“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.