Report For Duty! I Say, On Jan. 20, Kerry Takes Oath

For starters, a personal word.

Twenty-six weeks ago, this column got going with the story of an encounter on a cool April night in 1971 with a tall, young ex-Navy lieutenant in a veterans’ tent pitched on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The next morning, he led a march to the Capitol of the United States to try to end a war.

Three decades plus have passed, and we are at war again. And, once more, John Kerry is leading a march to end it. His intended objective: the marble steps where he left his combat ribbons, all those years ago.

Luck has permitted your correspondent to chronicle both journeys—with more than a few barbs directed at the journeyer this time round.

His every falter and fault—and they’ve been numerous—has been noted in this space, which has ridiculed him some weeks, flat despaired of him others. In the telling here, he’s done few things right, other than not being the person he’s running against. “May be the worst candidate for President the Democratic Party has offered up in a century,” it was inscribed a while back. The conviction remains: At the ordinaries that win elections—connect, glad-hand, self-deprecate, speak simply—he’s woeful, and if he loses, that will be the cause. Not what John Kerry stands for. Or because of John Kerry, the man: In all the essentials—all the things that count judging someone who would be President—he’s no different today than he was in Vietnam. Or (even more admirably) when we both came home.

There was an aura about him, on first meeting, a specialness that invited penetration only so far. He was good company, great—hard as it may be to believe—to b.s. with, kid with, have a few beers with, talk about dames with. But there was always that reserve. The one thing about John Kerry you could stake your life on—which is what this election is about, bottom line—is that, physically and morally, he had a sackful of guts. That never goes away.

Reporters have allegiances, just like normal people. The rapidly dwindling best do their jobs despite them—and, on exceedingly few occasions, because of them. What reporters who cover campaigns religiously avoid is making predictions—unless protected by thickets of hedges, qualifiers and nuance that make them sound like a certain Presidential candidate from New England. Reason’s simple: Who wants to look stupid if they don’t come true?

One of the luxuries of occupying this space has been hectoring John Kerry to stick his neck out (about the war, the war, ever the war), without having to expose that which connects your correspondent’s body to his sometimes fat head. With this, the final Kerry Watch, time has arrived for a sliver of equality. Leap without net:

A few minutes past noon on Jan. 20, a tall, not so young any longer, ex-Navy lieutenant will begin making us feel proud again of who we are.

Sure thing? If you’re seeking certainty, a suggestion: turn to the Classifieds, under “The Very Personal Observer”—outcome’s guaranteed there.

Desires of more fickle sort are the topic here, and with days till Nov. 2 now in single digits (and a good slice of the vote already cast), they’re all over the map.

Polls have the finish too close to call, and all the other normally trusty indicators—turnout, new registrations, incumbency, undecideds breaking to challenger, reluctance to swap horses mid-conflict, etc., etc.—are, as Ron Ziegler memorably put it in a similarly stressful moment, “no longer operative.” What from the jump was plain as pie to everyone who didn’t identify themselves as “media” has, at the 11th hour, attained press-certified status as conventional wisdom: This election is like no other.

But numbers you’re expecting, so numbers you shall get (though they’ll have changed by the time you finish reading them, if they haven’t already).

According to a poll commissioned by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (which this weekend endorsed a Democratic candidate for President for the first time in 40 years), John Kerry now leads George W. Bush in First Brother Jeb’s adopted domicile 48 percent to 47 percent. One percent ain’t much, but it sure beats the 2 or 3 percent Mr. Kerry trailed Dubya by in two other Sunshine State polls last week.

Newspaper polls also have Mr. Kerry a sudden smidgen ahead in Ohio and Pennsylvania—a development that makes the L.A. Times interactive Electoral Map of the U.S. fun to fiddle with after ages.

Of course, you’re waiting for the “but.” ’Tis thus: The Rasmussen and Zogby tracking polls of the national horse race have Mr. Bush heading into the homestretch leading by 1 and 2 points, respectively (wouldn’t you know? Fox News numbers exceed every poll in that department); while surveys in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota put him ahead by a nose in those flyovers—plus Democratic-forever Hawaii, if you put stock in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ’s poll, which was apparently taken at the monthly lunch of the Oahu Rotary.

The polls, in sum, offer something for everyone, including those needing a push deciding which newsmagazine to renew: According to Time, Mr. Bush’s approval rating stands at a fortress 53 percent; according to Newsweek, a chicken-coop 46.

