The First One Hundred Days

By Jon Keller | Boston Magazine |

BOSTON, April 29, 2005 — Was it really only 16 months ago that President John F. Kerry, then a faltering also-ran in the Democratic presidential primary race, was adapting Robert Frost's ode to regretted choices in a desperate effort to peel voters away from Howard Dean? “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” he recited. “And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth.”

What a difference a little time can make. Back then, Kerry begged Democrats to see that “two roads are diverging”: Dean's path (“a road of confusion and contradiction”) and Kerry's alternate route (“the road of strength and principle”). It was, concluded Kerry, “a choice between anger and answers.”

Within weeks, primary voters made their choice, propelling Kerry to the nomination. Then, in November, the electorate vented its anger with George W. Bush by giving Kerry a narrow win. Exit polls showed that few of the voters who broke for Kerry in the end cared what his alternate “answers” might be. Even fewer harbored affection for him. “I voted to fire Bush,” one Ohio independent told an interviewer on election night. “He had it coming, and I gave it to him.”

But now, 100 days into his term, it's Kerry who, despite several early successes, is feeling the wrath of stockholders finding that they've replaced a failed CEO with one who suffers from the lack of a mandate to do anything but be new.

After a brief surge of support for the new president, the traditional grace period quickly withered. (As Jay Leno put it in one midwinter Tonight Show monologue, “There's nothing wrong with this honeymoon that an emergency shipment of Viagra wouldn't cure.”) Kerry-era foreign policy, off to a bright start with a conciliatory approach to estranged allies, has suffered from an ominous blunder. Domestically, Kerry's effort to craft a bold new energy policy has backfired among many of the swing voters who put him into office, forcing an embarrassing retreat. Perhaps most disturbing for the nascent presidency are recent poll numbers showing Kerry's lofty post-election approval rating collapsing; one survey of the public's 25 most-admired Americans put Kerry a dismal 17th, trailing the likes of Pamela Anderson and 2004 World Series hero Nomar Garciaparra. Little wonder Kerry recently told a White House visitor from Boston of his avid interest in the heated Massachusetts race for his old U.S. Senate seat between Congressman Stephen Lynch and Governor Mitt Romney. “Maybe I'll let Edwards take this job and run for the Senate myself,” he said ruefully.

If Kerry seems shell-shocked, it's due in part to how well things seemed to go at the outset. The president-elect won plaudits for an election-night victory speech in which he praised Bush's gracious concession and promised to set a civil tone of his own, imploring fellow baby boomers to “set aside smugness, arrogance, and vindictiveness and live up to the hopes the Greatest Generation has held for us.” That was followed by a round of Capitol Hill visits to leading Republicans, a well-received move that seemed to ease lingering partisan bitterness. In early December, Kerry's call for a summit meeting to hammer out a plan for lowering prescription drug costs for seniors drew enthusiastic support from congressional Republicans. And on January 4, Kerry electrified millions watching the college football title game by showing up for a halftime interview along with his surprise nominee for secretary of defense, Republican Senator John McCain. “It's a new year, a new administration, and a new spirit of bipartisanship,” Kerry said as the Orange Bowl crowd erupted in cheers. “There are no Democrats or Republicans in this war on terror, only Americans.”

But other appointments were less enthusiastically received. Just as his pred-

ecessor underestimated the controversy ultraconservative Senator John Ashcroft would generate as attorney general, Kerry was stunned by the public reaction to his liberal pick for attorney general, former deputy attorney general and 9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick. Even the New York Times editorial page criticized the notion of choosing “the short-sighted architect of onerous Clinton-era restrictions on the pursuit of terrorism.” Nearly unanimous editorial outrage followed Teresa Heinz Kerry's remark that criticism of Gorelick was “more whining from old men who can't stomach the sight of a strong woman.”

As bad omens go, it's hard to beat the Kerry Inauguration Day fiasco. The wind-chill factor in Washington was 20 below, and in the wake of Kerry's interminable, 75-minute speech, Washington hospitals treated 321 people for frostbite or exposure. “ice job, mr. president,” jeered the front page of the Boston Herald over a photo of one hospitalized man clutching a Kerry-Edwards sign in his frozen fist.

