Who says Democrats hate Republicans? John Kerry, the tall senator from Massachusetts, is the gift that keeps on giving. He virtually handed the GOP the 2004 election when he stepped up for his nomination-acceptance speech, saluted, and announced, "I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty". Numerous commentators (including this one) believe Mr. Kerry lost the election in that moment, as thousands of enraged Vietnam War veterans leapt to their feet, shouted at his televised image, and vowed that he would never be president while they had breath in their bodies. Ads sponsored by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth engulfed Mr. Kerry’s campaign in controversy and might have been decisive.
Now the big-haired Boston Brahman has done it again. Speaking to Pasadena City College students, at a campaign event for California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, Mr. Kerry said if you study hard you can "do well", but if not "you’ll get stuck in Iraq". Mr. Kerry claims he was jesting about George W. Bush (still believed by liberals to be retarded). He probably thought California college students would howl with glee at his "joke". Some did laugh, but observers present said others "gasped" at what they clearly thought was a belittling reference to American soldiers serving in Iraq. The remark was all over talk-radio within hours. One talk-jock said Mr. Kerry had fumbled the election for the Democrats on the GOP’s 3-yard line. Another said Mr. Kerry was Republicans’ "October miracle".
Big media quickly tried to control the damage. CBS News anchor Katie Couric mocked the GOP’s expected use of the Kerry gaffe by mimicking a deep-voiced GOP commentator: "John Kerry insults the troops. Do we really want the Dems to take over?" ABC anchor Charles Gibson called it an "idle political remark" and bemoaned the diversion of media attention from the substantive issues of the campaign – i.e., (presumably) Mark Foley, Iraq, Mark Foley, Dennis Hastert, Mark Foley, Osama bin Laden, Mark Foley, Dick Cheney, Mark Foley, Haliburton, Mark Foley, and Mark Foley. MSNBC host Keith Olbermann argued that the "joke" mocked George W. Bush’s substandard intelligence, not American soldiers. He ragged the Bush team for being "…too stupid to know [Kerry] called them stupid." (Very helpful.)
But it was too little, too late – like trying to hold off Katrina with giant fans set up on the beach. George W. Bush, John McCain, and a string of high-profile Democrats demanded that Mr. Kerry apologize to American servicemen for his demeaning remarks. Sticking to his "it was about Bush" story, John Kerry proclaimed (in ringing tones) at a press conference that he "would not apologize" to George W. Bush for criticizing his failed administration and broken policies.
That ploy bombed, however. Don Imus, the gravelly-voiced syndicated radio host – no shrinking violet he – told Mr. Kerry, in an on-air interview, to "please stop it" and say nothing more until after the election. By the next day Mr. Kerry had apologized to American soldiers for his remarks and cancelled planned campaign appearances for other Democratic candidates, saying he did not want to "become a distraction". A week later Mr. Kerry’s "joke" is still rattling around the body politic like stones inside a hubcap.
The parallel to 2004 is striking. Both the "reporting for duty" and "stuck in Iraq" gaffes were entirely superfluous to what Mr. Kerry was doing at the time. In 2004, his task was simple: run an intelligent campaign; look presidential; act like a commander-in-chief-in-waiting, ready to ride heroically in to rescue hard-pressed American soldiers from the failed policies of an incompetent administration; and pick out the suits he would wear to his victory parties. The election was Mr. Kerry’s for the taking. Early polls showed him far ahead of Mr. Bush. He was looking good, right up until his convention appearance.
At the time, I wrote a spoof claiming that Mr. Kerry’s handlers wanted to keep him out of sight (in France). Al Sharpton would deliver the Kerry acceptance speech beneath a huge American flag, backed up by a Harlem gospel choir singing Amazing Grace. But the "invisible candidate" strategy was blown when Mr. Kerry was tricked into appearing at the convention and delivering remarks that sank his campaign.
All seriousness aside, Mr. Kerry’s biggest ’04 problem really was himself. He could not resist trying to vindicate his military (and post-military) record. His campaign strategists – some of whom were wearing rompers in 1971 – evidently had no clue that rehashing the Vietnam War would offend many veterans still smarting from Lt. Kerry’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about "atrocities" committed by American soldiers. I believe most citizens old enough to recall the War would have given Mr. Kerry a pass on those long-ago events. They were inclined to let the past go and consider the Kerry of 2004. But Mr. Kerry wouldn’t permit it. He had to bring up the War to justify his conduct. By doing so, he crashed his candidacy. He is still angry over the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth ads that debunked his military service, but those ads were just a sideshow. Mr. Kerry was his own undoing.
Just so, Mr. Kerry didn’t need to say anything last week about doing well in school or getting "stuck in Iraq", or any such thing. He had a made-to-order opportunity to act like a wise statesman whose counsel is needed at a time of national division. He could have made sensible comments about electing smart Democrats like Mr. Angelides to bring California into a new golden age, etc., etc. It was, again, a fairly simple task. But Mr. Kerry could not stick to it. He had to get cute with remarks far afield from the candidate he came to help. I believe his bitterness about 2004 – always barely below the surface – compelled him to get in the dig about Iraq. Maybe he was twitting that "moron", George W., but his comments were stupidly-chosen. (Too bad he didn’t have a 10-year-old child give them a sanity check.)
Republicans and Independents needed a wake-up call about who the Democrats (still) are and the attitudes they will bring to their leadership of the Congress, should enough disgruntled voters sit out the election or toss the ball to the Dems. In the mysterious ways of Providence, John Kerry made that call again, as he did in 2004. Maybe his "clarification" will trump the media-hyped Democratic message of doom, disaster, destruction, war, child molestation, and the warming planet – and maybe it won’t. But if the GOP pulls this one out, they can thank John Kerry. May he live long, grow ever richer, wind-surf into history, and remain the gift that keeps on giving. Republicans never had a better friend.