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Jewish World Review July 28, 2004 / 20 Tamuz, 5764

Michael Barone

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My heart belongs to daddy |
Monday was Democratic heritage night at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Amid the frequent and shamelessly scripted declarations that John Kerry would make America stronger and respected in the world — this is the official convention theme — we heard from, in this order, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton. All Democratic nominees, past and possibly future, all with political bases, at least originally from the South. The interesting question is what they told us about the Democratic party, and about John Kerry — and what bar they gave Kerry to try to exceed Thursday night.

First up was Al Gore. His speech was reviewed by the Kerry people, and was devoid of the denunciations-by-name of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that were the staple of his recent rants — which have exceeded in bitterness and vitriol the statements of any defeated presidential candidate in American history, or at least of any defeated candidate I can recall. There were certain touches of humor, not too heavy handed. There were intelligent appeals to those who voted for George W. Bush and those who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 to vote Democratic this time: Bush didn't deliver compassionate conservatism and Nader did deliver the election to Bush. There was also a certain amount of demagoguery. Bush had, he suggested, "burned his bridges to our allies" and destroyed "respect for America in the world." As it happened, I was on the floor at one point in the evening with the Ambassador to the United States from Australia — a country which did send soldiers to Iraq, some of whom died in the course of duty. John Kerry, during the primaries when he was trailing Howard Dean, said that the United States went to war in Iraq with a "fraudulent coalition." Dick Cheney recently asked why Kerry wants to show more respect for the allies who opposed us than the allies who supported us. Here Gore was falling into the same trap.

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"To those of you who felt disappointed or angry with the outcome in 2000," Gore said in his peroration, "I want you to remember all of those feelings. But then I want you to do with them what I have done: focus them fully or completely on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House." A handsome enough statement, though Gore ignores, as a politician in his situation must, that he passed over both Kerry and Edwards for the vice presidential nomination in 2000 and that he endorsed Howard Dean over both of them in December, 2003. The delegates' reception to Gore was warm in general. But it was also revealing to listen to what they cheered most loudly: his reference to the Supreme Court choosing the president in 2000. His assignment was to be forward-looking and positive about Kerry, and he delivered. But his bitterness and that of the Democrats in the hall was still apparent.

Interestingly, Gore did not in any way parrot the "Bush lied" theme of so many Democrats (and of Michael Moore, the cheerleader for the Iraqis who have been firing at our troops and at Iraqi Democrats, and who was seated in an honorary box). His speech was vetted by the Kerry people, and they are presumably aware that the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report, and the report of the British civil servant Lord Butler have all acquitted George W. Bush and his administration of their supposed crime of lying about intelligence information.

Jimmy Carter's speech, however, was not vetted by the Kerry people, at least according to his media adviser Jerry Rafshoon (who has gone on to a distinguished career as a producer of, among other things, a television series about the Bible). And Carter did make the "Bush lied" claim over and over. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Carter said, "would not mislead us." But George W. Bush, inferentially, did. "Our credibility has been shattered and we are left increasingly isolated and vulnerable in a hostile world." "Without trust America cannot flourish." "The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of 'preemptive' war." Never mind that John Kerry has said that preemptive war may, in appropriate circumstances, be justified. Preposterously, Carter said that "the achievements of Camp David a quarter century ago and the more recent progress made by Bill Clinton [in the Middle East] are now in peril." But Camp David — a genuine achievement in which Carter is entitled to take pride — is not in peril; Egypt is not about to go to war with Israel. And Bill Clinton's attempts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed before he left office, when Yasir Arafat turned down Clinton's and Ehud Barak's unprecedented and generous offer and launched the intifada of suicide bombings instead. This was pure demagoguery — and the voice of a large part of the Democratic party, unhinged by defeat in 2000 and 2002 and capable of ignoring the facts in its urge to denounce.

