Kerry Finding Himself Strapped to Clinton In Three-Legged Race

The kind of week John Kerry had, you’d wish on George Bush (except it wouldn’t dent his poll ratings):

There was more of the medals business (worsened by some cluck blabbing about quaffing protest-era brandies with the future standard-bearer at a Georgetown mansion, thus confirming the Spiro T. Agnew elitism charges denied by Mr. Kerry for three decades now). The “It’s-her-car-not-mine” contretemps got a revisit (Mr. Kerry boasting in Michigan about owning all-American wheels, forgetting about the Audi and the Land Rover in his driveway). The A.P. uncovered the advance work that went into a supposedly spur-of-the-moment stop-off at a Beaver, Penn., hot-dog stand. Vietnam as all-purpose analgesic was extended to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a fondness for which, the L.A. Times reported, Mr. Kerry traced to his time winning Purple Hearts. James Carville’s Democracy Corps released a survey showing Mr. Kerry trailing in perceived warmth to Dick Cheney and the National Rifle Association (honest). And The Village Voice -yes, The Village Voice -beseeched Democratic delegates to please, please figure out a way of nominating somebody else.

Were Despond’s Slough not dredged into chasm by these developments, Tina Brown-now doing for punditry what Aaron Spelling did for culture-reported in The Washington Post that, in the judgment of her power-lunching pals, the Kerry campaign had become so horrid, perhaps time was drawing nigh for Dick Morris to take over, sucked toes and all.

How bad was it? So bad that the cyanide cherry atop the sundae was ingested with barely a belch: Bill Clinton, Knopf announced, will publish his at-long-last-finished memoirs in June-just about the time convention organizers begin bunting-shopping for Boston.

Could be worse, assured Kerry handlers, announcing the campaign’s sixth official theme in 18 months: “Together, we can build a stronger America.” (Bill Maher suggested No 7: “Do not resuscitate.”) The former President, whose party loyalty centers on the residents of 15 Old House Lane, Chappaqua, N.Y., might have shared reminiscences-of Monica, Gennifer, Paula and how he really and truly didn’t know what was going on in Rwanda-as his own version of an October surprise. But come October, he’ll only be haunting the remainder tables-which, with an initial print run of 1.5 million copies, might resemble the Himalayas.

Even so, My Life (was ever a title so reflective of the author’s worldview?) will suck from the already wheezing Kerry effort sufficient oxygen to terraform Mars.

But we haven’t gotten to the good part yet: That kicks off when Mr. Clinton puts aside autograph pen and starts campaigning.

The reception will be rapturous, and golfing buddy Terry McAuliffe will boast about money raised and base energized. As spectacle, it’ll be hard to beat, particularly for Newsweek ‘s Mike Isikoff, who must be licking his chops at the prospect of catching the former President fanny-patting campaign volunteers. The only downside, to judge from the by-election of 2002-when Mr. Clinton appeared at more than 100 events for Democrats, who then lost everything in sight-will be the result of the vote on Nov. 2.

Of course, things have changed in two years. Memories have dimmed of Mr. Clinton’s last-minute ego te absolvo ‘s to Marc Rich and assorted cocaine dealers and flimflam artists. (Count on the press to refresh them once the barnstorming begins.) And the hash Mr. Clinton’s successor has made of you-name-it has puffed a balloon of nostalgia suitable for the Macy’s parade. (Count on the 9/11 commission’s report to deflate it.)

Clintonism, however, hasn’t altered. It remains an ideology that works best for its namesake (Clintonism without Clinton is Al Gore), and in these teeth-gnashing times its triangulating tenets seem rather quaint. Why else do you think Howard Dean based an entire campaign on making fun of them?

Unlike Mr. Dean, John Kerry never renounced Clintonism outright during the primary season, but he did keep a wary distance from its inventor. And no wonder: Playing Tammy Wynette during the Monica mess wasn’t any shrapnel scrape.

Mr. Clinton, for his part, never much cared for Mr. Kerry. John Edwards was his horse, and when he threw a shoe (or, more accurately, had all four of them pried off by Tim Russert during a memorably vacant appearance on Meet the Press ), Bill switched his bet to Hillary. Communication around the family breakfast table appears to have been faulty, however, because she wasn’t interested in running (not yet, anyway). Which left her husband with the lesser of what he proclaimed were the “two stars” of the Democratic Party, General Wesley Clark. And everyone knows what happened to him.

When Mr. Clinton finally got around to embracing Mr. Kerry late last January, it wasn’t much of a smooch. All he’d say was that the Senator from Massachusetts was “there to help” when he, Bill, was busily erecting the bridge to the 21st century.

Since Matt Drudge’s muck about hanky-panky between Mr. Kerry and an intern failed to pan out (despite the best efforts of Clintonistas in the Clark campaign), the Clinton-Kerry link has grown more intimate, with the two men reportedly communing via phone once a week.

