Tuesday, March 30, 2004

John Kerry’s presidential candidacy has all the makings of a classic flop — in the modern side-splitting tradition of Thomas Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. This is not a prediction — merely an assessment of some potentialities.

I am mindful that events in Iraq and elsewhere could leap up and bite the Bush candidacy hard on the backside. The hysteria about phantom lost jobscould grow, rather than recede. The nation is closelydivided between Republicans and Democrats. And, most valuably, the Democratic Party’s carefully nurtured four-year Bush-hatred should yield strong turnout for its base in November.

And yet, John Kerry has impressive downside potential. Like Thomas Dewey in 1948, his deepest flaw as a candidate is his sheer unlikability. It was said of Dewey that you had to know him really well to dislike him. But his pompous, stilted style rang through even his public appearances.

In his Sept. 20, 1948, kick-off speech for his “Victory Special” national tour, Dewey proclaimed: “Tonight we enter upon a campaign to unite America. On Jan. 20, we will enter upon a new era. We propose to install in Washington an administration which has faith in the American people, a warm understanding of their needs and the competence to meet them.” If you close your eyes, you can hear the Massachusetts Mandarin in Dewey’s old words. Listening to Dewey, one understands why the scrappy, uneducated Harry Truman beat the striped pants off him in November.

But what may become the enduring exemplar of the Kerry style was his spontaneous expletive on the ski slopes when his Secret Service guard bumped into him by accident (while guarding him): “I don’t fall down. The S.O.B. knocked me over.” To instinctively say that about the man who is sworn to put himself between Mr. Kerry and a bullet, paints a lasting and contemptible character portrait. Contrast that with what Ronald Reagan said shortly after he was shot: “Honey, I forgot to duck.” It was at that moment that 60 percent of the American public fell permanently in love with the Gipper. As Ernest Hemmingway put it in another time, that is grace under pressure — and Mr. Kerry doesn’t have it.

The second emerging liability is the matter of Sen. Kerry’s health and vigor. Few people commented adversely when Mr. Kerry had his cancer operation last year. Most otherwise healthy men go on to fully active lives after such a successful operation. But some people began to notice when he took a week off to relax and “recharge his batteries” at his wife’s ski lodge — just when the campaign was heating up and he had not yet recovered from his foolish foreign leaders claim. His staff had to explain that he gets verbally sloppy when he gets tired. (Of course, the presidency is a darned tiring job 365 days a year.)

Now comes the unrelated matter of an operation to repair a torn shoulder tendon, an injury that the Kerry campaign says he incurred while on a campaign bus in January. The post-operative period will again take him out of action for “three or four days.” Of such episodes, impressions begin to form.

In the murky background, national tabloid papers speculate that he may be a victim of more embarrassing diseases. Such nasty rumors are commonplace in American politics (and inevitably have their effects), but are fueled by candidates who refuse to release all their medical records — as Mr. Kerry refuses. The limited, general, uncorroborated statements by his personal physician, Dr. Gerald J. Doyle of Boston, only keep the controversy on a slow simmer. The doctor said that “there was no evidence of metastatic disease” and that Mr. Kerry’s heart function “was above average for a man his age.” Is that really the best his helpful doctor could offer up?

The American public has a growing experience with incomplete, protective or misleading statements by the doctors of politicians and other celebrities. So long as Mr. Kerry refuses to permit the release of his military records relating to his war injuries and health, as well as his current and comprehensive medical records, a curious American public will have to judge the senator’s physical fitness for the presidency by publicly available evidence, speculation and rumor. It’s Mr. Kerry’s own fault if false rumors affect his candidacy.

He is already on record as lying about his cancer condition last year — first denying the condition, then admitting it when the fact could not be avoided. Even The Washington Post yesterday reported: “Kerry, 60, who appeared athletic and robust during his recent skiing holiday, has nonetheless faced medical issues in the past year that have raised questions about his overall health.” When The Washington Post puts its corporate teeth into a candidate on a personal matter — that’s not good news for the politician.

As The Post alluded, even Mr. Kerry’s intentionally conspicuous athleticism (playing ice hockey, snow boarding and racing his 10-speed bike in front of news cameras) is suspicion raising. We all remember Mr. Kerry’s idol — John F. Kennedy — conspicuously playing vigorous football and sailing for the news cameras as a cover for his Addison’s Disease and severe back ailments.

Putting aside for the moment the big substantive issues of terrorism, Iraq and the economy (which don’t seem to be currently catapulting Mr. Kerry into the lead), if the public comes to a negative personal judgment on Kerry the man, he will be hard pressed to make a close run of it in November.

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