“I’m going straight to the White House,” John Kerry says. “I’m thrilled with where the campaign is right now.” Just 90 minutes earlier, on this warm afternoon in late September, he stood on an outdoor stage at the University of Pennsylvania campus in downtown Philadelphia and gazed out onto a sea of 20,000 supporters. The school had hosted only one other rally this big in recent memory – when Bill Clinton came through on his re-election tour in 1996. It’s heady stuff when a first-time presidential candidate draws crowds comparable in size to those of a popular sitting president.
“I feel as if we have finally gotten the American people and the press simultaneously focused on the real issues,” he says. “Things I’ve been talking about for two years. George Bush has made catastrophic mistakes in Iraq, catastrophic mistakes in foreign policy. He’s shown bad judgment, made bad choices about how to proceed in a war on terror. I think he’s also out of touch with the American people on what their day-to-day lives are like. The cost of health care skyrockets; he has no plan to reduce it. School is expensive; he’s made it worse. He has a string of broken promises about not hurting Social Security as he dips into it every day. This is the most say-one-thing-and-do-another administration in history.”
Dressed in a gray suit, with a blue shirt and blue tie, Kerry sits in a classroom in the law school building near the quad where the rally was held. He’s been fighting off a cold that has caused him to lose his voice, but earlier he was especially spirited as he launched the latest blistering attack on Bush: that he’s living in a fantasy world.
“It’s the truth of what I think is happening,” Kerry says. “When you sit there and say your CIA is guessing [about conditions in Iraq], when you talk about the right-way/wrong-way polls being better in Iraq than in America, when you ignore what the Iraqi prime minister visiting you says about thousands of terrorists crossing the border and say there are only a handful – you’re living in a world of spin. You’re in fantasyland.” He pauses. “When you don’t understand what’s happening to the American family and talk about tax cuts they’ve received, when you celebrate jobs going overseas, when you talk about job numbers that are less than what your own targets were – you’re not telling the truth to the American people.”
On Iraq – now the central issue on which he is attacking Bush – Kerry is harsh, claiming Bush has been guilty of “misleading, miscalculating, misjudgment, mismanagement.” The consequences may be “very serious” for the United States, but already the price has been immense. “Two hundred billion dollars spent and a thousand lives laid down,” Kerry says, “because [the Bush administration] miscalculated in every respect and because they pursued a rigid, ideological goal rather than an honest assessment of America’s security.”
Kerry straightens up in his chair. “I believe we are going to win,” he says. “And we are going to win because, I think, America wants a change in the right direction.” Then he adds, “I’m fired up and ready to go.”
Only a few weeks ago, if Kerry had promised victory like this, it would have sounded like he was the one living in a fantasy world. Even campaign spokesman David Wade admits it: “August was a hard month for us.” By the end of that month, Kerry found himself down by double digits in some national polls, blown out of the water by a Bush-backed assault on his Vietnam War record, which was supposed to have been the cornerstone of his presidential campaign. When the Republican National Convention ended on September 2nd, the press had all but written Kerry off. He was criticized for being overly cautious and too controlled by his political handlers – in short, a stiff, distant candidate who appeared unable to explain why he should be president. He also seemed to hide from reporters, refusing to hold press conferences and, because he had yet to refute the attacks on his war record, he gave the impression that he had something to hide.
“We knew we were going to be at a disadvantage in August because they had one more month of private money than we did,” Wade says. “But they resorted to a smear so criminal that it makes what they did to John McCain” – during the 2000 presidential primaries – “and Max Cleland” – in the 2002 midterm elections – “look like small-time theft. Millions upon millions of dollars were spent on ads lying about a service record of a decorated veteran.”
Kerry’s downward spiral began on August 4th, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unleashed its attack using well-orchestrated advertising and free-media publicity campaigns. Day after day, you couldn’t turn on a news program without hearing something about the SBVT – and how Kerry had distorted his war record. What you didn’t hear was Kerry fighting back. Media advisers Robert Shrum and Tad Devine and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill felt that if Kerry hit back too aggressively he could turn off swing voters. On August 19th, Kerry – finally – categorically denied the SBVT’s allegations and charged that the group was a front for Bush, who “wants them to do his dirty work.” When they ran their second ad the next day, Kerry filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission arguing the Bush campaign had illegally coordinated efforts with the SBVT.
