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Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2002 / 16 Shevat, 5762

Chris Matthews

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John Kerry: The first challenger -- JOHN KERRY just began his 2004 campaign for the White House the way an earlier Massachusetts senator, John Kennedy, started his landmark 1960 run. He is offering himself as a challenger, not just to an incumbent president, but to an established national mindset.

Kennedy's issue was Algeria. He said the United States had been shackled by Cold War alliances into backing France against its rebellious North African colony. America, the young Massachusetts senator boldly declared, should be championing the cause of independence for emerging nations such as Algeria. Kerry's issue also relates to the Arab world. He said this week that the United States must unshackle itself from dependence on foreign petroleum. He blamed the Bush administration's cozy alliance with the oil industry for keeping America hostage to terrorism and endless war.

"Old thinking passed through the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue far more often and more easily than new thinking. Exxon, Mobil, Enron and Chevron enjoyed an access bonanza at the expense of consumers." While other Democrats take easy shots at the Bush-Enron connection, Kerry is pushing a solution to the real problem: the Bush-oil connection.

He said the United States should be championing new sources of energy -- wind, sun, geothermal, biomass (plant, animal and industrial waste) -- that would free us from dependence on such areas as the Persian Gulf.

"No foreign government can embargo them. No terrorist can seize control of them. No cartel can play games with them. No American soldier will have to risk his or her life to protect it."

Kerry's bold challenge clearly separates him from the pack of 2004 contenders. Unlike Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards, he is not quibbling over budget and tax priorities. At 58, he is presenting a bold challenge to President Bush's global strategy.

Why has the United States, a country so rich in innovative skill, allowed itself to become completely dependent for its economic stability on a part of the world that is terminally unstable?

The numbers Kerry presents are stark and irrefutable. We have 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, yet we use 25 percent. This accounts for why Saudi Arabia, a country that holds 46 percent of the world's oil reserves, has become absolutely essential to us.

Presidential campaigns, as Bill Clinton's No. 1 strategist James Carville once told me, are won on "big ideas."

John Kennedy won in 1960 with a pledge to "get this country moving again."

Jimmy Carter won in 1976 with a pledge to create "a government as good as the American people."

Clinton won in 1992 with the slogan "It's the economy, Stupid!" and the pledge to "put people first."

These are the only Democratic candidates to take back the White House since 1932, so it's a good bet that the party nominee in 2004 will need to locate and exploit an equally grand proposal. To excite voters, he will need a big idea of why he would be a better national leader than the estimable George W. Bush. Therein lies Kerry's core advantage. Instead of nickel-and-diming the budget and carping about too-heavy tax cuts, he is saying that this country is not getting the leadership it needs to ensure its most fundamental value: independence.

"Energy security is American security. If we enact the entire Bush energy plan, we will find ourselves 20 years from now more dependent on foreign oil than we are today."

It's a grand statement of policy -- a big gamble politically.

"Jobs, jobs, jobs." Those were the stakes, former secretary of state James A. Baker III declared, of the 1991-92 Persian Gulf War. We fought Saddam Hussein to keep him from the oil of Kuwait and, perhaps, of Saudi Arabia as well.

At what point will Americans decide that we have fought enough wars in that region? Define that the real fight is not about terrorism or Islam but about our country's thirst for endless barrels of cheap oil? Open our eyes to the fact that we cannot trust oil guys like the Bushes and Cheneys to begin weaning us from this thirst?

Young Jack Kennedy took a similar gamble in 1957 when he asked us to look behind the confines of early Cold War thinking and recognize the nationalist aspirations of countries like Algeria. He called on his country to get beyond the cozy deals with France and Britain and focus on the freedom-seeking people in their colonies. He asked us to stop fighting the old colonial wars and start championing the rebel side.

"How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?"

That's what a young John Kerry asked the country when he returned a combat hero from Vietnam. It's also the question that eventually made him a senator.

Perhaps it's the very question today that will make him president.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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