Still, in the wake of the ugly, draining presidential campaign, the country seemed eager to have its new leader succeed. When pharmaceutical industry executives walked out of the prescription drug summit, Kerry resurrected an old slogan from the 1960s: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Popular acclaim followed his executive order the next day lifting the federal ban on reimportation of cheap pharmaceuticals from Canada. And polls showed a spike in Kerry's ratings in the days after his late-January appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The president was publicly praised and embraced by French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder, who granted him the NATO commitments of military support in Iraq that Bush had conspicuously failed to extract.

In return, Kerry promised the two men he would abandon the Bush administration's push for United Nations sanctions on Iran, a policy they vehemently opposed. “The era of saber rattling and pre-emptive strikes is over,” Kerry said. “The United States will never again overreact to false threats and ignore the wise advice of our peace-loving allies.” Two weeks later, the president fulfilled a campaign promise by going to the UN to seek reconciliation with alienated allies and surprised those allies with an announcement that national security adviser Richard Holbrooke had gone on a secret trip to Tehran to meet with the mullahs. His prize: an agreement that Iran would stop producing new centrifuges, a key part of the uranium enrichment process used to create nuclear weapons. “We now see how persuasion yields results where raw muscle-flexing did not,” proclaimed Kerry to a standing ovation in the General Assembly.

The president's approval rating jumped by 20 points that week as war-weary voters welcomed the display of diplomatic disarmament. But Kerry's polling bubble burst abruptly in early March when video smuggled out of Iran by Israeli undercover agents clearly showed centrifuge production going forward at the nuclear facility in Natanz. Top Iranian government officials, touring the plant, could be heard discussing a late March date for a nuclear test and mocking Kerry as a “useful idiot.” The video also showed crates of hardware with French and German writing on the sides.

As the video played repeatedly on television worldwide, Kerry sent press secretary Jeff Greenfield out to tell the media that “the president is reviewing the information and will act appropriately at an appropriate time once he makes an appropriate determination.” Kerry's refusal to personally address the uproar infuriated a press corps already seething over his abandonment of a promise to hold at least one press conference each month. Columnists drew comparisons with Kerry's disastrous 1985 trip to Nicaragua, where Marxist strongman Daniel Ortega assured him that the Sandinista regime was unaligned with the Soviet Union, a lie exposed days later when Ortega flew to Moscow to collect a huge loan. The Republican National Committee capitalized by distributing mock “milquetoast” milk cartons with Kerry's picture on the side and the caption “Missing: A clue about Iran.” When the president finally did emerge to announce Holbrooke's resignation, he walked out of the briefing room without taking questions, a move that left the evening newscasts leading with footage of Kerry turning his back and fleeing the angry shouting of reporters.

Kerry needed something to break out of his meltdown. With the release of a new study warning of the effects of deteriorating air quality in 32 American cities, his allies in the environmental movement convinced him it was the perfect time for a bold move: a $3-per-gallon surcharge on gas purchases for vehicles getting less than 30 highway miles per gallon. “Big oil and OPEC vultures might not like it, but my priority is the health of you and your children,” Kerry told the nation in a televised address. “The cost to most drivers,” he added, “will be less than a pizza a week.”

Kerry's decision came over the objections of his key political advisers, who pointed out that only a fraction of American motorists would be exempt from the new tax. In the past few weeks, their warnings have proved prescient, as 326,724 pizzas-many of them with vitriolic messages scrawled on the boxes-have been delivered to the White House. Kerry's poll numbers have dipped to appallingly low levels in Michigan, Ohio, and at least seven other states with significant auto-industry employment. Sources inside the White House now suggest that the gas tax proposal may soon be withdrawn.

Foreign policy gullibility, domestic political tone-deafness, bungled media relations-it seems as if a lifetime of John Kerry's flaws have been revived in the wake of a victory that showcased his toughness, intelligence, and political skills. Kerry aides note that past presidents, notably Ronald Reagan in 1981 and Bill Clinton in 1993, survived rocky starts and went on to serve successful terms. Still, you have to wonder whether President Kerry is mulling the wisdom of the final stanza of his chosen Frost poem:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.