To refashion his struggling campaign, Kerry began adding a cadre of slash-and-burn Clinton hands – Joel Johnson, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry – plus one non-Clintonista, John Sasso. From Washington, Lockhart would shape message and Johnson would handle rapid response, while Sasso would travel with Kerry to keep him focused. They unleashed a startlingly aggressive new candidate. “With these new people onboard,” one Kerry aide says, “we’ve now put ourselves in a position where we can win. I don’t care what anybody says: Either guy can still win this election.”
On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, Kerry returned a call to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. After they chatted, Clinton asked if Kerry wanted to speak to her husband – she was with him in his Manhattan hospital room as he awaited open-heart surgery. When Kerry spoke with the former president, the two men agreed to have a strategy session by phone. That 90-minute conference call – Lockhart was on the line too – took place on Saturday night. Clinton was unwavering in his critique: Kerry had to stop talking about Vietnam and prosecute his case against Bush in as hard-hitting a manner as possible.
Thirty-six hours or so later, Kerry began his Clinton-inspired assault, saying Bush was carrying on “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But Kerry leveled his most stinging criticism the following week in Las Vegas at the National Guard Association convention – a group Bush had addressed two days earlier only to offer up a glowing status report on the war in Iraq. Slamming Bush for misrepresenting the conditions there – “He did not tell you that with each passing day, we’re seeing more chaos, more violence, more indiscriminate killings” – Kerry said Bush was “living in a fantasy world of spin.”
In late September, I spent a week on the Kerry plane. Unlike the 2000 Bush plane, which became notorious for its party atmosphere – margaritas flowed at the end of the day and affairs among the press corps were widely rumored – the feeling on the Kerry plane is professional and businesslike. It soon became apparent that many members of Kerry’s traveling press make no attempt to hide their open dislike of the candidate. The morning after Kerry had addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala on the evening of September 15th, two members of the press corps were talking on a campaign bus. “That event was stupid,” one said, referring to the previous night’s occasion – one of the largest Hispanic galas of its type. “A waste of time,” the other said.
Other reporters were just as dismissive. Kerry had gotten a series of impassioned standing ovations during his speech. But when Elisabeth Bumiller described the event in The New York Times, she said, referring to a moment when Kerry spoke an entire paragraph in flawless Spanish, “Kerry’s audience… … listened in startled silence, then broke out into cheers and applause when he made his way through [the paragraph].”
But to report on these events accurately would mean you had to say something unqualified and positive about Kerry. This is something his traveling press corps has been – and still is – loath to do. On the evening of September 21st, outside an auditorium in Orlando, where inside more than 7,500 people were screaming wildly as Kerry spoke, Candy Crowley stood next to the venue and reported on CNN that Kerry was “trying…… to rev up the crowd.” The implication was unmistakable: Kerry’s supporters in Florida were resistant, even standoffish. Just to make sure Crowley was able to get away with downplaying the event as she was, CNN never showed a wide shot of the large, cheering crowd.
As a result of the media bias against Kerry, there is an unmistakable disconnect between what you see on the trail when you travel with him and the way he is depicted in the media. On Mike McCurry’s first trips on the plane, the Thursday and Friday after Labor Day, he immediately identified the animosity that existed between Kerry and the press corps. Specifically, the traveling press were mad because Kerry had not given a press conference since August 9th, five days into the SBVT controversy. McCurry realized he needed to fix the problem at once.
So, late on Friday night, well into a flight from Denver to Boston, McCurry made his way to the rear of the plane, where network cameramen, still photographers and reporters who do not work for A-list dailies – a group that includes both reporters from the newsweeklies, such as Time, and members of the press from states sure to go to Bush, such as Texas – are seated. One reporter not so jokingly referred to this section as “steerage.” McCurry approached Nedra Pickler, an Associated Press correspondent – a sturdy, unflinching woman who takes her job deadly seriously.
“Would you be willing to participate in a group interview on deep background,” McCurry asked her, “should Kerry come back to the reporters?”
“No,” Pickler said flatly over the roar of the jet engines. “It is the position of the Associated Press that if John Kerry were to meet with reporters, the interview should be on the record.”
“But it will give you an idea,” McCurry said, “of what his thinking is at the moment about the campaign. You can attribute what he says to someone close to the campaign. Then next week we will have an on-the-record press conference. This can help you prepare for that.”
