Old Teddy Calls Kerry-Bush Race Bigger Than ’60

The other Senator from Massachusetts put it as plain as plain can be on Sunday morning.

“This is the most important election of my lifetime,” saidEdward Moore Kennedy.

George Stepha-nopoulos, to whom the remark was addressed, appeared to gape, so the Senator-whose memories and sorrows run deeper-laid it out.

More than 1960, when his brother John was elected President, he said.

More than 1968, when his brother Bob was murdered trying to be elected President.

More than every election he’s been alive for: F.D.R. getting elected four times; Truman defeating Dewey; Ike going to the White House; Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush the dad, Clinton, Bush the kid.

“The most important in my lifetime,” the Senator emphasized.

Teddy was right.

This one is different. In the personalities, the issues, the coverage, the passion, the polls, the stakes. And it’s the differences-especially the last one-that hang over Boston this week, thick as the fog that shrouds Southie autumn mornings.

The mood in the Fleet Center shows it. No one seems to care that the platform’s a yawn. No one appears troubled by the lack of suspense. And-truly unusual for Democrats-no one seems interested in self-immolation. At least yet. The proceedings are so relentlessly disciplined, so utterly purposeful, that were it not for the minority faces and the absence of Hermès neckwear, you could be excused for concluding this is a Republican convention.

Another thing no one’s doing in Boston is kidding themselves about the nominee they’re about to be blessed/stuck with. Even Mr. Kerry’s own handlers conclude their enumeration of his virtues with a sighing, background “but.” This being togetherness week, let’s skip the full recitation of his failings. Suffice to say that, in the conveying warmth and eliciting huzzahs departments, John Kerry may just be the worst campaigner the Democratic Party has offered up for President in, oh, a century give or take. (Other, that is, than Michael Dukakis.)

Figure in the usual Democratic crosses Mr. Kerry bears (special-interest groups banging pots, Hollywood celebrities who won’t shut up), plus a unique one in the form of an ex-President whose personality is everything Mr. Kerry’s is not (boy, did Bill demonstrate that again Monday night), and you might think that Democrats would conclude their quadrennial gathering with a march to the new Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge for an en masse leap into the Charles.

You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

Delegates are verging on giddy about their nominee’s November chances. At that, they’re several optimism cuts below Mr. Kerry’s intimates. “They smell it,” says one of those sources always identified as “close to the Kerry camp” (but in this case, really is). “They know this is their time.”

Mostly, of course, that’s on account of George W. Bush, whose Harvard Business School management of the war and the economy makes him the easiest mark Democrats have had since Herbert Hoover-current polls and upcoming dirty tricks and/or predicted terrorist attacks notwithstanding. But Dubya can’t hog all the credit. For all Mr. Kerry’s flip-flops and fumbles (latest to be reported by Mickey Kaus: professing to be a fan of the Red Sox’s “Manny Ortez,” by which he apparently meant either Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz), there’s something about him that-for want of a better word-has the whiff of “Presidential.”

The trick is putting your finger on it.

Time and Newsweek have taken their shot, each devoting thousands of words this week to examining “What Makes John Kerry Tick” ( Time ‘s cover headline) and “The Roots of John Kerry’s Enigmatic Character” ( Newsweek ‘s subhead). Each comes up with a welter of interesting info, tidbits, anecdotes and quotes, like everyone else who’s tried; and after sifting through the puzzle parts, both magazines are left scratching their heads-like everyone else.

Hillary Clinton-who knows a thing or two about complicated male psyches-has stopped wondering: She’s just going with it, whatever makes Johnny run. She summed it up in an interview with Peter Jennings Monday: “The question in polls sometimes, ‘Would you want to have a beer with this person?’, is just the wrong question for the times in which we live. Because the question is, ‘Would you want to be in a foxhole with this person?'” To that, Hill answers in the affirmative.

Matters military figure in your correspondent’s Presidential ruminations as well-specifically, the incident that won Mr. Kerry the Silver Star.

The short of what happened is that then-Lieutenant Kerry and his mates were cruising along one day in their Swift boat (think a big-engine houseboat dunked in green paint, then loaded to the fiberglass gunnels with gas and explosives) up a Mekong Delta waterway (think the East River tied up in knots, lined with 10-foot reeds either side, so you can’t see anything), when up popped a V.C. with a B-40 rocket launcher on his shoulder. Whoosh went the rocket-missing, but not by much. (Otherwise someone else would be accepting the Democratic nomination Thursday night.) At which point, you and I would have slammed the throttles into reverse, gotten the hell out of there and changed our underpants. Not Mr. Kerry. Instead, he pointed the boat at the guy trying to kill him, and gunned the engines. The boat beached, and Mr. Kerry grabbed an M-16, leapt off and charged after him. The V.C.-winged by a round from one of the Swift Boat’s machine-guns-was reloading for another shot, when Mr. Kerry caught up, took aim and dropped him. Which is about as up close and personal to death as you can come.

The most impressive part: what Mr. Kerry said when he got back on the boat.

Not one word-nor does he talk about it today.

Someone like that, you can put up with a few flip-flops.

To test my Oval Office–suited theory, I called an old friend well acquainted with White House furnishings; with a pair of Democrats who used them; and, for the last 25 years, with another who’s likely to, starting Jan. 20, 2005. The friend’s name is Richard N. Goodwin.