Where the numbers unite is in dismay produced. “Apprehensive,” an unnamed Republican official described the mood of Rove & Co. to The Washington Post. “‘Grim’ is too strong,” he went on. “If we feel this way a week from now, that will be ‘grim.’”

Kerry handler reaction, a likewise anonymous Democrat familiar with their deliberations told the Los Angeles Times, ranged from optimism (presumably, those who hadn’t heard of the survey reporting that twice the number of black voters were supporting Mr. Bush than in 2000) to “Oh gosh, it’s lost” (presumably those who had). “At this point,” the Dem source added, “they don’t know what to think.” To which a cynic can’t resist adding, “When have they ever?”

Mutual angst/chops-licking kicked up a notch with word of the 80-year-old Chief Justice’s thyroid cancer, which didn’t need Gallup for divination: anticipation from Democrats (assuming Mr. Kerry’s election); sympathy from Republicans (assuming Mr. Bush’s); dread from both, if assumptions don’t work out.

Meanwhile, the campaign—which has no precedent, either—continued apace, with a dash of extra oomph. In the case of the President, this took the form last week of: wowing Florida supporters by having Marine One touch down on the turf of half-filled football stadiums to the boom of the theme from Top Gun. Accusing his opponent of failing to recognize Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as “the heart of America.” Replacing the “liberal” epithet—down to the gums from repetition—with the toothier “far-left,” as in John Kerry “sits on the far-left bank” while being “part of a far-left minority.”

Rhetorically, the Vice President bested his boss. Had Mr. Kerry owned the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, said Mr. Cheney, the following would or could be fact: Saddam Hussein in control of the Persian Gulf (with nukes to back it up). The Soviet Union still in business. U.S. defense entrusted to the U.N. The American military stripped of weapons to fight terrorism. And God knows what else, none of it good.

Mr. Kerry countered with appearances from Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (who reminded wavering females of crises in schools, health care, distaff joblessness and college tuition) and risen Bill Clinton, who looked bouncier than Mr. Kerry at the debut Philadelphia rally, saying of the greeting huzzahs: “If this isn’t good for my heart, I don’t know what is.” From there, recharged Bill was on to stops in South Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and home-state Arkansas, where polls show Mr. Kerry with an even chance—a miracle the candidate hopes to realize by reciting passages from Scripture. If nothing else, this confirms the presence of at least one born-again Baptist in the Kerry camp, since Catholics are from nowhere remembering the Gospel According to John.

Then there was the Elephant-produced wolves ad, followed by the Donkey-produced ostrich ad—neither as compelling as the Ronnie-the-eagle bear ad.

The only serene soul in this zoo parade, which also included an unfortunate Ohio goose slain by Mr. Kerry, was genuinely estimable Laura Bush, who told Charlie Gibson on Good Morning America that she and husband George have done all that can be, and are at ease, come what may Nov. 2. “We have a certain peace about it,” said the First Lady.

Serenity was in short supply in Iraq, where events hint that not being President the next four years might have something to say for it.

You’re doubtless aware of the ambush and execution-style killing of 50 just-trained Iraqi troops, either by bogus Iraqi policemen or—equally possible—actual Iraqi policemen. All that’s clear is that the killers acted at the behest of the infamously slippery Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom President Bush ordered not molested in June 2002, when the U.S. military had the even-then-well-known terrorist (along with a number of Al Qaeda buddies he was hosting in northeastern Iraq) in its cross-hairs. Why the kid gloves? An article by Scot J. Paltrow in Monday’s Wall Street Journal quotes Pentagon and National Security Council sources offering excuses identical to those Mr. Bush lambastes Mr. Clinton for. The sole reason left out is the obvious: Offing Zarqawi—who instigated the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Amman, Jordan, while the White House foot-dragged—might have queered furiously forming plans to invade Iraq.

You certainly know, too, about the whoopsie! that was the disappearance of 380 tons of really high explosives from a bunker Rummy forgot to guard, and whose filching the White House covered up for a year. Ditto the emergence of the U.S.’s worst nightmare—a fundamentalist religious party—as the one to beat in January’s scheduled presidential election. Add to that the killing of a State Department security officer who was under the misimpression that being at the Baghdad airport’s “Camp Victory” meant staying in one piece.

What you may not know (unless you read the Herald-Palladium of St. Joseph, Mich.) is that George Tenet now has second thoughts about having helped get us into this mess. The other day, on the lecture circuit in southwestern Michigan (part of a new career that will shortly include forming young minds as a professor at Georgetown), the ex-C.I.A. director called the war and/or his “slam-dunk” W.M.D. assurances “wrong.” Like so much else in the intelligence game, which wasn’t clear; but whatever, he was sorry. “At the end of the day,” said Mr. Tenet, “I have to stand accountable.”

