Cap’n Kerry Sails Into Choppy Waters, Then Scurries to Port

Now that the war in Iraq is over, time to consider the battles being waged inside the Kerry campaign. Oh,

Now that the war in Iraq is over, time to consider the battles being waged inside the Kerry campaign.

Oh, you missed the Baghdad finale? It was those souvenir snaps of our boys and girls smirking at the naked, hooded human beings in their charge-the “its,” they called them. Game, set, match-over and out.

No need to instruct your broker to dump Halliburton just yet, however. As Henry Kissinger will tell you, the next time you bump into him lunching with Barbara Walters at Le Cirque, the “decent interval” between defeat suffered and the C-141’s bringing everybody home can stretch out a while-five years and 30,000 additional U.S. combat deaths, in the case of Henry’s war.

But Iraq’s history. Like the bodies of the 19 V.C. on the lawn of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, or the remains of the truck-bombed Marine barracks in Lebanon, or the dragging of the Black Hawk Down corpses through the streets of Mogadishu-all it takes is one indelible image and, baby, we are outta there. Now, thanks to the Tonya Hardings in uniform, we got it. The rest is casualty reports. And there’ll be a ton of those.

Which brings us to our next Commander in Chief, if things work out. His role in this episode was blessedly minor: just ducking the question of whether the current title-holder ought to apologize (Dubya did-sort of-the next day) and saying that when he was skippering a boat you-know-where, “The Captain always knew what his crew was doing.”

Things were less shipshape when the Captain was talking to The Wall Street Journal last week. Asked about his characterization of heads of U.S. firms that ship jobs overseas as “Benedict Arnold C.E.O.’s,” Mr. Kerry-as has become his wont when confronted with remarks that hurt anybody’s feelings-denied saying any such thing.

“Benedict Arnold does not refer to somebody who, in the normal course of business, is going to go overseas and take jobs overseas,” he insisted. “That happens. I support that. I understand that. I was referring to the people who take advantage of non-economic transactions purely for tax purposes-sham transactions-and give up American citizenship. That’s a Benedict Arnold.”

There goes the union vote.

But that’s not the end of it. Mickey Kaus (whose Slate column performs for Mr. Kerry’s pronouncements the same service as the shoveler who follows the circus parade) promptly discovered that Mr. Kerry had so applied the Benedict Arnold appellation to shippers of U.S. jobs to places like the Punjab-and cited three speeches to prove it.

How did Mr. Kaus spot this Pinocchio-ism? He typed “Benedict Arnold” into the search box at, then clicked. (Try it yourself: You’ll find 22 other Kerry statements saying the same thing.)

Having waded into this swamp by thinking he could appease the editorial shade of Attila the Hun, a calculation that bespeaks PCP dosage, Mr. Kerry plunged full-body into the bayou by explaining how anyone could get the impression that he’d said what he didn’t but of course really did. Following, so far? O.K., here, in Mr. Kerry’s own words, is the reason: “But the Benedict Arnold line applied, you know, I called a couple of times to overzealous speechwriters and said, ‘Look, that’s not what I’m saying.'”

In other words (stay with me now), it was the crew’s fault for writing the words he only repeated, but didn’t mean, even if he did say them, which he didn’t. (You wonder if this guy’s going to be parsing the oath on Inauguration Day.)

The best possible construction of why Mr. Kerry blunders into these self-made boxes (“Benedict Arnold” makes it three times the dog’s eaten his homework in as many weeks) is that he’s unaware of the inventions of videotape and the Internet that make nailing him so easy.

The New Republic ‘s Lawrence Kaplan spotted Mr. Kerry being Mr. Kerry last February, in response to the foot-stomping hora that met his proposing Jimmy Carter or James Baker or Bill Clinton as possible Middle East peace negotiators. Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman was particularly apoplectic, branding choices No. 1 and 2 Arab-kissers, and No. 3 a putz. This was a switch for Mr. Foxman, who once thought Bill swell. But that was when he was heeding his plea to pardon Marc Rich, writer of big checks to the A.D.L.

Mr. Kerry had two options: Tell Mr. Foxman and brethren to lump it, or go top hat in hand. Which do you suppose he selected?

With the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri undergoing refurbishment, Mr. Kerry met Mr. Foxman and every Jewish leader worth mentioning in New York, not far from the U.N.-which, Mr. Kerry assured, was meshuga if it thought it could slip anything that miffed Israel past his Oval Office desk. Mr. Kerry followed up by dismantling his peace-making troika and blaming its erection on (you guessed right again) his speechwriters.

Lest there be any slippage in the 79 percent of Jewish voters who went for the Democratic Presidential candidate four years ago, last week Mr. Kerry addressed the A.D.L. He made no mention of the Taba process or Jimmy Carter or Palestinian agonies or the Geneva Accord or any of the other things forced on him by the speechwriters that landed him in the lobby soup. Instead, he rhapsodized about a trip to Israel and nearly crossing into Egyptian airspace while doing loop-de-loops over the Negev at the controls of an I.D.F. jet trainer. (Note to Mickey Kaus: Check if that plane wasn’t really a Syrian MIG.)

Now we get to the free-fire zone.

While Mr. Kerry was learning his “Hebrew Lessons,” as The New Republic approvingly headlined, a funny thing was happening to Andrei Cherny, the campaign’s director of speechwriting: His paper and pencils were being moved to the obscurity of the Democratic National Committee.

