A Long, Strange Trip

It’s a murky, gloomy, Wednesday in southern New Hampshire—good weather for a wake. In a few moments, John Kerry will arrive to lead local environmentalists and the media on a walk along the Merrimack River in an effort to showcase his environmental credentials. The event is also meant to change the subject from the precipitous collapse of his once-promising presidential candidacy. But the two dozen or so news people who’ve gathered in the parking lot of St. Francis of Assisi church in Litchfield have come to bury Kerry, not to praise him.

The reporters mingle awkwardly with Kerry campaign workers, but there’s also the presence here of a gorilla in the corner: the ever-growing litany of Kerry’s
campaign failures. There were the oh-so-conventional, grossly overconfident tactics that let former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s innovative operation streak past Kerry in the polls and the fundraising derby. The turgid speeches, wooden debate appearances, and fumbling TV interviews. The campaign mismanagement that has left Kerry fending off questions about embarrassing staff turmoil at a time when he desperately needed a run of positive coverage.

An advance man is asked how he would characterize the mood of the campaign with this month’s New Hampshire primary drawing closer. “I wouldn’t,” he says with a nervous laugh, eyes darting from side to side. “I’m not a campaign spokesperson. Advance people who give out comments don’t stay advance people.” A female volunteer, too young to fully appreciate the funereal atmosphere, cheerfully offers the reporters and camera crews hot Dunkin’ Donuts cocoa, a gesture that surprises at least one newspaper scribe who’s been on the Kerry deathwatch for a while. “That’s a first,” he notes sourly.

Into this vale of tears finally strides the candidate, dressed in outdoorsy apparel, appearing with his walking companions at the edge of a meadow in a carefully staged campaign photo op. Birds chirp and cameras roll, but the peaceful scene is shattered by a TV reporter who jumps out in front of the approaching party and barks out a standup tease for that night’s broadcast: “Can John Kerry be the new comeback kid in New Hampshire? I’ll show you how he’s trying, coming up.” The pack swarms around Kerry as he trudges down a rain-soaked path, and the cameramen pan down to catch Kerry’s boots slogging through the mud, a fitting bit of B-roll symbolism for the reporters to use later in their video obituaries.

Finally, Kerry arrives at a spot on the riverbank where a microphone has been set up. While the camera crews get busy clipping cameras to tripods, Kerry veers off to the water’s edge, accompanied only by a Boston magazine reporter. For a moment he stares quietly at the bucolic scene. “Really pretty,” he says, out loud but seemingly to himself. “It looks pretty clean,” the reporter offers. “It’s better than it used to be,” Kerry says, in a muted tone noticeably different from the ponderous rhetoric he normally offers in public. “See that sediment, all that discoloration? If you tested that soil, you’d find, unfortunately, still, a fair residue of contaminants, a combination of MTBE, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide. But it’s come a long way. It’s a lot better than it was.” Kerry takes one last, longing look at the flowing water, and says, in the soft tone an outdoors-loving dad might use with a young child on a fishing outing: “Can you imagine being an Indian, coming down this in a canoe, quiet?

It’s really beautiful, really beautiful, a special area.”
It’s a rare glimpse of the sincere environmentalist within Kerry, cohabiting with the other, less appealing personas that have become drearily familiar during the campaign to reporters and voters: an inability to form and deliver a sharp, focused message, a tin ear for populist sentiment, and a fatal addiction to inside-the-Beltway baseball. But seconds later, these candidacy-killing traits are front and center again during yet another in a long string of disastrous Kerry press conferences.

Kerry’s perfectly legitimate message of the day—that he has the strongest environmental record of any Democrat in the race—is buried under a waterfall of pedantic rambling. By the time he spits out his best lines, it’s 20 minutes into the availability, and the camera crews are packing up to leave. By lapsing into bureaucratic jargon, Kerry muffs a chance to tout his long-standing advocacy of alternative energy resource exploration, a unique credential that might appeal to New Hampshire voters struggling with high energy costs. And as reporters barrage him with questions about his faltering campaign, Kerry can’t resist the urge to offer rebuttals that merely underscore his campaign’s futility. “I had 500 people at the Kennedy School in Cedar Rapids,” he offers. “No other candidate has drawn 500 people on a Saturday night to a school. And I won the Harrison County straw poll last week.”

Visiting hours for the Kerry campaign will be scheduled for shortly after the New Hampshire polls close on January 27. And few outside his corps of true believers will lament the end of one of the least-impressive candidacies in recent memory. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth mourning. Kerry honestly can lay claim to being the Democratic field’s staunchest environmentalist. His failure costs the party a serious voice on a timely and important set of issues, and may even diminish the importance of environmental issues in the campaign. Closer to home, the Kerry fiasco may bring to an end the lingering perception that one of Massachusetts’ few remaining homegrown commodities is political smarts, from the Kennedy presidency to Tip O’Neill’s longtime hegemony in the House to the unexpectedly effective presidential primary campaign of Paul Tsongas.

