question him. He can talk about Vietnam 24/7, but nobody else is allowed to bring it up.
Sorry, man, that’s not the way it works. And if he thinks it does he’s even further removed from the realities of democratic politics than he was from the interior of Cambodia. Instead of those military records the Swift Vets are calling for I would be more interested in seeing his medical ones.
As for Mr. Bush, to be sure at one level his convention was a “soft-focus infomercial” just as Mr. Kerry’s was. But the infomercial came into sharp focus just often enough to clarify, piercingly, the differences between the parties. On opening night in Boston, the Democrats staged a tasteful, teary candlelight remembrance of those who died September 11, 2001. On opening night in New York, Republicans had one speaker after another — John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, Ron Silver — resolved that those thousands of innocents shall not have died in vain.
I remember a couple of days after September 11, writing weepy candlelight vigils were a cop-out: The issue wasn’t whether you were sad about the dead people but whether you wanted to do something about it.
Three years on, the two conventions drew the same distinction. If you want passivity and wallowing in victim culture, the Democrats will do. If you want to win this thing, President Bush is the only guy running.
Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.