As Lone Ranger, Kerry Shows Why He Needs Tonto

What did you expect?

John Kerry to do the unpredictable, the bold, the exciting? He hasn’t yet, and he has a better than even chance of being the next President of the United States. Why should he start now?

So, of course, he chose John Edwards to be his running mate.

The Party wanted it, the South, the centrists, the candidates in marginal districts, the unions (if they couldn’t get Gephardt), the Kennedys, the Clintons, the trial lawyers-just about everybody who was anybody in Democratic politics wanted John Edwards, including John Kerry’s own daughters, who flat fell in love with him.

About the only person who didn’t want John Edwards-who, in fact, couldn’t stand him-was the man who picked him.

Boy, did it show Tuesday morning in that square in Pittsburgh, Penn.

As running-mate announcements went, it was the hands-down worst in televised history, Democratic or Republican.

The speech was awful, the delivery wooden, the crowd nothing to write home about (your correspondent stood in that same square in 1972, when Teddy Kennedy introduced George McGovern, and, by comparison, you’d have thought it was the Second Coming). And the principals onstage? Well, Teresa looked like she’d been run over by an 18-wheeler. But then, if you were contemplating the prospect of being photographed alongside a Breck girl like Elizabeth Edwards for the next eight years, you might not radiate Vogue material, either. As for Teresa’s husband, his expression bespoke having subsisted solely on Brussels sprouts since returning from the Mekong Delta. Washed down that morning at breakfast by a tanker truck of castor oil.

Disinclination to provide aid and comfort to Bush/Cheney ’04 prohibits repeating everything he droned. Suffice to say Mr. Kerry devoted an ungodly while to rhapsodizing about those he wished he could have picked, skated perilously close to appalling taste by obliquely referring to the death of Mr. Edwards’ 16-year-old son in a car crash, and wrapped things up with canned perorations to great days to come that make Dick Cheney seem Mr. Sunshine by comparison. How bad was it? Let’s just say that the immediate thought was “Did Dukakis write this thing?” Followed by worst thought: “No, Kerry must have.”

But there was one plus to the performance (other than making the editors of the New York Post nincompoops): It evidenced how desperately Mr. Edwards’ presence on the ticket is required.

By now, you’re no doubt familiar with the Britannica of reasons Mr. Kerry doesn’t like Mr. Edwards: pushy, upstart, lightweight, pretty boy, doesn’t do his homework, didn’t pay his dues, not out of diapers, can’t carry his own state, is more glamorous than me, blah, blah, pisses-me-off-in-general blah. In case you missed any of the details, Karl Rove and Co. have already begun a four-month refresher course starring Mr. Kerry’s first choice, John McCain, whose decision to appear in the ads not only offers cause for rejoicing the offer was turned down, but suggests Hanoi may have been hit in the noggin more than imagined.

The central question remains: With such brimming distaste for Mr. Edwards, why did Mr. Kerry pick him?

That one’s easy: He’s not stupid.

As Mr. Kerry’s amply demonstrated by kowtowing to every interest group in sight, he’s acutely aware that one doesn’t get elected by offending-unless the offended doesn’t control many votes. Or-as in the case of liberals and minorities-will vote for you, anyway. Given Mr. Edwards’ overwhelming constituency, not selecting him would cast Mr. Kerry as King Canute, with identical results. Moreover, though not readily apparent to Mr. Kerry, who can be obtuse about the obvious, Mr. Edwards possesses multiple strengths.

Enabling Mr. Kerry to carry the South, it must be stated straightaway, is not one of them. With the exception of maybe Louisiana and Florida, the entire region is a write-off, including North Carolina, which despite a recent poll showing a prospective Kerry-Edwards ticket neck and neck with Dubya and Dick, seems more disposed to electing Michael Moore than John Kerry. But even though the cause be Pickett’s Charge in reverse, good manners dictates pretending otherwise. Besides, if Mr. Kerry’s elected (and the dark secret among his handlers is the conviction he will be by a landslide), he has to govern, which will be infinitely smoothed with the Senate in Democratic hands. The outcome of a few, currently close contests (such as Erskine Bowles’ run to succeed Mr. Edwards) will determine whether that comes to pass, and a Southern accent on the ticket might make the difference.

Where Mr. Edwards’ non–New England, easygoing, nice-guy, I’m-from-working-class-stock-too persona may carry the most weight is in the Midwest, particularly the so-called battlegrounds, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri. It’s here (not Florida, Jeb) that the election will be decided. That’s why Mr. Bush is drowning the region with staff, commercials and personal appearances-so far without much effect.

