Richard Reeves

A Maddeningly Calibrated Candidate

NEW YORK -- They said, up in Boston, that John Kerry wrote his own acceptance speech. I believe that. The speech was excellent without being exceptional. I also believe he will be the 44th president -- and the election may not be all that close.

The 43rd president, George W. Bush, is turning out to be one of the worst in American history. He had his opportunity to be a great one after Sept. 11, 2001, and he blew it. In three years, he has, almost willfully, marched us into disaster. The nation was united behind him; most of the world was united behind us. Now the nation is divided, poorer in many ways, and much of the world hates us.

Democrats were smart enough to nominate the best they had. Whatever his oratorical limits, Kerry is an admirable man who has succeeded at almost everything he has done in life and will almost certainly succeed as president. But he is a calibrated man, ever calculating his approach to the world and people around him. And his speech was calibrated carefully and maddeningly for these times.

Part of that actually is Bush's doing. The man in the White House so screwed up the war on terrorism by invading Iraq that few Americans, certainly not John Kerry, have the courage to speak truth to power: We are going to have to cut and run without appearing to cut and run. We have to execute the most difficult of military maneuvers, retreating under fire, without admitting it, as Richard Nixon did in Vietnam. Certainly Kerry could not admit that last Thursday night; few of us can. The almost criminal incompetence of the occupation cripples us all. But Kerry has to fudge that. For now, on Iraq, he has to mimic Bush. We all do. The final futility is just Vietnamization all over again, turn the country back to the locals, keeping Americans out of harm's way and getting out of there as fast as we can -- or repairing to bases where bullet-proof-vested soldiers, watching videos and eating ice cream, will occasionally venture forth like Romans on punitive missions. But Kerry would be dead politically if he admitted that. So would Bush.

The president, meanwhile, reckons that if few Americans are killed in the coming months, people and press will have permission to turn away from this misguided war. Sixty or 100 Iraqis killed by their own people -- insurgency escalating into civil war -- is just a story that moves deeper and deeper into the back pages of American journalism.

To use an old baseball story: Frankie Frisch, the playing manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, once pulled his right fielder out of a game because he had misplayed two fly balls. "I'm going to show you how to play out there," said Frisch, running out to the outfield. The first ball was a fly hit right at him and he dropped it. "That guy," said Frisch back in the dugout, "has screwed up right field so bad that no one can play it."

Kerry is on a rocky field. Bush has let loose the dogs of war and no one can yet tell the truth about the consequences. Saying we need 40,000 more troops is as far as Kerry can go right now, a calibrated response that avoids the real issues out there. "Strength," he says.

He actually used "strength" or its equivalent 17 times in his speech. Fine. But what surprised me most was how obvious he was in lifting, without credit, of course, the thoughts and words of other politicians in crafting his speech. He made many omissions but few mistakes in his well-delivered, well-researched oral essay. But, if there was anything original in his words or his thinking, I missed it.

I counted 15 lifts from presidents and candidates past, most of them from Ronald Reagan: "We have it in our power to change the world" ... "For all those who believe our best days are ahead of us" ... "Make America once more a beacon in the world" ... "I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve" ... "The sun is rising; our best days are still to come."

From John F. Kennedy he took: "We can do better" ... "band of brothers" ... "Your family's health care is just as important as any politician's in Washington."

"Telling the truth to the American people" was vintage Jimmy Carter. "We will never fight a war without a plan to win the peace" echoed Richard Nixon. He even took some from George W. Bush: "Help is on the way" ... "You will lose and we will win."

I came away from that believing Kerry, no matter how accomplished, is a man of dutiful research and synthesis. He is the student with the excellent paper, but not ready for new ideas. He is, as one of his daughters said, ferociously curious, and perhaps that will translate into growth, innovation and risky originality. We can only hope so, because he is probably going to be our next president -- one far superior to the incumbent.

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