HE WAS DIFFERENT THAN I EXPECTED
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The Democratic convention is over now and the John Kerry I saw is nothing like the portrait the media have been trying to sell me. Whether you support him or oppose him, you have to admit that he showed something powerful in his acceptance speech.
Somehow, although the mass media never really explained it, he ripped through the early primaries in spite of strong opposition. His military credentials aren't enough to explain it.
Remember when General Wesley Clark was supposed to be the Democrats' great hope?
Somehow Kerry won big in the early states, assimilated his primary opponents' messages to become the consensus candidate and yes, raised more money than anyone thought it possible for any Democrat to do.
Hindsight as to how the mass media have underestimated the Kerry appeal may be the stuff of future biographies, but for the moment it is only useful if it helps us to understand what may be in store between now and November 2. Why did they portray Kerry as dull when he obviously is not?
Some of it may be fairly benign, merely the boredom that political reporters feel during a long campaign. The political pundit class may be compared to movie critics watching the latest car chase in the same old derivative film plot. Like those movie reviewers, but listening to campaign speeches instead of bad dialogue, they become bored and want more exotic fare. They begin to notice the little mannerisms and awkwardnesses that first time listeners would never notice. They get picky.
Perhaps this may explain some of the inexplicable predictions about the Democratic convention. I must confess that like so many others, I was concerned about Kerry's acceptance speech because all I had heard about him was a nearly unanimous contempt for his skill as a speaker and his effectiveness as a campaigner.
Watching John Kerry perform on the big stage revealed a dynamic speaker with a strong stage presence, an effective speaking style and something to say.
John Edwards, so highly touted as the great orator, suffered only in comparison to the superhuman expectations that had been set for him. Pundits have been citing his theme of the two Americas, but I found another line played even stronger: "It doesn't have to be that way."
It doesn't, but for Edwards to point this out is also to stake a claim on an old political philosophy that has seemingly fallen into disfavor over the past quarter century.
John Kerry hit a number of rhetorical home runs, my favorite, because it is so true yet so long overdue, being the remark that the American flag does not belong to any one political party but to all of us.
Kerry argued that healthcare is a right for all Americans. This certainly diverges strongly from the Republican position (whatever that may be). It too represents that old philosophy that Kerry and Edwards may be trying to bring back.
That philosophy is of course liberalism. The very word has been beaten, slandered, lied about and taunted for a quarter of a century. Ronald Reagan (to quote a professional pollster whose name I can't remember), "turned it into a pejorative." The once pejorative word "conservative" has been raised by its supporters to heights of virtue and wisdom. For two decades, conservatives have been running proudly under that description, while liberals have called themselves anything but liberals.
Michael Ramirez, the strongly conservative cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times did a drawing showing Kerry at the convention speaking of the Viet Nam War and tax cuts, but with a giant sign saying "Liberal" at his back. The same thought has not been lost on my local radio hosts who use the word with that particular intonation that sounds like a mixture of world-weary anger combined with the act of expectorating.
To editorialize for the moment, I think it is a good thing that Kerry and Edwards are trying to create a rebirth of American liberalism. It would be even stronger if we as a people can get over the negativity associated with the word, if only because it is usefully focussing to be for something in particular rather than just against things in general.
Whatever you call it, it is certainly in the tradition of liberalism to assert that adequate health care is a right for all Americans. To fulfill the promise would require reorganization of the way medical care is funded, redistribution of income and some federalization of the process. If leaving things in the status quo is what conservatism is about, then the Kerry position is anything but conservative.
To argue for fiscal responsibility rather than running half-trillion dollar deficits may not be the liberalism of grandpa's day, but it is certainly different from the current policy.
Kerry and Edwards have put forth a new liberalism without actually calling it anything in particular. No talk about the New Frontier or even the New Deal passed their lips.
The reason of course is that Kerry and Edwards are shrewd politicians who are adapting to an age in which the concept, even the very name, of liberalism has become poisonous to a large fraction of our voting population. They are out to turn the situation around, but they cannot do it alone, and they cannot do it at all during the last three months of a presidential campaign.
Once again we are drawn to consideration of the mass media and their role in the current political climate. When was the last time any of us heard or read a nationally respected political commentator use the term liberal as a compliment? Where in the daily newspapers will you see a defense of liberal ideals and a condemnation of conservatism? Quite the contrary. When any politician points out the obvious -- that our income distribution has been getting wider -- the standard response in the news media is to call it class warfare.
There is one little curiosity in today's political climate. The liberal political analysts who recognize the old liberal values have been polite enough not to use the word. They understand that it has been made into a political epithet and avoid its use. They avoid using the word out of fear that they will hang it albatross-like around the necks of the candidates they like.
In spite of all the predictions to the contrary, I found the Kerry speech to be emotionally rousing. It certainly gives the lie to the local talk radio hosts who have argued tauntingly that Bush is lucky for having such a dull opponent. Kerry was anything but dull on Thursday night and will be anything but dull during the next part of the campaign.
There were a couple of amusing little tidbits in the aftermath of the Kerry speech. Tuning through the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity radio shows, I heard nothing to suggest that Kerry was dull. Apparently even the right wing "noise machine" can sometimes catch the drift of things. Instead they picked at aspects of the Kerry voting record, still trying to convince the American people that Democrats are congenitally incapable of defending the country.
The most humorous part of the aftermath was a remark that one right wing pundit tossed out almost as if it were an afterthought -- Kerry will be difficult for Bush to debate. The excuse given is that Kerry is masterful at changing the subject, but the essence of the remark is that Kerry is expected to do well going against Bush face to face. It looks like the Bush apologists are already working to create lowered expectations.
There is a whole other topic to be explored at some other time, namely the concept of "gotcha" journalism: Notice that the core messages the convention tried to communicate were viewed with contempt by journalists. "Scripted" is the term they use, as if it were an utterly bad thing. The little faux pas that is raised to frenzied lead is what we have come to expect from our mass media, and we were not disappointed when the television cameras showed a different side of Mrs. Kerry.
Just like those bored movie reviewers, our political journalists seem to live for novelty, for that one moment of unscripted revelation, whether or not it is germane to the bigger picture, and whether or not it represents a fair picture of reality.
Taken as a whole, the convention did what it had to do. Over twenty million people had the chance to see John Kerry not as the talk radio assassins have tried to portray him but as he chose to portray himself. Kerry turns out to be both more serious and more exciting than the print and radio journalists wanted us to believe. Whether the mass media eventually admit to the lessons of the 2004 Democratic National Convention will remain to be seen.