the way to lose
The collection of winners on that Little Rock stage was the most striking image from the Clinton Library opening. But also in attendance, sitting in the crowd, was a pair of distinguished losers.
Al Gore and John Kerry had never been close, despite the many years they served together in Washington. Now they shared a special bond. Both had been beaten by a man they believed to be less articulate, less capable, less experienced, less virtuous, less worthy, and less intelligent than they. Both had been preparing for the presidency since they were young men, spurred not just by ambition, but by colleagues, friends, and mentors who for a generation had been anticipating their eventual candidacies. Gore and Kerry long had stood out as quintessential strivers, even among fellow senators. Now they looked up through the rain at a man whom almost no one had regarded as presidential material until a couple of years before he got the job. Neither Gore nor Kerry seemed to grasp the reasons for what both considered a cruel hoax of history.
Gore had had four years to contemplate his loss, but for Kerry, the sting of defeat was still fresh that morning. An instinctually competitive man, he had served notice immediately after Election Day that he was eager to try again for the presidency in 2008. To his face, Kerry got handshakes, praise for a race well run, and condolences that the better man had not won. Behind his back, in Little Rock hotel bars filled with visiting Democrats, the notion of Kerry running again for president was greeted with derision and mockery, even by people who two weeks earlier had been on his payroll.
If this were a book about all the reasons John Kerry lost the 2004 election, it would be too heavy to hold. John Kerry was beaten by John Kerry, who never overcame the limitations of his diffident personality. He was beaten by George W. Bush, who was by far the savvier politician. Deep thinkers might say Kerry was beaten by history, since Democrats for nearly forty years had been at a stark disadvantage when national security was the dominant issue in voters’ minds. Here is another nominee for who beat John Forbes Kerry: Matthew Drudge.
If you are reading this book, you probably know who Matt Drudge is. It is a guarantee that most of the reporters, editors, producers, and talk show bookers who serve up the daily national buffet of news recently have checked out his eponymous website, and that www.drudgereport.com is bookmarked on their computers. That is one reason Drudge is the single most influential purveyor of information about American politics.
Drudge, with his droll Dickensian name, was not the only media or politi- cal agent whose actions led to John Kerry’s defeat. But his role placed him at the center of the game—a New Media World Order in which Drudge was the most potent player in the process and a personification of the dynamics that did Kerry in. Drudge and his ilk made Kerry toxic—and unelectable.
Toxicity is the new defining trait of modern American politics. The toxins themselves are not new. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton initially clashed like gentlemen (albeit venomously) over the limits of federal power and the future of the economy, but when news of Hamilton’s saucy mistress Maria Reynolds surfaced, thanks to nonpartisan busybody James Callender, Jefferson was content to let the accusatory pamphlets fly.
Anger, prurience, invective, conspiracy theory—all are native flowers on the American landscape. What is new is the greenhouse in which these blossoms are cultivated and sold. This greenhouse was built on two beams. The first was the disintegration of editorial filters in the Old Media, which in an earlier age prevented the most salacious tales and bitter accusations (though certainly not all) from entering the public arena. The New Media—talk radio, cable television, Internet websites—for the most part never had these editorial filters. Many of its leading voices, Drudge among them, are openly contemptuous of the very idea. The Old Media, faced with filter-free competition, responded by loosening or discarding its own.
This in turn helped promote, and was promoted by, the second beam, the erosion of basic habits of decorum and self-restraint, in politics and media alike. In an earlier generation, these habits meant that people more often refrained from fully expressing how much they loathed one another. In the current generation, self-restraint is commonly regarded as a weakness and rarely is rewarded economically or politically. The result is that the extreme and eccentric voices who always populated the margins of politics now reside, with money and fame as the rewards, at the center. Michael Moore, please say hello to Ann Coulter. The collapse of filters and the collapse of civility together have changed the purpose of politics. The goal now is not simply to win, but to persuade voters (and donors and viewers and readers) that an opponent lacks the character and credibility even to deserve a place in the contest. That is Freak Show politics.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were sitting on the stage in Little Rock because they learned to navigate the Freak Show—and even to use it to their advantage. Al Gore and John Kerry were sitting in the audience because they did not. Were it not for the Freak Show, Kerry’s title today likely would be President of the United States. Instead Kerry’s title is Case Study.
Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid began in earnest, though unofficially, days after the 2002 midterm congressional elections. These had been a disaster for Democrats. Bush, invoking his party’s credentials on national security, and revving up a turnout machine run from the White House by Karl Rove, led the Republicans to House and Senate gains. But the Massachusetts sena- tor believed Bush might yet be vulnerable in his own reelection. What was needed was a way to make plain to voters what seemed painfully obvious to Kerry: Bush was an incompetent president. Kerry hired a campaign manager, veteran Capitol Hill operative Jim Jordan, who set out with consultant Bob Shrum and a wide circle of Kerry advisers to take inventory of the Democrat’s strengths and vulnerabilities. They might have been wise to start with his hair.
By conventional measures, the thick mane atop Kerry’s lean, craggy face should have registered in the strengths column. His hair had grayed but not receded by a single follicle over his six decades. Kerry was a bit vain about his locks, and he gave them careful attention. As it happened, folks at the Republican National Committee had been paying attention, too. Sometime earlier, a tasty nugget of news raced around RNC headquarters. Would you believe that Kerry gets his hair cut at the Washington salon of Cristophe? Yes, exactly, that Cristophe—the same guy who did Hillary Clinton’s hair. Cristophe was also the stylist who was trimming Bill Clinton that time in 1993 when Air Force One sat on the tarmac in Los Angeles for two hours while the whole world cooled its heels (never mind that reports about delayed air traffic turned out to be false).