Some reporters, such as Susannah Meadows of Newsweek and myself, were happy to meet with Kerry on background – a perfectly acceptable journalistic practice. But all of the reporters had to agree, McCurry said; otherwise, no deal. This, however, is what was strange. The reporters seemed to take a perverse pleasure in standing up to Kerry, in not giving him what he wanted. “He gets more out of this than we do,” one reporter said loudly. “He’s the one in trouble.”
“We’re a little behind, but with plenty of opportunity to close the gap and win,” John Sasso says to me with candor uncharacteristic of a political adviser. It is nine o’clock on the evening of September 23rd, and I’m walking with Sasso, who rarely talks to the press, on a sidewalk that runs alongside the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Sasso, a stocky, gray-haired man with a penchant for earth tones, puffs away on a cigar — the reason he’s decided to take a stroll.
“When you look,” he says, “at the persuadable voter that remains – 16 to 18 percent, truly undecided people or people who lean a little bit toward Kerry or a little bit toward Bush – these voters are concerned about the current situation in the country, the situation in the world, their own economic and personal security and national security. Seventy percent of them say the country is moving in the wrong direction – much more than the electorate as a whole. They are listening carefully to Kerry’s case for change.”
Sasso is a longtime Kerry friend and political ally from Boston who knows something about running against the Bush family, since he worked on the 1988 Michael Dukakis campaign. (This may not, however, be the best qualification, because Sasso’s candidate lost after squandering a huge lead in the polls.) “George Bush is a good campaigner,” Sasso says. “For certain people there is a reassurance in his simplicity. I don’t think for a majority, but a good number in this changing world get comfort in his very simple explanation of things.”
As we walk, I ask him about Kerry’s new line of attack on Bush: that he is living in a fantasy world. While Bush has been saying that democracy is taking hold in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is admitting that as much as 20 percent of the nation is not secured enough to hold elections. But before I can finish, Sasso comes to an abrupt halt and looks at me directly. For the first time in our conversation, he has pure emotion in his voice.
“No, it’s worse than that,” Sasso says. “Rumsfeld said, ‘Now just pretend’ that there’s going to be chaos. Just pretend!… Pretend! …Pretend!“
When I ask Sasso who developed this line of attack, he avoids the question, but it’s obvious: He feels much too passionately about it. If this campaign is successful, it will be because people recognize the point Sasso believes Kerry should be making: that Bush is out of touch with reality.
On its surface, this seems to be a hard sell, since Bush, unvarnished and understated, appears to be so down-to-earth. Then again, a similar criticism – of being out of touch with the common man – brought down his father in 1992.
It’s the night before, and Mike McCurry and I are sitting at a table in the bar of the Hyatt hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio. Since joining this campaign, he’s said his mission has been to explain to as many people as possible both why Kerry should win and how he can win. At present, McCurry talks about the rhythm of a presidential campaign, or at least this one.
“You introduce the challenger at the convention with heavy doses of biography,” McCurry says. “You then move to a phase of the race where you draw very clear distinctions and go negative on the incumbent president and draw the president into a debate and force him to respond, the risk being you wear all the negatives too. You get to the debates on an equal footing, so finally people are forced to choose between two people side by side. The final phase of the campaign is: Who is best to lead? The goal of the campaign is to have people start believing in your story of America.”
This sounds good, but I wonder if McCurry has located a fatal flaw with Bush – much like Sasso’s realization that Bush is living in a fantasy world of spin. “He is tremendously insecure,” McCurry says. “Any time any of his aides look like they have stature, he wants to suppress that, because it’s about him. When it’s not about him, he gets nervous that people will understand that he’s not as good as everyone thinks he is.”
“Is that his fatal weakness, then?” I ask.
“Yes, and you know who understands this better than anyone? John Kerry. The other day, Kerry said, ‘I need humor,’ which is why he did some of the late-night and morning shows. But the insight he had was, ‘I can get under this guy’s skin – if we have the right kind of humorous barb.'” McCurry pauses. “Last night, Kerry read aloud a Bush quote” – about how the CIA was guessing about conditions in Iraq – “and made fun of him, which made the news this morning. So I know – because I’ve been there – that Bush was sitting in his suite in the Waldorf-Astoria getting ready for his day at the United Nations General Assembly, and I’ll bet you any amount of money he watched that on TV and went nuts, because Kerry was making fun of his own words. If you saw the clip of the quote, Bush looked like his dad.” McCurry takes a short pause for effect. “It was devastating.”