Imagine Kissing Kerry: Pooey! Mama Michelle Calls Him Good Papa

Michelle Phillips would like you to know that John Kerry is a great kisser.

In other campaign news this week, the last good-guy Republican to inhabit the White House died. George Tenet quit or was shown the door. The Pope lectured Dubya on how preserving life isn’t just about fetuses. Bill Clinton wowed book-sellers in Chicago with a “you’ll have me thinking I’m President again” line originally tried out at the Home Depot Center in Fort Lauderdale. Teresa Heinz Kerry excused her husband’s flip-flopping as “a sign of intelligent people.” And a Washington Web-letter, Capitol Hill Blue , quoted unnamed Presidential aides as suggesting that the recent, behind-the-scenes deportment of George W. Bush bears worrying resemblance to Richard Nixon circa The Final Days .

But you’re still thinking about Michelle Phillips, aren’t you?

No apologies needed. She’s been a distraction since long before she became Chynna’s mom. To explain how the former lead singer of the Mamas and the Papas acquired her inside knowledge of Mr. Kerry’s osculation gifts-and where it fits in the current installment of democracy’s quadrennial drama-requires backing up some, however.

To Tampa, Fla., specifically, where last week Mr. Kerry delivered one in an 11-day series of speeches devoted to how he’d protect the country better than Dubya, in this case from biological attack. But the audience-an emergency first-responders union which had endorsed him-was sparse, and Mr. Kerry’s listless delivery didn’t jazz.

“On several occasions, Kerry paused, seemingly expecting applause for his lines,” wrote The AmericanSpectator ‘s “Prowler” columnist. “At one point he said, ‘I will do what I think is best for the country,’ then waited for applause that only developed after one of his advance staffers began leading a weak round of applause. His lukewarm reception was so bad that Kerry lost his cool, telling his audience, ‘I know you don’t want to be here anymore.’

“‘That line actually generated more real cheers,’ says a bemused Florida Democratic Party official. ‘If this is the kind of response our campaign is getting elsewhere, we’re dead.'”

This is not the first occassion Mr. Kerry’s been accused of lacking people skills. There was the time he informed his traumatized staff of the firing of campaign manager Jim Jordan via speakerphone while munching a meal … the time he snapped, “I don’t need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean” … and the bunches of times he’s blamed embarrassments on less exalted others.

The most memorable was when he tumbled while snowboarding in Idaho, after cinching the nomination, when one of the Secret Service agents sworn to take a bullet for him inadvertently crossed his path.

“That son-of-a-bitch ran into me,” Mr. Kerry snarled.

A politician more comfortable in his own skin would have gained points laughing at himself. Mr. Kerry’s hero, John Kennedy, for instance, charmed by saying of his PT-109 derring-do: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” Not Mr. Kerry. “I don’t fall down,” he insisted to reporters, who’d spotted him doing a reasonable facsimile half a dozen times.

The seeming snootiness is an old problem for Mr. Kerry. At St. Paul’s, mates resented his disturbing the High Episcopalian calm by holier-than-thou declaiming on the plight of the Negro and-unforgivable etiquette breach-hogging the puck.

According to conservative film critic Michael Medved, similar transgressions occurred at Yale, where Mr. Medved was a freshman when senior Kerry was a Bonesman and president of the Yale Political Union, a campus debating society. “Pompous,” Mr. Medved judged him. “A J.F.K. wannabe.”

Even Richard Nixon caught the trait, when Mr. Kerry came home from Vietnam to lead veterans’ protests. White House tapes record him telling Chuck Colson, “He is sort of a phony, isn’t he?”

A few were good at deflating him. In Joe Klein’s 2002 New Yorker profile, we learn that Mr. Kerry’s first wife-heiress Julia Thorne, one of whose forebears’ names appears toward the bottom of the Declaration of Independence-would listen to him speechifying at dinner parties and laugh, “What the fuck did you just say?”

Julia’s suicidal depression ended the marriage, however, and at the 1992 Democratic convention, a lady chum of mine spotted Mr. Kerry sitting off by himself, gazing at his tie, which he was repeatedly stroking, as if contemplating the rectitude that had brought him so handsome an accessory. “That’s a very nice tie,” said my friend, trying to make nice. “Yes,” Mr. Kerry agreed, still stroking and not looking up. “It’s wonderful.”

The political impact of such behavior was reflected in a CBS News/ New York Times poll this spring: It had Mr. Bush beating Mr. Kerry in “likability” 57 percent to 48. An ABC News/ Washington Post survey conducted around the same time had Mr. Bush also besting Mr. Kerry in the “people person” and “caring and compassionate” departments, and Mr. Kerry leading in “boring personality.”

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, whose focus groups have been marking Mr. Kerry as “distant” and “sad” since the primaries, told The Washington Times : “What [voters] want to see in a President is someone who they would invite into their living rooms at night, someone who is likable. If you are not likable, you will not pass the living-room test.”

Kerry partisans are all but begging their champion to loosen up, show some of the sunniness that was Mr. Reagan’s Teflon shield. If a stiff like Al Gore can crack about “being on leave from a wax museum,” they ask, why not John?