“The cream sank to the bottom, didn’t it?” says veteran Atlanta-based pollster Claibourne Darden. “Kerry did his impersonation of JFK just as well as Dan Quayle did. That soap just doesn’t float. It’s
40 years old. It’s getting stale.”

How did this happen? Kerry’s failure to capitalize on his environmentalist credentials is an instructive case study. When his campaign began, the environment was front and center, even drawing mention from the candidate ahead of foreign policy. “There is a better choice for the nation on issues such as the economy, the needs of middle-class Americans, the environment, and the U.S. role in the world,” he said in a December 2002 interview. But if setting the agenda of a campaign is an early test of leadership, Kerry flunked. “It may be that he intended to raise this group of issues but never got to it because the campaign shifted gears and went into the war and the economy,” says former Kerry adviser and longtime Boston political consultant Dan Payne, who suggests that Kerry’s people may have felt “there isn’t room in that mix to talk about the environment. He had an opportunity, but he chose not to use it. There’s a sense among Washington wise guys that the environment is kind of a prissy issue.”

And whether the issue was relegated to the back burner as a conscious decision or as a surrender to Dean’s aggressive agenda setting, the outcome was the same. Despite holding a 100 percent rating for his Senate votes from the American Coalition for Ethanol, the corn-based gasoline additive that is a favorite Iowa export, it was June 2003 before Kerry staged an event in Iowa specifically focused on the environment. With polluted sediment still visible in the Merrimack River and elsewhere in New Hampshire, Kerry’s staunch advocacy of clean water might have been a logical early calling card for him there, too. Yet Kerry was already far behind Dean in the New Hampshire polls before he started emphasizing the issue with events like the September endorsement of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading clean-water activist.

Then there’s the saga of Kerry’s increasingly frantic efforts to win the support of the 700,000-member Sierra Club, the environmental group that warmly endorsed him in his 1996 Senate showdown with then-Governor William Weld. “John Kerry is to the environment what Ted Williams was to the Red Sox,” a Sierra Club official said at the time. But these days, the Sierra Club is giving Kerry the same cold shoulder poor Ted is getting. A letter-writing campaign begun last fall to persuade the Sierra Club to back Kerry has so far been fruitless, to the dismay of the group behind it, Environmentalists for John Kerry. “It’s really no contest!” the group pleads in a press release.

That bit of clueless arrogance may be a fitting epitaph for a candidate who brought considerable policymaking credentials and experience to the table—not to mention wads of cash, nifty Vietnam War footage, legendary initials, and an overweening sense of entitlement—and who now seems stunned that it all wasn’t nearly enough. After all, everyone back home understood that, whatever else you thought of John Kerry, his heroic military service (Bronze Star, Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts) and tireless advocacy for the rights and needs of veterans were to be respected and admired. But just as he failed to stress his impressive environmental credentials when introducing himself to the nation, Kerry never effectively told his war story either, an extraordinary failure he conceded in an interview last fall with the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. “It is stunning,” he said. “That’s the one thing you’d think the voters would know about me, especially in New Hampshire. You can’t take anything for granted.”

No, you can’t. And in the wake of Kerry’s meltdown, it can no longer be taken for granted that the Potomac fever of successful Massachusetts politicians will be met with enthusiasm beyond the state line, either.

Not that it ever should have been. John F. Kennedy’s wafer-thin victory in 1960, we now know, relied heavily on election day hanky-panky. Ted Kennedy’s run in 1980 peaked the day it was announced. Tsongas won New Hampshire but faded fast as the campaign moved south and west. And Michael Dukakis, notes Darden, the Atlanta pollster, “basically won through default. People get to think they have a degree of savvy and smartness when they win through default.”

People like John Kerry, a modestly successful Democrat who’s spent two decades enjoying the comforts of life in a political culture that almost never throws out incumbents or elects Republicans to federal office. “As long as New Hampshire is on the political calendar, candidates from Massachusetts will take a look at it, and the press will give them a little bit of an advantage,” observes Dan Payne. Maybe they’ll learn from the conceits and failures of the Kerry campaign and avoid a morbid scene like the deathwatch in the St. Francis of Assisi parking lot, where a newspaper photographer, eyeing a playground next to the parking lot, asks a Kerry aide: “Can we get him to go down the slide?” The aide winces at the imagery. “I doubt it,” she says with a sigh. “He might get stuck.”