No one at the RNC was surprised by the Cristophe news. Barbara Comstock, the party’s savvy research director, had been in television green rooms with Kerry and witnessed him fussing over himself before going on air, utterly oblivious to anyone or anything around him. Jim Dyke, the party’s communications director, sensed the Cristophe information would come in handy, and tucked it away for the right occasion.
On Sunday, December 2, Kerry publicly announced his candidacy to Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press. Ordinarily, this was the kind of news that would echo positively through the media for the rest of the week. With a well-timed placement, however, Dyke and his colleague Tim Griffin made sure that something else was waiting for Kerry, first thing Monday morning.
“**Exclusive**” promised the Drudge Report. “Cash and Coif!” read his headline, using the alliteration Drudge favors. “Democrat all-star John Kerry of Massachusetts is positioning himself as a populist politician while he takes the first step for a White House run. . . . But the self-described ‘Man of the People’ pays $150 to get his hair styled and shampooed—the cost of feeding a family of three for two weeks!”
Like many Drudge Report exclusives, this one implied rigorous reporting, including direct quotations from well-positioned sources to whom the author supposedly talked on a not-for-attribution basis. In this case, it was a “stylist source,” who allegedly told him: “When it comes to his hair, Mr. Kerry is very, very particular. The coloring and the highlighting, the layering. But the results are fabulous.” Drudge also claimed he had spoken to a “green room insider” at Fox News’s Washington bureau: “It’s always a fight to get mirror time. He obsessively primps and poses before he goes on the air.” Drudge items often quote from his roster of breathless White House insiders, top media “suits,” or highly placed campaign aides, all furtively but authoritatively telling Matt Drudge the way it is. Does Drudge really get on the phone and converse with such people? Some in the Old Media speculate that he takes his tips from a single source by phone or e-mail, then creates hyperventilated quotes based on (entirely plausible) speculation about what someone somewhere probably is saying. The assumption that Drudge is casually embroidering his stories—what would be career-ending fraud for an Old Media journalist or author—has not caused reporters to remove Drudge from their daily reading. Whatever. It’s just Drudge. And maybe he’s got something there. As Jim Dyke knew, any superiority reporters and editors feel toward Drudge does not inhibit them from pouncing on his best items.
Within hours, the Cristophe story was everywhere. Rush Limbaugh chortled over it for an hour on his radio show. Later in the day, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan gave the website credit (“We learn from Drudge this morning . . .”) on his MSNBC cable show. Kerry’s team knew they had a genuine problem on their hands when they saw the next day’s newspapers filled with accounts of “Senator Kerry’s Bad Hair Day,” as one newspaper put it. A Kerry spokeswoman noted indignantly that Drudge had erred: The senator did not pay $150 for his haircut, only $75—Cristophe charges less for men. This gave Drudge a new hook. Why, he crowed, was the would-be president patronizing an establishment that practices sexism? Inevitably, the whole fuss caught the attention of Jay Leno. By the end of the week he was joking on The Tonight Show that the “winds were so strong yesterday” in Massachusetts that “John Kerry’s hair actually moved.” Acknowledging that the line was a little lame, Leno explained, “You see, he’s running for president—I wanted to get the first joke in.”
Leno’s tone suggested the ruckus over Kerry’s hair was all in good fun. And a sensible person might have paused to wonder how a candidate’s hair possibly could have any impact on a presidential race in an era of war, terrorism, and looming global calamity. But the Cristophe story was a serious portent of a much larger problem for Kerry, with which he would live almost daily for the next two years.
Presidential campaigns are about storytelling. A winning presidential campaign presents the candidate’s life story to voters. A losing campaign allows someone else to frame that story. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s race vividly exemplified the phenomenon of competing narratives. There was plenty in Clinton’s life to support his self-description as “The Man from Hope”: an exceptional young fellow who grew up with few advantages but through brains and cheerful hard work had made a difference for his struggling Southern state. There was also plenty in that life to justify his opponents’ description of “Slick Willie”: a double-talking, temporizing, womanizing opportunist, whose private life and public record raised troubling questions about how he might behave in the White House.
In the end, more voters believed Clinton’s version of his story. Kerry’s personal life was not nearly as complicated as Clinton’s, but his political challenge was bigger. Clinton had a detailed agenda, which he cared about and helped create. This is not true of all presidential candidates. Even rarer, Clinton had been the dominant voice in crafting that agenda. The most under- appreciated assets in presidential politics are a coherent rationale and the ability to defend that rationale, not just with words but with convictions that flow from life experience. Clinton had these in abundance, as did George W. Bush. Kerry understood the issues, but had not harnessed them to a greater vision. He had not compiled an impressive record of legislative achievements in the Senate. Nor had he been an influential or consistent voice in the conversation over the direction of the Democratic Party, a debate that overlapped precisely with his Senate career. In the public mind, he stood for no particular ideas beyond a mild and conventional brand of liberalism. His advisers believed that Kerry’s primary claim on the presidency was his personal biography. In this, they were indulging a great obsession of the political world, and reporters most of all, for a familiar plot line, in which a heroic life climaxes in a rendezvous with history at the White House. In the past generation, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, John McCain, Bill Bradley, and John Glenn all have been lead characters in such dramas. None (so far) has ever gone to the White House except as a visitor.
A candidate who runs principally on his or her biography is acutely vulnerable to the accusation that this biography is embellished. Such a candidate, in other words, is a fat target for the Freak Show. One signature of Freak Show politics is a fixation on personality and alleged hypocrisy. Another is the ease with which shrewd political operatives can manipulate the Freak Show’s attention to hijack the public image of an opponent.
Kerry and his political team knew exactly the story they would impart to voters. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger’s famous line, the story had the added advantage of being largely true.
Excerpted from The Way to Win by Mark Halperin Copyright © 2006 by Mark Halperin. Excerpted by permission.
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