Readers of recent vintage may remember Mr. Goodwin as the Congressional investigator who exposed as an answer-fed fraud Twenty-One show winner Charles Van Doren in the 1994 movie Quiz Show -a scandal that in real life humiliated Charlie’s father, poet Mark Van Doren, and stood 1950’s television on its ear. Those with longer memories will recall Mr. Goodwin’s service as assistant special counsel and speechwriter to John F. Kennedy, chores later performed for Lyndon Johnson, and-after concluding that L.B.J. was certifiable for believing Walter Lippmann and Teddy White were agents of the international Communist conspiracy-Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

Along the way, Mr. Goodwin chatted with Che Guevara; invented the “Great Society” tag; set up Peace Corps replicas around the planet; wrote L.B.J.’s most memorable civil-rights addresses (including the one that introduced affirmative action); helped talk Bobby into running for President (he wrote his most memorable speeches, too); tried, vainly, to stop the Bay of Pigs invasion in its tracks; got to know lots of Nobel Prize winners and movie stars; and developed a reputation for being, in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger, “the archetypal New Frontiersman.”

Mr. Goodwin, in sum, is a Kennedy guy to his cigar-stained fingertips, which explains why you haven’t been seeing him much of late: Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton aren’t to his taste. Instead, he’s been holed up in Concord, Mass., with his wife, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, writing (books, and a play about Galileo) and brooding-about the state of the world, as well as the safety of his Harvard-grad, first-lieutenant son, who enlisted after 9/11 and recently returned from a year’s combat tour in Iraq. In the Goodwin family, they walk the walk.

I caught up to Dick Sunday night, just after he and Doris checked into Jurys. They were togging out for a round of parties, site of the real business-doing at Democratic conventions. Per usual, he was bitching.

“The goddamn cage they set up for protesters is a joke,” he started in. “If you had any protesters, no one could hear them, and no one could see them. They have barb wire! And this is where they held the Boston Tea Party, for Chrissakes! Poor old Sam Adams never coulda got his revolution started with that cage.”

Pleasantries followed, and confirmation that he’s hanging out now and again with Mr. Kerry on the trail, providing “some ideas and things,” in addition to other, apparently more sensitive labors he won’t get into. Their families have also socialized, most recently last Sunday, when Mr. Kerry, with a couple of friends and his Secret Service contingent in tow, biked over from Boston, 20 miles away.

“He came in nice and salty,” says Mr. Goodwin. “He didn’t look like Lance Armstrong, but he looked O.K.”

Then the assessment began, commencing-as is the Goodwin habit-with the downside.

“Terrible campaigner? Yeah. That’s why we all try to get in and see if we can help him make it …. Whether he has enough of an edge to really get out there and be forceful, and whether he has the instincts-he has a lot of good instincts when it comes to policy and that kind of stuff, but does he have the solid political instincts, and will he follow them instead of focus groups? That, I don’t know.”

He paused to rumble: “I don’t think anybody writes speeches anymore; I think focus groups write them.”

I mentioned a recent interview, where Peter Jennings had grilled Mr. Kerry on his statement that “life begins at conception,” prompting the hedges and qualifiers that are the Kerry trademark.

“What the fuck would he know, anyway?” said Mr. Goodwin. “I don’t think the hedging will hurt him as President, but it’s a very bad characteristic as a campaigner. That’s the real problem here.

“He’s always been cautious …. He’s always been very conscious politically. I’m not sure that’s a bad quality. On the other hand, I think he’s willing to step out on things-that’s what we’ll find out in this campaign.”

A few more mutters, then Mr. Goodwin turned to the upside.

“He’s a good guy, he’s an intelligent man. He’s easy to work with. He’s responsive, he listens, he absorbs things. A lot. He has a pretty balanced view on issues and policies. And he sees problems. He may be a little left of center, but that’s because of Massachusetts. His constituency wanted that.

“He has a good character, and pretty good judgment, when it comes to substantive stuff,” Mr. Goodwin went on, “and probably when it comes to people …. Look what he did to his own campaign at the beginning. When those guys weren’t cutting it, he fired ‘em. I don’t think he enjoys being mean, at all. But when it’s tough and you have to do something, you gotta get rid of somebody or tell somebody what to do, John will not hesitate …. He can be a bastard when he needs to be. That’s very important as President.

“You know one of the things I like about him most?” Mr. Goodwin said. “Unlike most politicians, he asks you about yourself: what you’re doing, what you’re working on. He keeps up with that. He’s not like most of these guys, who all seem to be totally self-centered. Like Clinton. They talk amiably, but it’s about themselves and what they’re doing. He’s not like that.

“He’s a decent person, who’s got his antennae out for people around him, and not completely concerned with himself …. He’s got a decent sense of humor, and he’ll joke and talk to you about other people in sort of a humorous way-you wouldn’t recognize any of that when he’s campaigning.”

Teresa was on the hotel-room tube, and Mr. Goodwin, who likes her enormously (“One of the best things about Kerry is that she chose him”), had to wind it up.

John Kerry, he said, “has all the stuff you need … to be a good President. What more do you want?”

I thanked Dick Goodwin for his opinions, and hung up.

That’s when it hit-“it” being why John Kerry seems so elusive.

He’s something we haven’t had in the White House for a long time.

A grown-up.