What Mr. Clinton advises during these chats-other than promoting Hill and Wes as prime V.P. timber-is unknown. But it’s an intriguing coincidence that, ever since the calls began, the formerly formidable Mr. Kerry has experienced difficulty tying his shoes.

Take Iraq. During the primaries, Mr. Kerry’s position was crystal: Yes, he’d voted to authorize the war, but he’d been hornswoggled by Dubya’s claims of W.M.D.’s ready to rain down on Times Square. Better not to be fooled in the first place, of course, but at least this stance was defensible, firm, coherent. Since coming under the tutelage of ex-President “Third Way,” however, Mr. Kerry’s explainings have become oatmeal. Offered a rare softball by Tim Russert two Sundays ago-“Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake?”-Mr. Kerry whiffed: “I think the way the President went to war is a mistake.” He was even more muddled talking to Chris Matthews two days later about W.M.D.’s, continued belief in whose existence had been thought confined to the chief brush-cutter of Crawford, Tex. Not after Mr. Kerry finished fumbling. “We may yet find them, Chris,” he said. “Look, I want to make it clear: Who knows if a month from now, three months from now, you find some weapons? You may.”

The Baghdad boobery was supposed to end this weekend with a Churchillian speech on the war by Mr. Kerry at Westminster College-where the real Winnie delivered his “Iron Curtain” address. What issued instead was the best reason yet to vote for Ralph Nader.

First, Mr. Kerry pledged that he would “stay the course”-which, you’ll recall, was what the skipper of the Titanic told his helmsman before toddling to bed. Then-trumpets up-he unveiled his plan for putting manufacturers of body-bags out of business: He’d solicit the U.N. and NATO for assistance-provided they agreed to the U.S. bossing the security show. The difference from George Bush, who’s lately been requesting the same? Mr. Kerry would ask more politely.

Therein lies the catch in aping Mr. Clinton’s philosophy of staking out position rather than taking them: Your opponent moves an inch, you’re his echo.

That doesn’t bother Bill, who hasn’t uttered a seriously negative peep about Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy before, during or since the invasion. Quite the contrary: He said that Mr. Bush was “doing the right thing” by resorting to arms; predicted the war would be “over in a flash”; and even forgave Mr. Bush for repeating the fairy tale of Saddam impersonating Henry Morton Stanley trying to secure radioactive material in Africa. “You can’t make as many calls as you have to make without messing up once in a while,” said Mr. Clinton. He knows whereof he speaks.

But it’s not just on Iraq where Mr. Kerry’s been trying on Mr. Clinton’s clothes. On the elephant in the living room that is Israel, he’s done better than triangulate: He’s duplicated Dubya’s benediction of the Ariel Sharon strategy (erect a Berlin Wall–style “security fence” and maintain, till rocks become dust, second homes for Brooklynites on the West Bank). For that we have the word of Mr. Kerry’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Rand Beers, who first gained notice as an assistant secretary in Bill Clinton’s State Department.

Besting Dubya, Mr. Kerry has even endorsed the offing of Hamas religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin-an assassination that may explain why Mr. Sharon avoids stopping off in The Hague en route to Washington. Mr. Kerry has a way to go to match the zeal of Mr. Clinton, who-for a fee of $125,000-told the Toronto Hadassah that were Israel’s existence threatened, “I would personally get in a ditch, grab a rifle, and fight and die.” Still, it’s a start.

Mr. Clinton’s fingerprints are also all over Mr. Kerry’s ballyhooed hunt for a running mate, which was undertaken early to engender “excitement.”

So far, it resembles a centrist knock-off of Star Search . Tom Vilsack, Bill Nelson, Ed Rendell, Richard Gephardt, Dick Durbin, Bob Graham, Mark Warner, Janet Napolitano, Bill Richardson, Franklin Raines, Evan Bayh. Roll those names over your tongue. Feel your pulse racing?

Mr. Clinton’s original stallion, John Edwards, is in the mix as well, the Kerry camp apparently neglecting to visit the Tar Heel State, where the overweening smoothie (who’s sagely not running for a second term) is about as popular as kudzu.

Another failed favorite of Mr. Clinton-Wesley Clark-is currently being vetted. Lordy, he’d like the job: His ringing defense of Mr. Kerry’s patriotism on the Times Op-Ed page last week ought to have appeared in the classifieds, under “Position Sought.”

Mr. Clinton is so helpfully omnipresent that the lurid-minded suspect he’s advising Mr. Kerry right into Palookaville, in order to clear the way for Hillary in ’08. But, protean though his energies may be, Bill can’t be blamed for everything. Boneheadedness explaining medals and automobile registrations rests exclusively with Mr. Kerry, who’s yet to grasp a key aspect of his mentor’s M.O.: If you want to get away with speaking out of both sides of your mouth, you’d better be awfully slick.

But give Mr. Kerry time. There’s 25 weekly phone calls to Chappaqua to go between now and Election Day, and Bill, as they say in Hope, Ark., can “talk an owl out of a tree.” Perhaps the master can show him how.