More head-lopping is rumored, including, possibly, the one attached to Bob Shrum, about whom a personal interest must be declared: Mr. Shrum is a friend of multiple decades. He and the current leaseholder of this space once wrote a political column together for a biweekly magazine which-perhaps on that very account-folded shortly after their maiden outing. Finally, Mr. Shrum’s well-chronicled escape from the Jimmy Carter campaign the night of the nomination-cinching Pennsylvania primary was facilitated by this writer’s spiriting his suitcase from under the nose of Hamilton Jordan. End of interest disclosure.

Expanding his advisory role in Al Gore’s Presidential campaign (the less said about it, the better), Mr. Shrum is Mr. Kerry’s chief political strategist. He wrote the declaration of candidacy (let’s not talk about that, either) and has personally vetted every speech delivered since. His company also creates Mr. Kerry’s television commercials, including the heart-string-tugging bio spots that recently began airing in battleground states. This unprecedented trifecta has brought Mr. Shrum considerable notice. Accompanying it is a fair share of opprobrium.

He’s said not to play well with others, to which Jim Jordan, Mr. Kerry’s former campaign manager, and Chris Lehane, his former campaign communications director, can attest. They became “former” after alleged run-ins with Mr. Shrum.

Then there’s the fact that, working so far for the election of Democratic Presidential candidates (Muskie, McGovern, Teddy, Gore), Mr. Shrum is batting 0 for 4 . Hire Bob Shrum, his enemies say, and you’ll getting Toby Ziegler pre–Josiah Bartlet.

It’s also widely noted that Mr. Shrum’s employment with the only Democrat of his acquaintance who made it to the White House lasted all of nine days. In the goodbye note slipped under Jimmy Carter’s door at the Philadelphia Sheraton, Mr. Shrum cited numerous backtrackings alarmingly similar to those of a Democratic Presidential candidate of more recent vintage, and concluded: “I am not sure what you truly believe in, other than yourself.”

Therein lies Mr. Shrum’s historic strength and present vulnerability: He actually believes in stuff. Worse, makes no apologies for it. He sees campaigns as Democrats used to, and Republicans, dang ’em, still do: a battle for principles. You can spot a Shrum speech a mile away-if the word “fight” is in it, he wrote it.

How valuable is Mr. Shrum? Listen to the accolade of Mr. Mild-Mannered himself, former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, after watching him pile up G.O.P. bodies: “You hire an ax murderer, you get an ax murder.”

If you’re going down a dark alley to meet Karl Rove, in short, you want Shrummy watching your 6.

Mr. Kerry knows this better than anyone; in 1996, Mr. Shrum saved his bacon when Bill Weld had it nine-tenths down his throat. He was key pulling off the same Heimlich maneuver before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, when Howard Dean was rehearsing his convention acceptance speech. Courtesy of their mutual longtime Teddy connection, Messrs. Kerry and Shrum are also buds. (For the most readily digestible Shrum history, ref. Ryan Lizza in The Atlantic ; ref. Mr. Lizza about anything, for that matter.)

Firing Mr. Shrum, therefore, would require cravenness of a dimension that Mr. Kerry-despite exhibiting vaulting promise-has yet to attain. Besides, he’s not stupid: To get rid of Mr. Shrum, you first take on Ted Kennedy, whose hugeness goes way beyond bulk.

Your correspondent cannot report Mr. Shrum’s reaction to recent events; an unexpected scruples attack suspended contact at the campaign’s onset. But it’s hard to imagine him pleased by this headline in Sunday’s Washington Post : “Despite Rhetoric, Bush, Kerry Agree on Many Issues.” Or this one in Saturday’s Times : “Shedding Populist Tone, Kerry Starts Move to Middle.”

If Mr. Shrum needs a further push to reach for the Maalox, there’s the latest poll figures for Ralph Nader, whose position on Iraq is as clear as Mr. Kerry’s is opaque: He has the troops home six months after being sworn in. Period. According to the Wall Street Journal /MSNBC surveyors, this wins him 5 percent of the votes-all of them, you can be sure, out of John Kerry’s hide.

The problem, in any case, lies not with Mr. Shrum, or his fellow nominees for the guillotine, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and campaign spokesman Stephanie Cutter-none of whom are getting iced anyhow. It’s with the fella they work for.

Richard Nixon showed you don’t have to be likable to become President; Bill Clinton that you don’t have to tell the truth; Woodrow Wilson that you don’t have to be warm and fuzzy. (During his second term, Woodrow showed you could even be comatose.) But since the Republic began, no one’s gone to the White House who was all of the above.

Which, for Mr. Kerry, is the conundrum: If he’s to redeem all the gift certificates Dubya’s been dispensing like Wal-Mart run amok, he’s gonna have to winnow out the personality disorders.

Botox won’t do anything for lack of likability, warmth or fuzziness. So it looks like Mr. Kerry’s stuck with keeping his stories straight.

The task will be arduous, and the sensibilities of some are bound to be bruised. But that’s survivable. Election doesn’t require the affection of all Likudniks or corporate pooh-bahs or any other interest group, including the Democratic Leadership Council, before whom Mr. Kerry was kneeling this weekend. As Hillary Clinton recently instructed unhappy Democrats: “You don’t have to fall in love, just in line.” And whatever losses are incurred can be covered by selecting Bill Richardson as running mate, which would lock up the vote of every investigative reporter in America.

It’s a wrenching transformation, but it can be done. Indeed, there are already flashes of sticking to guns and damning consequences. “I can only be me,” Kerry said on 20/20 last week. “The American people … don’t want phonies. They don’t want pretense. They want real people. I’m a real person.”

Unfortunately, the Kerry who said that is named Teresa.

Cap’n Kerry Sails Into Choppy Waters, Then Scurries to Port