I went to see The Man Himself this afternoon

John Kerry spoke to a huge crowd at Phoenix Civic Plaza today, and I was lucky enough to get one of the front-section seats, just a few rows in front of him.

I am going to keep this post short and I’m going to try to avoid effusive metaphors and gushing phrases. But I was utterly blown away and surprised, because I had no idea to what extent the John Kerry I know from soundbites and articles differs from John Kerry in person.

My attitude as I took my seat was that I was going to force myself to like Kerry. After all, I knew he was a bore, a distant and somewhat haughty elitist, a singularly uncharismatic old-timer with very limited appeal to The Man on the Street.

I can’t tell you how wrong I was on each and every count. Kerry’s grace, poise, charm, wit, self-effacing humor, mental agility, deep compassion and obvious intelligence were a breath — no, an overpowering gust — of fresh air.

He never talked at us or down to us, but rather connected, almost Clinton-like (though never quitethat warm) with everyone in the room. His speech was superb, and I am a critical son of a bitch, even with pols that I like. He knew how to get the crowd revved up, and how to bring it down a bit only to take them higher a few minutes later. He won one standing ovation after another.

Giving a speech is one thing. When our preznit has a good speech in front of his beady eyes, he, too, can be excellent. But where Kerry scored highest was the Q & As, where he had to think on his feet. His responses were swift, specific, and well thought out, unfolding with a logic and depth Bush could never command. As he answered questions, I tried to imagine him debating Bush with the eyes of the entire world upon them. It seemed utterly preposterous. Kerry, former head of the debate club at Yale, will trounce him alive.

Do you remember Bush at his famous “magic tie” press conference where someone asked what his biggest mistake since taking office was, and he disintegrated into a tongue-tied, trembling wreck? In that moment, we saw the exact kind of paralysis and helplessness he exhibited reading My Pet Goat as minute after minunte after minute after minute after minute passed after he was told “America is under attack.”

I tried to imagine John Kerry becoming similarly paralyzed. It’s possible, but I can’t imagine it. The Bush paralysis we saw in the aforementioned instances was an amplification of the bumbling, stumbling, deer-in-the-headlights leadership we had come to expect from Bush since day one. It was nothing really new, just a lot worse than usual. Kerry is a man of gravitas, of informed thoughts and sharp analysis. I saw that today. And for the first time, I know he would be a real president; he wouldn’t need to be pushed out of the elementary school classroom by his chief of staff if America were attacked. He wouldn’t stand there like the village idiot if he were asked a tough question he hadn’t prepared for.

Is John Kerry perfect? Is he the very best candidate we can find for president? No to both, and I still harbor my same concerns about the lack of both directness and responsibility he’s shown at time with the press. (But then, this stems from those those over-publicized episodes when the media was being silly, like pressing him about his owning an SUV. What’s wrong with owning an SUV? Is it a crime? I live with a guy who loves animals and nature and drives an SUV.)

But what I saw today is that John Kerry is a far stronger candidate than I had ever suspected. And it drove home to me that this is still a big secret here in America. And that makes sense: We are, for better or for worse, at war. All the world’s cameras are fixated on Iraq. It dominates the headline and the news programs, and there’s been very little coverage of much else. The convention and then the debates — those will be Kerry’s big opportunities, when he will be in the spotlight.

Watching him today, I felt thrilled, because I saw it really was possible. Kerry may very well be our next president, and it would be a great thing, not only because he is not Bush, but because he is John Kerry. Next to him, Bush is a small and inconsequential shrub. He’s still dangerous, and it’s going to be a bloody battle. But I can promise, had you been there today, you would feel just as I do now — energized, optimistic and thoroughly impressed.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

Boring, get back to insulting Bush.

June 29, 2004 @ 11:21 pm | Comment

“Boring, get back to insulting Bush”

Don’t be rude, now. How can you say that, anyway? You haven’t been swept away by the man’s charisma, energized by his charm, transfixed by his deep compassion. And he’s a debate club president, for God’s sake!

Get a grip.

June 30, 2004 @ 1:07 am | Comment

But of course, the only thing about Kerry that the FoxNews-watching public needs to know is that he looks (and speaks!) French. Plus his wife is rich.

June 30, 2004 @ 2:12 am | Comment

He speaks French? Well, good on him. Bush struggles enough with English that small difference between the two should be enough to make everyone vote Bush out. Shit, linguistic competence should be top of the list of attributes, along with the ability to write one’s own name on the nomination form.

Richard, calm down dude. Translate that energy and optimism into getting the half-wit shrub back where he belongs and the world will thank you.

The rest of you, give Richard a break.

June 30, 2004 @ 5:45 am | Comment

“Is that a French look Kerry has?”

Every single conservabot has been saying so for months, so it MUST be true.

And, as absurd as it might be to denigrate someone for being able to speak more than one language well, we can expect Kerry’s tragic lack of non-fluency in French to play a major role in GOP ad-homineming between now and November.

June 30, 2004 @ 7:27 am | Comment

I find it hard to believe that the American public cannot be swept up by a man who exudes eloquence and ethics.

June 30, 2004 @ 8:38 am | Comment

Not if he looks French and actually learned from his Ivy League education.

June 30, 2004 @ 8:46 am | Comment

Sam, I deleted your last comment because of its obscenities. You really are surprising me.

June 30, 2004 @ 9:40 am | Comment

I thought that Bush also spoke reasonably fluent Spanish.

June 30, 2004 @ 7:22 pm | Comment

I think he does. I’ve never seen Bush speak in person, in English or in Spanish. But if it’s anything like what I’ve seen in his press conferences….

Sorry everyone, but I got rather annoyed, maybe excessively, at a commenter who I felt was using ungracious language, so i deleted some comments here — my own included. Sorry about that, as this is something i try to refrain from doing and will try to avoid in the future. Say what you want about Kerry or Bush, but when addressing one another, and me, please play nice. Thanks.

June 30, 2004 @ 8:07 pm | Comment

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