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.
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.