Mr. Kerry, however, goes on being Mr. Kerry.

Latest to notice is ousted Times executive editor Howell Raines, who’s offering campaign thoughts to The Guardian while waiting for a publisher to bite on a memoir Arthur Sulzberger Jr. won’t like. In his inaugural outing last week, Mr. Raines had this to say:

“Kerry radiates the feeling that he is entitled to his sense of entitlement …. Kerry’s lantern jaw and Addams Family face somehow reinforce the message that this guy has passed from ponderous to pompous and is so accustomed to privilege that he doesn’t have to worry about looking goofy. It’s as if Lurch had gone to Choate.”

Reflecting on the above, I asked Google for Kerry chums on the distaff side, on the theory they’d be more attuned to inner-child issues. Up popped a number of prominent ex-girlfriends, whose backgrounds were revealing about the presumed Democratic nominee in differing ways.

The most evident was his interest in the performing arts, with actresses Catherine Oxenberg, Morgan Fairchild, Cornelia Guest, Patti Davis and Dana Delany listed as among those he’d spent evenings with while unattached, presumably discussing Strindberg and Stanislavsky.

Also apparent was Mr. Kerry’s fascination for economic matters, evidenced by the heritage of Ms. Guest, “deb of the decade” daughter of socialite C.Z. and great-granddaughter of financier Henry Phipps (who invested with his friend Andrew Carnegie in an ironworks J.P. Morgan turned into U.S. Steel). Further confirmation came from his association with Ms. Delany (of the Delany flush-valve family), and journalist Emma Gilbey (of the British gin dynasty).

Mr. Kerry appeared keen on the Balkans, too: Ms. Oxenberg’s mother is H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. An alumna of Mr. Kerry’s prep alma mater, Ms. Oxenberg may also have provided insight on Russian involvement in the region, having been named for her ancestress, Czarina Catherine the Great.

Concern for social policy was another theme in Mr. Kerry’s choice of companions. Ms. Davis is the bad-girl daughter of the late President Reagan; while Ms. Fairchild, the former Jenna Wade of Dallas , is involved in a number of causes Mr. Kerry holds dear (AIDS, abortion rights, saving the desert around Palm Springs), and during the primaries, contributed to the campaigns of John Edwards, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt-but apparently forgot her old beau was running.

Then I came upon the name of the woman you’ve been wondering about since the first sentence.

Michelle Phillips is free from the taint of aristocracy, though she is rock royalty. There was no ancestral fortune in the Long Beach, Calif., household where she grew up. She did not prep anywhere, or attend college, Ivy or otherwise. Instead, at the age of 17, then Holly Michelle Gilliam took up with Greenwich Village folk singer John Phillips, and embarked on a well-chronicled musical career, which eventually morphed into acting in a number of movies and TV shows.

She’s liberal, like Mr. Kerry (more so, to judge from the $250 she gave to Howard Dean’s campaign); certainly shrewder; and happens to be a close friend by L.A. standards, which means we once passed a couple of pleasant hours in the Polo Lounge. So I gave her a call.

She was at home, preparing for her birthday party that evening, and in a mood to chat. Right off, she wanted to set The National Enquirer straight: Her supposed romance with Mr. Kerry consisted of bumping into him at Elaine’s one night, then dinner several months later at a Beverly Hills restaurant-both encounters, she stressed, came long before he met Teresa, who, she adds, is “great.”

Ms. Phillips thinks the same about Teresa’s husband, whom she supports and can’t wait to vote for.

“He was very funny,” Michelle says of their dinner. “Fabulous sense of humor, quite delightful. A very good guy. ” She laughs: “I thought he was very Presidential. And”-bigger laugh-“he gave me a wonderful good-night kiss.”

Mr. Kerry, in short, is a red-blooded American male who does so have a sense of humor, and more or less the same ticks as anyone you’d meet on Newbury Street. It just doesn’t come across to voters.

His handlers shrug this off either as another stupid press fixation or as inconsequential in an election dominated by war and the economy. Mr. Kerry’s friends in the A.F.L.-C.I.O., however, are sufficiently concerned that a couple of months back, they quietly commissioned the firm of Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates to conduct focus-group studies of independent and undecided union members.

According to the A.P., the results were not heartening. Mr. Bush still enjoys support among so-called “Reagan Democrats,” who tend not to blame him for the economy and unemployment; regard him as likable and strong, “with a nice family and good moral values”; but are beginning to get suspicious about whether he really and truly cares about working people. Mr. Kerry, on the other hand, was judged a cold fish.

How he got that way hasn’t been fully answered, though there are hints in the biography put together by several Boston Globe reporters. They record the rarefied stock from which Mr. Kerry springs on his mother’s side (Winthrops and Forbeses from time immemorial); the suicide of the fraternal Jewish grandfather who converted to Catholicism; and Mr. Kerry’s banishment to a series of nurtureless boarding schools (sometimes an ocean away) from very early age. Mr. Kerry is quoted as saying that his parents were “fabulous and caring and supportive” the rare times he saw them, but that his dad was “sort of painfully remote and shut off and angry about the loss of his sister [she died of polio and cancer] and the lack of a father.” As for the learning institutions he was sentenced to, Mr. Kerry said: “I was always moving on and saying goodbye. It kind of had an effect on you; it steeled you; there wasn’t a lot of permanence and roots. For kids, not the greatest thing. I certainly didn’t want that for my kids.”