Still recovering from having told Sean Hannity that permanent respite from terrorism is “up in the air” (an honesty slip on which Mr. Kerry immediately pounced), the President had no reaction to Mr. Tenet’s remarks. None, either, to the appropriation of sufficient combustibles—by New York Times arithmetic—to repeat the downing of the Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie 760,000 times and detonate a few A-bombs in the bargain. He did find 55 loose minutes, however, for an exclusive Oval Office chat with Trude B. Feldman. Among Dubya’s droppings: “The true history of my administration will be written 50 years from now, and you and I will not be around to see it.”

It was Ms. Feldman’s second extended tête-à-tête with Mr. Bush in six months. And who is Ms. Feldman to merit such access? Retired White House correspondent for The Washington Times, now performing the same function for World Tribune.com. And what is World Tribune.com (other than a source of loony tidbits for Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News)? An Internet publication, edited and published by Robert B. Morton, assistant managing editor at The Washington Times and (according to The New Yorker) former corporate editor for News World Communications, publishing arm of the Unification Church. And the common denominator that links the aforementioned? Convicted felon, cult leader and big-time right-wing cause contributor the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a.k.a. “The Messiah.”

Other friends of Mr. Bush in the press were behaving per usual:

Self-identified lifelong “minority group” member William Safire was using his New York Times column to call on his co-religionists to vote their overseas interests as faithfully as polls said Kerry-supporting Michigan Muslims were. Matt Drudge was suggesting that Teresa Kerry was a drunk. And the Sinclair Broadcast Group—having fired its Washington bureau chief for declining to participate in what he called “blatant political propaganda”—aired a truncated, discussion-panel-wrapped version of Stolen Honor, the anti-Kerry bile of another Moon alumnus, Carlton Sherwood.

As entertainment, the hour (partially defanged by a plunge in Sinclair share price) proved less diverting than what the Los Angeles Times dug up about “conservative-leaning, publicity-shy” Sinclair president and C.E.O. David D. Smith. Mr. Smith, it develops, has to his credit an arrest for suspicion of soliciting a prostitute from a Sinclair-owned Mercedes, and back in the 70’s was partner in a company the Baltimore cops raided for distributing eight-millimeter porno flicks. According to Salon, Mr. Smith’s brother, Sinclair vice president Fred, has an interesting sideline, too: owning a Baltimore trailer park currently being sued for discrimination against African-Americans.

Whose honor got stolen? We report, you decide.

Undertaking either task will require multiple medications, if current vote-suppressing/outcome-rigging doesn’t abate. From Florida to Ohio to Colorado to Wisconsin to Arizona to Michigan to Oregon to Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, it’s going on with varying degrees of inventiveness, legal, quasi- and il-. And also in New Mexico, which Al Gore carried by a closest-margin-anywhere 366 votes. In alien tourist spot Roswell, for instance, The Washington Post reports that the early-voting site on the Anglo-Republican north side of town was doing land-office business last weekend, while that on the Hispanic-Democratic south was shut tight. Among the lonesome north-living Democrats, courtesy of an art fellowship, is your correspondent’s daughter, Christian Kennedy (she was christened when Bobby was running in ’68) and her husband, who pass their spare hours listening to neighbors talk of preparations for the Rapture, and counting bumper devices showing a big fish, “Truth,” swallowing a tiny one, “Darwin.” Bravely, they erected a “Kerry-Edwards” poster on their lawn, which shortly disappeared. The next day they spotted a car filled with torn-up Kerry signage; it bore Texas plates.

Is there a moral here? Only this: There are more Roswells in America than there are East Hamptons.

Speaking of which, while monkeyshines was occurring in the former, yours truly bumped into George McGovern in the latter, where a film about his life— One Bright Shining Moment —was premiering. The Senator, now 76, is doing fine—tanned, fit, with a typically contrarian new book out: The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition (Simon & Schuster). We reminisced about the ’72 campaign (the inspiring idea, not the unhappy outcome), and, with one of his tight, ironic Dakota smiles, the Senator said he still identifies himself as “a McGovern Democrat.” Too late, the reply rose to lips: If the election allows Mr. Bush another four years, many may join him.

And that’s how it went, the concluding installment of the most important election in our lifetime.

Thank you for reading. And, if you’re so disposed, say a Hail Mary.