The Trouble Is, So Far Kerry Stinks On TV

In recent weeks, even Senator John Kerry’s closest friends have been at a loss as to why the Democratic Presidential candidate has failed to communicate the most humanizing part of his biography: his war record as a decorated Vietnam veteran. “I know he’s quite capable of it,” said Bob Kerrey, the president of New School University, former Nebraska Senator and fellow Vietnam veteran. “I don’t know why it’s not working now.”

But there seems to be a very clear reason why: Mr. Kerry is terrible on TV.

“Abysmal,” said John Weaver, the former strategist for Senator John McCain’s Presidential run and the man who coined the “Straight Talk Express.”

Watching Mr. Kerry on TV, he said, “I don’t know if it’s a stream of consciousness or stream of unconsciousness.”

“It’s a lot of words and no clarity, a lot of presence and no warmth,” said Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball , who was preparing to interview Mr. Kerry for an hour on April 27. “And I think he’s got to deal with that.”

Take a look, for example, at NBC’s Meet the Press on April 18. Tim Russert aired a tape of Senator John Kerry’s appearance on the show 33 years earlier, when he was a young, jut-chinned veteran, 27 years old, full of baleful gravity, expressing a sense of shame for his actions in Vietnam. The camera cut back to Senator Kerry, now a man running for President of United States.

“You committed atrocities,” said Mr. Russert gravely, asking Mr. Kerry to address the statements of the young man on the screen.

Suddenly, the current John Kerry, of 2004, gave a stumbling, inexplicable guffaw.

“Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That’s a big question for me.”

And suddenly, inexplicably, the question showed up: Where did all that gravitas go, John? That’s the big question for the viewer. The appealing young veteran disappeared, the angry, vengeful Democratic candidate disappeared, and John Kerry, the callow Swiss-prep-school boy returned, as vividly as George Bush the smirking frat boy makes his appearances on national television. “Awful,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “Just awful.”

In recent appearances, Mr. Kerry’s digressions and obfuscations about whether he threw a war medal or a ribbon on the White House lawn in 1971-or whether the young Mr. Kerry should have used the word “war crimes” to describe actions in Vietnam-have obscured the candidate. At every turn, he has managed to turn the TV screen into smoked glass: He’s right in front of you, but you can’t … quite … make … him … out. With his morose patrician mien and robotic delivery-parodied with precision by Jon Stewart on the Monday, April 24, Daily Show , surely not a good thing for the candidate-Mr. Kerry’s TV performances are sounding a gut-level alarm about his ability to inspire confidence in the electorate. “He needs to speak the truth and speak from the heart and not try to calibrate his views or his actions,” said Mr. Weaver. “The public catches on to these things, and they can see through whether there’s a calibration going on or not. He needs to stop that.”

He didn’t need to speak the name of former Vice President Al Gore. But a media strategist for another Democratic Presidential candidate said that Mr. Kerry had to lose the “legislative speak” and begin talking “like a normal person communicates, speaking in simple, more declarative sentences that have a clearer meaning for people.” Compared to President George W. Bush, he added, Mr. Kerry appeared more intelligent, “but there are many instances in which George Bush communicates more clearly.”

The Republican attack ads about Mr. Kerry that have run in 18 battleground states have set the tone for Mr. Kerry’s appearances. Since April 15, they’ve speared Mr. Kerry for having said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion-before I voted against it.” The context, of course, was important: Mr. Kerry was criticizing Vermont Governor Howard Dean at the time, arguing over how to balance the budget in the context of the war in Iraq. But instead of squelching that image with a decisive blow, Mr. Kerry has continually cemented it with distended, lumbering TV appearances.

But it also showed the power of simplicity: a single one-liner could define an entire interview. Mr. Kerrey said the candidate needed to reconnect with his own history.

“I think he’s got to go back to remember what it felt like and help people understand what it was like in 1971,” said Mr. Kerrey. “It was a terrible time, and he was a kid. And he just said some indefensible things. How unusual does that make him for a 25-year-old? Not very. Especially during that time. He served honorably, with great distinction.”

But even when Mr. Kerry attempts to let his passion fly, he becomes hectoring and aggressive. On Monday, April 26, Good Morning America host Charlie Gibson asked Mr. Kerry to explain his inconsistent stories about whether he once tossed war medals or ribbons onto the White House lawn in 1971. Maybe it was a quibbling issue, all things considered. But was this the best way to tackle it?

Senator Kerry : Charlie, Charlie, you’re wrong! That is not what happened. I threw my ribbons across. And all you have to do is go back and find the file footage.

Charlie Gibson : And someone else’s medals? And someone else’s medals, correct?

Senator Kerry : Later, after, excuse me-excuse me, Charlie!

It hadn’t helped that the first live shot of Mr. Kerry was of him shaking his head in disgust at Mr. Gibson’s setup to the interview. On TV, Mr. Kerry projects a subtle disdain for the medium while he is appearing on it. He doesn’t even plan on answering the questions, if he can help it. “There’s no such thing as a trick question with Kerry, because he just won’t answer it,” observed Mr. Matthews. “‘Well, let me put it this way, Chris,’ or ‘Well, the real question here, Chris …. ‘ See, that’s the problem with him. And I find afterward, we’ll be having conversations afterward, and it’s hard to get to him even then.”

Not only has Mr. Kerry not relayed his ideas with clarity, he has failed to relay the visceral presence of an unaffected personality. On his Meet the Press outing, he told Mr. Russert: “Now, we’re in a position now to be able to respond and introduce myself to the country. I look forward to that. I look forward to Americans getting to know who I really am.” But why was he looking forward? There he was, live on television, with every chance to be himself.

