John Kerry’s Big Night: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Lucas Morel

July 1, 2004

“I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty!” exclaimed the Democratic
presidential nominee, as he saluted his audience. While I still think his entry into Boston by water taxi, with comrades from his tour of
Vietnam at his side, too hokey for words, I believe Kerry’s acceptance speech sent an effective, rhetorical shot across the bow of President Bush’s reelection campaign on the important issue of Kerry’s commander-in-chief credentials. “I will wage this war with the lessons I learned from war” was both a pithy and persuasive soundbite.

To be sure, many of his criticisms of the Bush war effort should be ably refuted by reference to Kerry’s own waffling Senate record and his
blithe and repeated appeal to multilateralism as the solution to the woes of Iraq. But as a rhetorical first strike against Bush’s foreign
policy credibility, this Republican thought the speech worked.

More importantly, unless refuted by the scrutiny of both his Senate record and wishful thinking about improving world opinion about
America’s global intentions, Kerry will have surmounted a key obstacle to his presidential candidacy—Bush’s experience as commander-in-chief, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Kerry even borrowed a Bush theme: “The
future doesn’t belong to fear; it belongs to freedom.” Simply put, he presented his candidacy as a vote for change without appearing weak on defense.

Moreover, near the conclusion of his address, when referring to the diversity of his shipmates in Vietnam, Kerry declared that what was more important was what they had in common: “We were literally all in the
same boat.” That was a great metaphor, set up nicely by Tuesday’s speech of State Senator Barack Obama, which touted the unity of the American family.

This implicit theme of Kerry and the Democrats as uniters, not dividers—yet another borrowing from the Bush playbook—is useful going
into the general election. As he put it, “I see us as one America, red, white, and blue.” Of course, the metaphor only works insofar as the Kerry campaign downplays what clearly divides Americans, including some Democrats: for example, abortion. For more on this subject, we now turn to “the bad” aspects of Kerry’s speech.

Enough, I say, about Kerry’s claim to be a uniter, not a divider, especially regarding what he calls American “values.” To hear him
assert, “It’s time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families!”, all the while knowing he favors abortion as an acceptable “choice” of the pregnant mother, is simply abhorrent. Kerry wants to talk about “values”? What is more valuable than a human life? What is more objectionable than to hear someone castigate those who
defend the traditional family and the responsibilities that come with it—principal among them being the defense of the most vulnerable, the
unborn—as if these defenders mouth pieties they do not practice on a day-to-day basis? How many liberals support and volunteer at crisis pregnancy clinics? Enough said.

Instead of following their usual script of ignoring our most sacred political principles and running down the country before the eyes of the world, the Democratic Party does well to wrap themselves in the American
flag. But Kerry went over the top with his pleas that Democrats love their country and “the flag belongs to all the American people.” Admittedly, it was encouraging to hear chants of “USA! USA! USA!” from some delegates in the convention hall in response to Kerry’s praise of America’s greatness. But given the occasion and the party’s mixed
history on the subject of patriotism, one wonders if the man doth protest too much.

On the economy, Kerry has yet to learn that outsourcing (what used to be known as “free trade”) is not the job-killing bogeyman he wants it to be. Like stubborn devotees of a higher minimum wage and rent controls, Kerry refuses to let the facts about how domestic wealth, jobs, and truly affordable and accessible housing are created inform his understanding of the global economy.

As for “the ugly” parts of his speech, some of Kerry’s statements were just plain odd. In the video that introduced Kerry, he said he was spared death in Vietnam “by the grace of a higher being.” While I
acknowledge his sincerity, I’m puzzled by his impersonal reference to “a higher being,” instead of the usual formulation, “the grace of God.” Is this his way of affirming his Catholicism without offending those for whom the Creator remains a more nebulous divine entity?

Also, shouting “We’re the optimists!”, to quote a different part of Kerry’s speech, doesn’t make it so. Again, methinks the man doth protest too much. Has he read no speech by the president (say, his latest address to the Urban League), wherein Bush explains how his economic
policies help facilitate the talent, initiative, and ingenuity of ordinary, individual Americans? How Bush’s tax cuts for all Americans—including those who generate the majority of the nation’s wealth—leave more money in individual citizens’ pockets so they, and not the federal government, can decide for themselves how best to save, invest, or spend it?

And how optimistic is it for Kerry to echo John Edwards’s pathetic appeals to a supposedly poor, hard-bitten America, by chanting the refrain, “Help is on the way”? What happened to the much-vaunted faith Kerry claims he found in hardworking, middle America? His repeated overtures to a supposedly diminishing middle class is typical Democratic, class warfare.

This fomenting of class envy teaches Americans to consider themselves as civic beggars come election time. In a Kerry/Edwards administration, one’s individual rights are transmogrified into class entitlements, depending on how the government classifies you. The dignity of self-government, for which, at least, the senatorial aspirant Barack Obama made a case, is nowhere to be found in their regime of identity politics.

This is the Democratic Party of old striving against an ennobling rhetoric it has borrowed, for the moment, from the Bush presidency. If the aforementioned litany of hits and misses demonstrates anything, it’s that Kerry has thrown down the gauntlet with force and guile. Bush need only affirm and explain his convictions, principles, and policies. Let the American people decide if they should switch horses midstream.

Lucas E. Morel is associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.