Mr. Kerry also had a description for the period when-separated from Julia-he was gallivanting with rich and famous lovelies: “The loneliest in my life.”

What to make of all this requires the services of a shrink. I happen to have another pal who fits the bill, so after I got off the phone with Michelle, I called.

My friend the psychoanalyst-let’s call her “Jill”-has never met Mr. Kerry, much less had him on her couch. However, she does possess a unique credential in assessing the psyches of would-be Presidents. In college, she dated a bright young fellow who was working on a nearby Congressional campaign prior to enrolling at Yale Law (where he’d meet and fall in love with the woman he’s still married to). His name was Bill Clinton.

Jill is unbudgeably discreet about their time together, and any professional conclusions she may have reached. All she’ll say is, “He used to sing me Elvis Presley songs when we were driving places. He was enormous fun.”

About Mr. Kerry, Jill emphasizes that her theories are strictly DSM curbstone. She admires him, though, has observed his doings closely and familiarized herself with the details of his family background and upbringing.

Here’s what she said:

“His grandfather committed suicide. This sort of thing is devastating in families, and may indicate some genetic predisposition to depression.

“He’s worried about being criticized if he’s spontaneous. An eyebrow raised or something. He had rather stiff parents. That would account for it.

“The pomposity, I think, is awkwardness. A defense. A defense against his shyness.

“Kids who are not related to in a warm, emotional way by their parents are not very good at making emotional contact with other people. We don’t know what the dynamics were in his family, but clearly there wasn’t a lot of fun going on. He wasn’t allowed to have too good a time. It was very serious. Very serious. We ought to have compassion for him. We ought to have compassion for anyone who was brought up like him.

“The Kennedy humor he doesn’t have? It’s an Irish trait. He’s not Irish. WASP’s, Jews aren’t into that humor. He’s Catholic, but he might as well be WASP.

“Even though he may not have been well-liked as an adolescent, he seems to have this cadre of men around him, who are working with him, who are smart people and really like him. I like that he has men around him. This was one of Gore’s weaknesses. He didn’t have a circle of male friends, because he had such an incredibly brutal father. So he was more comfortable with women. He was too competitive with men to be friends with them.

“His Vietnam buddies, I think, are really crucial. Because I think that’s probably the most intense experience in his life-and the most intense bond. I think he should have these people with him all the time throughout the campaign. Because they loosen him up and warm him up more than anybody else does. He always smiles when they are there. He lights up when they are with him. Just comes alive. War experiences seem to be the most powerful experiences in men’s lives, so it makes sense.

“Reversing positions isn’t clinical. Everybody reverses positions when they get close. Have you ever known anyone who didn’t? He’s doing what he needs to do.”

Jill’s words don’t fit neatly on a campaign poster, and even if Bob Shrum could figure out how to squeeze them in, they’d be no match for the Ann Coulters ridiculing the heritage and loyalty of a candidate who’s actually bled for the country. They also wouldn’t bind up Mr. Kerry’s self-inflicted political wounds, which are many, and likely to be more.

What’s left for Democrats is the secret, horrible hope that the quarter-million new jobs created last month and the words of allied amity spoken at Normandy and the days without horror in Iraq are all passing blips. Because unless Teresa can transfer some of her spunk and wit, it’s bad news that’s going to put John Kerry in the White House, not John Kerry.

Dubya, fortunately, is cooperating. His announcement last week that he may hire a lawyer in the who-blew-Valerie-Palme’s-cover case is promising, as is the certainty of further shoes dropping in the media investigation of why George Tenet suddenly needed quality time with his family. Installing a former C.I.A. asset as interim president of Iraq is also helpful; ditto, the tail-tucked pull-out from Falluja and Najaf, which has infuriated Mr. Bush’s base no end, and made a liar of him in the bargain.

Before Ronald Reagan’s passing interrupted him, even John Kerry seemed to be on to something, with his pledge of full benefits for National Guardsmen and Reservists, and his attack on mandatory extension of combat tours as a “backdoor draft.” The military is Republican-friendly by inclination, but there are multiple voting-age parents and significant others for every one of the hundreds of thousands either on duty in Iraq or facing the prospect-and they ain’t happy.

Finally, there’s that Washington Web-letter report about Oval-Office weirdness mentioned many paragraphs ago. The author, self-described “grouchy old ex-newspaperman,” Doug Thompson, fulfills every liberal fantasy by portraying Mr. Bush as ready for the men in white coats.

Is it true? Almost certainly not. But it befits a political season gone nuts.

Few elections have mattered more in recent decades, yet thus far, few campaigns have been odder, meaner or more frivolous-on both sides. Come Nov. 2, though, the shouting and silliness will end, as it has 53 previous times in our history, with a silent choice. The one given us the 54th is between a man who knows life’s sorrows too well and agonizes too much, and a man who knows doubt, worry, reflection or serious hurt barely at all.

It is no contest.