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January 29, 2005

Why Kerry Lost - by Errol Morris


The great filmmaker and director is as good with words as he is with celluloid.

He wrote a clear, logical, telling Op-Ed piece for the January 18 New York Times in which he mused out loud why it was that the then-imminent Presidential inauguration would not feature the swearing in of John Kerry as the 44th President of the United States of America.

In a nutshell, Morris believes that it was a failure in clarity on Kerry's part.

Not moral clarity, but rather, something far simpler and yet, apparently, not so simple after all.

The ability to appear politically authentic means that all parts of person need to be put out in front of the public - a bumbler who bumbles is preferable to a smart person who seems confused even if, in the end, the smart person achieves better results.

So with the election just past.

The next Democratic candidate would do well to have a storyteller like Morris in her - or his - inner circle in 2008.

Here's the Times piece.

    Where's the Rest of Him?

    So why is George W. Bush taking the oath of office this week and not John Kerry?

    For me, the answer is clear: Kerry failed because of his inability to tell his own story.

    John Kerry could have presented to the American people his full biography, but instead he chose to edit who he was.


    My guess is that Kerry and his campaign believed that certain things could not be mentioned.

    Foremost among these was Kerry's opposition to the war in Vietnam, which was largely erased from the candidate's life.

    That was a mistake.

    People think in narratives - in beginnings, middles and ends.

    The danger when you edit something too severely is that it no longer makes sense; worse still, it leaves people with the disquieting impression that something is being hidden.

    Muting Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War had precisely this effect.

    Remember, this is the man who in 1971 made the following statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

    "Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say that we have made a mistake. ... We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

    Last year at the Democratic Convention in Boston, the Vietnam War was transformed into a strange version of World War II.

    Gone was the moral ambiguity, the complexity.

    Instead, Vietnam veterans appeared with Kerry as "a band of brothers," testifying to his heroism in battle.

    Could Kerry's campaign advisers have forgotten about his role as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War?

    Could they have forgotten about his Senate testimony?

    Did they expect others to forget – particularly longtime anti-Kerry veterans like John E. O'Neill?

    If so, they were gravely mistaken, and their reticence on the subject merely made Kerry vulnerable to attack.

    To me, John Kerry's heroism encompassed both his actions in combat and his willingness to change his mind and stand up for what he thought was right.

    He realized that soldiers and civilians were dying in a war that wasn't accomplishing its objectives.

    Yet he never tied this crucial piece of his biography into his campaign for the presidency.

    And in failing to do so, he left a blank space in his personal story – a blank space that made it possible for the criticisms of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to be alarmingly effective.

    By implying that his real heroism was fighting in Vietnam, Kerry also left himself open to the charge that he was somehow inauthentic.

    Americans have a complicated relationship with their military heroes: we expect them not to talk about their heroism.

    War heroes, in real life and in the movies, rarely speak about their courage in battle.

    Eisenhower didn't.

    Nor did Kennedy, Bob Dole, or the president's father.

    And then there was the president.

    Though George W. Bush's military record was arguably less impressive than his opponent's, the Republicans never misrepresented who he was.

    Bush never pretended to be a war hero.

    He never pretended to be anything but a ne'er-do-well who turned his life around when he became a born-again Christian.

    His life story made sense; it was recognizable and easy to understand. There was no point in attacking him about his war record (or lack of one): He had already conceded the point.

    He had never claimed to be a hero.

    John Kerry had.

    Bush portrayed himself as a controversial but candid incumbent.

    In accepting his party's nomination, he said: "In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand."

    This was the cornerstone of his approach.

    And it worked.

    People grasped who he was, even when they disagreed with his policies

    After the 2004 conventions, a New York Times poll asked people whether they felt that the candidates were not being candid about their war records.

    Many of Kerry's supporters were mystified that almost as large a percentage of Americans felt that he was holding something back as felt that Bush was doing the same.

    But the polls made perfect sense.

    Kerry was holding something back – his real story about Vietnam.

    And in the end the questions about his service in Vietnam became questions about how he would deal with the war in Iraq.

    Was Kerry for it or against it?

    Questions about Iraq became questions about his candor, and vice versa.

    What's disconcerting here is that Kerry had an out.

    He could have explained why he went to Vietnam and then opposed the war, and then he could have used this explanation to help people understand why he voted for the Iraq war and then voted against it.

    His experience with the changing nature of a war could have shifted those critical swing voters, convincing them that he was just the person to lead them at this juncture in our history.

    Many people believe that Kerry is not preparing for his inaugural this week because he wasn't conservative enough, because the Democrats were outwitted by Karl Rove, because of gay marriage, because of the Christian evangelicals who supposedly came out of the woodwork on Election Day.

    But these people miss the point.

    John Kerry lost because he concealed something that was completely honorable, even heroic: his opposition to Vietnam.

    George W. Bush told the truth about something that, to my mind, was not honorable: He supported that war but found a way to stay home.

    Kerry was forthright about almost everything except himself – and in this election that was not enough.

January 29, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Morris almost gets it... almost. Kerry didn't lose because of "his inability to tell his own story." Kerry lost because he lacked the character and the courage to tell his own story--the story of a LOSER. Kerry lost because he was a liar who got caught lying.

The SwiftVets caught Kerry lying about his Vietnam combat record. They caught him lying about his being in Cambodia... on the floor of the Senate! They portrayed a person of a different character than the one Kerry claimed, and it turned out that the SwiftVets' portrayal was the real Kerry, not the image put out by the Kerry campaign.

The '04 campaign season accomplished what our Founders wanted: the true character of both candidates was revealed. In a field of pathetic candidates, Kerry was perhaps the most pathetic of them all.

The "great unwashed masses" that comprise Flyover Country, the supposedly ill-educated and backwards bumpkins who are despised by the urban liberal backbone of the modern-day Democratic Party, weren't fooled by Kerry's attempt to wrap himself in the flag.

Morris did get this part: people will vote for a candidate they feel is both honest and willing to put principle ahead of politics. In the '04 election Bush was that candidate. You might not agree with him, but you knew where he stood and you knew that he would do what he felt was right, politics be damned.

I can't think of any other qualities that are more important to have in a President.

For those who REALLY want to understand what happened, click on my hyperlink to check out my article on the subject.

Posted by: jgc | Jan 8, 2006 4:45:57 AM

very true - we elect people based on soft personal stories and a vague notion of character... the issues are sadly a distant third.

Posted by: charles | Jan 29, 2005 3:00:03 PM

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