Conventional wisdom (dollops of which you received in the previous two paragraphs) says a Bichon Frise could be vice-presidential nominee for all it matters, proof supplied by two words: Dan Quayle. Ordinary rules, however, don’t apply in this election. Something about it is profoundly different. It can’t be quantified, and it doesn’t show up in the polls-because it’s not a fact, but a feeling, a sense that the ground is moving underfoot as never before. Who’d have imagined, for instance, that a movie-a 116-minute entertainment, for goodness sakes-would have rock-ribbed, lifelong, never-a-Democrat-in-my-house Republicans walking out of a theater in tears? But it did in the East Hampton, N.Y., screening yours truly attended, and for what anecdotal evidence is worth, Michael Moore’s version of Das Kapital is doing the same in places like Kalamazoo, Mich., and Fayetteville, N.C.-the home of Fort Bragg. Something is different, all right, and it’s a little scary.

The danger for John Kerry is that the difference will extend to the worth of vice-presidential nominees. If it does, he could wind up the first presidential candidate since William McKinley (who made the mistake of selecting Teddy Roosevelt as his running mate) to be fully eclipsed by his official lesser. No wonder his puss was so sour in Pittsburgh.

Which is not to say that Mr. Kerry’s assessment of Mr. Edwards is incorrect. Truth is, he’s right on every count. There is a callowness about the up-from-nowhere smoothie all the scrubbing in the world won’t get rid of. And in the glibness department, he’s way too much like Bill Clinton for his own good. (Happily, the resemblance ends with morality.) It’s easy to joke about Mr. Edwards’ chipmunk eagerness, even poke fun at his Ken Doll looks, like Hillary Clinton did one day in the Senate, when Mr. Edwards rose to ask a question while she had the floor. “John,” she reportedly said, “stick to what you do best: stand there and look pretty.”

The skimpiness of Mr. Edwards’ legislative record also offers fat target, as does his relative paucity of foreign travels (though compared to Dubya, pre-Presidency, he’s Magellan). “You know what John Edwards’ experience is in international affairs?’ goes the G.O.P. joke. “He ate at the IHOP twice.”

The President’s troops will have all kinds of things to say about John Edwards-22 single-space, small-type pages worth, to be precise, which is the length of the confidential attack directive inadvertently posted on the Bush/Cheney ’04 Web site the moment he was announced.

The thing is, none of it matters. John Edwards possesses indefinables you can’t bottle. Bob Kerrey-no savviness slouch himself-noticed it the day he opened his mouth in the Senate. “I felt toward John,” he told The Times , “the way 10-year veterans on the Yankees must have felt when Mickey Mantle walked on the field for the first time.”

Kerry über -strategist Bob Shrum caught it, too: He moved heaven and earth trying to get John Edwards to be Al Gore’s running mate after he’d been in the Senate-his first elective post at any level ever-a total of 30 months.

But it was Ted Kennedy, John Kerry’s tutor in all things political, whose opinion mattered most-and he was wowed. “The Kennedys like John Kerry,” says a family friend. “They think John Edwards is a superstar.”

It took a while for Teddy to convince Mr. Kerry of that, and he was furious at his charge’s dalliance with John McCain-as, indeed, he’s been exasperated with Mr. Kerry about a lot lately, including his Hamlet impersonation about whether to accept the nomination at the Boston convention for fund-raising reasons, as well as his constant telephoning advisers for guidance on this, that and the other, most as plain as the nose on his face. Finally, though, Teddy’s Edwards message took.

So what’s it that John Edwards’ got?

In addition to ambition measured in megatons, plain doggedness, say North Carolina friends who know him long and well. Plus whip-smarts; empathy that, unlike a certain former President’s, is wholly genuine; quick-study knack at whatever’s put before him (don’t worry about the Cheney debate; Dick Holbrooke will soon commence briefings); squareness that really does make him a devoted family man, and shows, to boot; no apparent outside interests other than running (in both meanings of the term); a Yankee, military-brat wife a lot more like Tipper than Laura; and-what made him great as a trial lawyer and terrific as a politician-an otherworldy ability to listen to people’s problems one minute, and argue the case in their words the next.

Bill Clinton (who doesn’t look to be bunking in the White House residence quarters anytime soon after today) picked up on that right off. “John,” he said, when he was advising him how to run for President, “you can talk an owl down from a tree.”

Is all this going to change John Kerry? Don’t bet on it.

He is who he is, and proximity to the Edwards elixir isn’t going to fix what maddens. He’ll still flip-flop; still pander to whomever needs pandering to; still use the subjunctive (“We may need a new President”) when the simple declarative’s called for; still blame speechwriters and Secret Servicemen for screw-ups; still bore to death too often; still be someone you wouldn’t want to barbecue with; still act like he’s doing us a favor by allowing our votes.

Get used to it.

With John Edwards as Tonto, he’s going to be President.