“I’m not sure what the message is-that may be the essence of the problem,” said Joe McGinniss, the author of The Selling of the President , the best-seller that detailed Richard M. Nixon’s media strategy. As a Massachusetts resident, Mr. McGinniss said he had never seen Mr. Kerry do well on TV-or even in public, for that matter. “When he sits down one-to-one with somebody, he’s not good,” said Mr. McGinniss. But then again, he added, neither was Mr. Bush, or Mr. Nixon. “They knew Nixon was never going to be good in a situation like that. The shows that Roger Ailes directed had the appearance of spontaneity, but it was all carefully scripted. You put Nixon in a thing where he looks like he’s taking a risk where he’s not. They’re going to have to dress up the set for John Kerry, but he can’t do it on his own. He’s not Jack Kennedy, although he wishes he were.”

Mr. Matthews described Mr. Kerry as more like Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson. “He’s kind of, like, world-weary, and he has that voice of wariness, almost like a Scandinavian winter,” he said. “It’s cold and it’s weary. That’s what he sounds like when he’s interviewed.”

Despite Mr. Kerry’s problems, a number of observers said it was still very early in the race. And it’s also not clear that the crucial voters even watch shows like Meet the Press or Hardball with any regularity, or even interest. “Typically, for the swing-voter type, when you’re asking somebody about the choice of words 33 years ago, those people have a 100 percent record of either forgiveness or completely not giving a fuck,” said Lawrence O’Donnell, the MSNBC political analyst. “Have we learned nothing from George Wallace’s career?”

Mr. O’Donnell said these TV appearances were simply testing grounds.

“The reason we stare at John Kerry in April is that Tim is the best indicator there is on how rough it’s going to be on you in a Presidential debate in October,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who like Mr. Russert once worked for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “‘Oh, look at that, there’s a vulnerability there.’ And, ‘Oh, by the way, he’s got several months to work on that.’”

Still, Mr. Kerry has a lot more history to contend with-TV history. “You create a tremendous number of obstacles in the obstacle course of life by going on television for 27, 30 years,” said Mr. Matthews. “Because the age of television has created this incredible archive system. No matter what you’ve ever said, it can come popping out at you. But the only way you can replace old stuff is with new stuff, so you have to constantly make your new stuff more compelling. That’s how you do it. So television has a permanence, but you almost have to do battle with your old tape.”

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for Mr. Kerry to transform.

“The Democratic friends I have keep saying, ‘Wait, wait, he’ll get better,’” said Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes . “Well, I’m waiting, and I don’t know if he will or not. He may yet surprise me and make it apparent why he’s the guy I’d like to see as President of the United States. I haven’t seen it yet.

“Maybe he needs some good professional advice,” he added, “if he’s in a mood to take it.”

Thursday, April 29

Ladies and gentlemen, raise a glass to ex-pol Chris Matthews: This week, MSNBC’s Hardball celebrates seven years on TV.

“The best treat is to go outside to regular suburban neighborhoods, where people are at the hardware store,” Mr. Matthews told NYTV. “That’s where everybody watches Hardball . That’s where you find them.” Tonight, Mr. Matthews hauls out a blowtorch and goggles and goes to work on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. [MSNBC, 43, 7 p.m.]

Friday, April 30

Tonight, Nightline host Ted Koppel will spend the entire show reciting the names of the more than 500 servicemen and women who have died in action in the war in Iraq. It’s an extension of the program’s nightly segment, “Line of Duty,” which has profiled individual casualties. But now the names will fill every second of air time-two seconds per name-over the course of the show’s half hour.

Was this a kind of public service?

“I see it more as a Rorschach test,” said Mr. Koppel. “At one and the same time, it pays respect and honor to the young men and women who have died. And on the other hand people will take from this, I think, a reflection of what they bring to it.

“When the country goes to war to defend its national interest,” he continued, “5, 6, 700 dead is not that huge a number. But I think expectations were so limited that it is coming as a bit of shock to people that that many have died.”

The idea was the brainchild of executive producer Leroy Sievers, who said he was inspired by the memory of a Life magazine spread he saw growing up during Vietnam.

“Whether you agree on the war or not, the men and women over there are doing it in our name,” said Mr. Sievers. “It’s too easy to dismiss the numbers. One of the lessons of Vietnam was to separate the warrior from the war.”

You can also watch it on the Jumbotron in Times Square. [WABC, 7, 11:35 p.m.]

Sunday, May 2

Tonight! Tina Brown, author of the forthcoming Icarus Complex , stars in a remake of George Cukor’s It Should Happen to You , in which Judy Holliday, as Gladys Glover, gets her own billboard in Columbus Circle and is caught between Jack Lemmon and Peter Lawford. Remember that movie, Ms. Brown? Actually, her billboard is on the West Side Highway to advertise Topic A with Tina Brown , the talk show on which guests are set up to be grilled and then told their comments are “fascinating.” “I choked when I saw it for the first time,” said Ms. Brown. “I felt like a pair of Calvin Klein underpants …. I’ve had lots of e-mails. They send me these kind of ‘eek’ e-mails. ‘Oh my God, I was driving in from the country last night and what did I see?’ It had a surreal feeling when you see it for the first time. But it’s also kind of exciting. It’s like a real TV show all of a sudden. It was kind of thrilling because of that: ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a real TV show!’” [CNBC, 15, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, May 3

NYTV hears that Dave Chapelle will have his own stand-up show on Showtime later this year. That’s good. He’s really a very funny man! Tonight, Mr. Chapelle offers the best bits from the second season. [COM, 45, 10 p.m.]