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John Kerry greets supporters in Green Bay.
Photo: Courtesy of Kerry-Edwards 2004, Inc.
from Sharon Farmer

Kerry's Acceptance Speech Takes On Repubicans Head-On

 


By Antoine du Rocher

NEW YORK, 31 July 2004—With the Democratic convention behind them and John Kerry now the official nominee of his party, Americans are looking back at the pageant of the last four days to try to make sense of a candidate who, in spite of being the nominee in all but name for months now, has kept a relatively low profile. Perhaps he has been aloof; perhaps he has been content to let the news cycle itself dig George W. Bush's grave for him; or perhaps he has let the American talking heads drone on about whatever they wanted to, while focusing on shaping the battlefield in those states of greatest strategic importance for the real battle ahead. This approach seems to have worked for him in the primaries, where he let the Howard Dean phenomenon soak up media attention, burn money, and alienate Iowans. But, for whatever reason, the acceptance speech was probably the first chance for the electorate as a whole to absorb an unfiltered, if heavily scripted, dose of John Kerry through their televisions. And as television, especially in the age of "reality TV", serves as the chief epistemic medium for many Americans concerning things such as politics that happen beyond their front lawns, his performance Thursday night was in fact of huge importance.

And—to the huge relief of some Democrats who saw Theresa Heinz Kerry's speech on Tuesday as too ethereal, too abstract, too far beyond the usual formula—Kerry delivered tonight. Once a pageant featuring his daughters and former crewmates warmed up the crowd, an excessively theatrical entrance from the convention floor and lame "John Kerry, reporting for duty" and "Born in the West Wing" quips may have left his sympathizers dreading a cacophany of false notes culminating in a crescendo of polite applause. But he quickly recovered and showed his true mettle. He managed to seem, well, humanized enough to deflect those who fault his apparent lack of warmth and spontaneity (perhaps best framed by The Economist's cheeky "He, robot?" cover of last week). More importantly, though, while maintaining a mostly positive tone, he managed to take on the Republicans head-on on fundamental ideological points which even successful Democrats have ceded to them for decades: defense, patriotism, the family, values, and even religious faith. He left no doubt that he will not let his opponents define him or his party as the opposite pole to these self-evident virtues. Fox News commentators struggled gamely to spin his performance back into their "Massachusetts liberal" narrative web, but the talking heads of many other outlets simply admitted that he had in fact exceeded their expectations.

John Kerry on the cover of The Economist
© Photo: courtesy of The Economist

Indeed, though, his performance in the speech seems to be of a piece with the engagement which won John Kerry his Silver Star (http://www.snopes.com/politics/kerry/service.asp). Having found himself in a position in which running from an enemy would expose him to lethal fire, he took the fight to such close quarters that his enemy's weapon was rendered unusable, and then dispatched the enemy. While it remains to be seen if this tactic will work again, Kerry may well have forced his opponent to attack a war hero, devoted father and husband, and man of faith. Where Bill Clinton stole policy positions from his conservative opponents and relied on a personal charm that could not inoculate him against attacks on his integrity, Kerry—lacking the weapon of charm, except as borrowed from his running mate John Edwards—wants to leave his rivals no cover from which to snipe. Perhaps this approach will reinvigorate the Democratic party once and for all, as something as powerful as, yet different from, the Republicans. If so, Ralph Nader will finally have to drop his litany about how the two major parties are indistinguishable—and Al-Qaeda will have reason to fear being Kerry's next opponent.


Antoine du Rocher is a French cultural journalist and writer based in New York. He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.
 

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