Striding to the podium in her yellow suit, the junior senator from New York evoked stronger applause than Gore and much stronger applause than Carter. Her speech, purportedly introducing her husband and praising John Kerry, was workmanlike and pedestrian, with several ad libs from the distributed text. She wants to fully fund our first responders — there are lots of union member cops in New York — and to see that "resources go to the areas at greatest risk" (translation: don't spread that money all around to Nebraska and North Dakota when New York remains a prime target — a pretty good argument). Cynics suppose that Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn't really want John Kerry to win and doesn't really want John Edwards to shine because if those things happen she is not likely to be elected president in 2008, or perhaps ever. But, having got the prime time speaking assignment she was not initially given but then demanded, she did deliver an at least somewhat more than perfunctory endorsement of the ticket, and in the process set herself up as the spokeswoman of the more moderate, center-left part of the party in 2008 or whenever.

Interestingly, she found time to talk about stem cell research and HIV/AIDS, but not about abortion (or "choice," as it is called in Democratic conclaves), a subject that was not much mentioned during the course of the Democratic primaries this year. I am not sure why the Democrats are so reluctant to talk about abortion this year, but they are, very much unlike 1992 or 1996; and in some way it is certainly significant.

Enter Bill Clinton who, unlike Al Gore, did not kiss his wife. This was the man who still has the Democratic delegates' hearts, as the tumultuous applause showed. For most of the last century, Democrats have liked to believe that their party is led by philosopher-princes, men of great intelligence and learning and sensitivity who are leaders of historical importance. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were seen as such leaders; Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter were discarded when they seemed deficient. Nominees who do not win — Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis — are shoved offstage; McGovern, a nice man, has been around the convention but Dukakis, a resident of nearby Brookline, has been invisible.

In contrast, Republicans have been content to nominate leaders who serve their purposes but who, by no stretch of the imagination can be seen as Renaissance men: Richard Nixon (smart but cold), Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush all fit the mold. So, it seemed, did Ronald Reagan though, as we discovered after his withdrawal from public life, he was an autodidact intellectual, who read widely, wrote frequently and developed his own unique positions on issues over many years and coolly and sometimes ruthlessly put them into effect as president. The Republicans are inclined to Joseph Alsop's theory of politicians, when he said they are like toilet fixtures: it is enough that they serve the intended purpose, they need not be beautiful.

But Bill Clinton wants to be beautiful, and Democrats want him to be. And his speech was in many ways beautiful, delivered with remarkable self-assurance and with a physical grace comparable to Reagan's. Clinton has been thinking about history and about the difference between the parties, and he shared that thinking with the delegates and the television audience as he has been sharing it with convention audiences this week, although in truncated form, so as to end promptly at 11pm, as convention wrap-up orators are supposed to do. Some of his speech was sheer demagoguery, of a sort he might not have indulged in as a candidate for fear it would not be sustainable over the course of a campaign. He excoriated the Bush administration, for example, for abandoning the Kyoto and the International Criminal Court treaties, though as president he had never submitted them to the Senate, for the sensible reason that they never could have been ratified. He criticized Bush for dropping his 100,000 cops program — a bookkeeping exercise shrewdly designed to funnel money to grateful mayors — and for not backing re-authorization of the so-called assault weapons ban — a frivolous bill that bans guns based not on their capacity but on their appearance. Tawdry stuff.

But he also came up with a good rhetorical argument for John Kerry. The current president and vice president and I myself, he said, had declined to serve in Vietnam, but John Kerry, who could have avoided service, said, "Send me." The refrain built up, and the delegates chimed in: "Send John Kerry." This is exactly the message Kerry wants to send. Clinton, like his wife, may not in his heart want to see John Kerry elected. Despite his statements, as president he never worked closely with Kerry and he certainly warned Kerry off running in 2000 as campaign-manager-in-effect for his chosen successor Al Gore. But after that speech he cannot be accused of not doing his part to elect Kerry and Edwards.

The Boston convention is the product of the Edward Kennedy wing of the party: the Massachusetts delegation is in front of the hall and Arkansas and New York are far in the bleachers. But the heart of the delegates still seems to be with the Clintons. He is the philosopher-prince they cherish; Gore and, so far despite all the scripted praise of him, Kerry are still the fixtures they are willing to accept as the instruments to remove the hated George W. Bush from power. Kerry will have his chance to prove himself the philosopher-prince Thursday night. But Bill Clinton on Monday night set the bar high, and Kerry, who in 1972 was running for Congress and thought himself on a short path to the White House when Clinton was just the McGovern coordinator for Texas, has to jump higher than he has ever before to exceed it.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone