Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2004 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Zev Chafets

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Even if Kerry wins, he loses | There were John Kerry and Bill Clinton, together on stage in downtown Philadelphia, side by side, waving to the massive midday crowd. One man was the picture of health and vitality, a politician at the peak of his powers, perhaps a week away from fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime. The other seemed diminished by his recent heart surgery, pecked-at around the collar, his own presidential days long behind him.

Watching them on TV in a diner in the Bronx, all I could think was: poor Kerry.

It's not every tall, athletic, well-born, megamillionaire presidential candidate who evokes sympathy. But Kerry does. He was a lonely and unpopular boy, and the successes of a lifetime have not turned him into a happy or likable man. He dreamed of being John F. Kennedy, but he far more closely resembles Richard Nixon, a fellow painfully unsuited for the business of winning others over.

Sharing a stage with Clinton was a mistake for Kerry. Clinton is the man Kerry always wanted to be, an iconic figure. Millions of Americans have lived vicariously through him. He took power for the baby boomers. He had their marital problems and midlife crises. Now he has had their heart-bypass operation, and he's staging their comeback. He owned the platform in Philadelphia. Kerry came off as a second banana.

Clinton said in a few words what Kerry has been struggling unsuccessfully to articulate ever since the Democratic convention. "This is one of Clinton's laws," he told the crowd. "If one candidate is trying to scare you and the other one's trying to get you to think, if one candidate is appealing to your fears and the other to your hopes, you better vote for the one who wants you to think and hope."

There is another law that Clinton didn't mention, the one about no free lunch. Clinton got out of a sickbed to campaign on Kerry's behalf. Obviously, he got a kick out of it - "if this isn't good for my heart, I don't know what is," he told the rallying Democrats - but he's too much of a professional to play in exhibition games.

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So, what's in it for Clinton?

First, he has bought himself an insurance policy against unkind rumors that he would like to see Kerry lose, clearing the way for a Hillary candidacy in 2008. Some cynics even have speculated that Clinton actually scheduled his heart surgery to keep out of the campaign. That's a claim that no longer can be made. Clinton's out there sacrificing his health for the party and its standard-bearer. If Kerry loses, nobody can blame The Man From Hope.

On the other hand, Kerry could win. If he does, the question becomes: How much will it cost him? Clintonites will say that their guy rode to the rescue and put Kerry in the White House.

Lately, there have been rumors out of Chappaqua that Clinton would like to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary general of the United Nations. Kerry may be a multilateralist (and a Democrat), but he doesn't want the UN (and Clinton) to get up that strong. He'll have to find something else for Clinton to do. Something important.

Poor Kerry. If he loses next week, which I think is probable, his boyhood dream of power and popularity will be crushed. And, even if he wins, he will have to govern in the shadow of the sexiest and most powerful ex-President in modern history. John F. Kerry may sit in the Oval Office but he'll never be JFK. Bill Clinton still has the deed to Camelot.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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