In the end, more voters believed Clinton's version of his story. Kerry's personal life was not nearly as complicated as Clinton's, but his political challenge was bigger. Clinton had a detailed agenda, which he cared about and helped create. This is not true of all presidential candidates. Even rarer, Clinton had been the dominant voice in crafting that agenda. The most under-appreciated assets in presidential politics are a coherent rationale and the ability to defend that rationale, not just with words but with convictions that ?ow from life experience.
Clinton had these in abundance, as did George W. Bush. Kerry understood the issues, but had not harnessed them to a greater vision. He had not compiled an impressive record of legislative achievements in the Senate. Nor had he been an in?uential or consistent voice in the conversation over the direction of the Democratic Party, a debate that overlapped precisely with his Senate career. In the public mind, he stood for no particular ideas beyond a mild and conventional brand of liberalism. His advisers believed that Kerry's primary claim on the presidency was his personal biography. In this, they were indulging an obsessive desire of the political world, and reporters most of all, for a familiar plot line, in which a heroic life climaxes in a rendezvous with history at the White House. In the past generation, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, John McCain, Bill Bradley, and John Glenn all have been lead characters in such dramas. None (so far) has ever gone to the White House except as a visitor.
A candidate who runs principally on his or her biography is acutely vulnerable to the accusation that this biography is embellished. Such a candidate, in other words, is a fat target for the Freak Show. One signature of Freak Show politics is a ?xation on personality and alleged hypocrisy. Another is the ease with which shrewd political operatives can manipulate the Freak Show's attention to hijack the public image of an opponent.
Kerry and his political team knew exactly the story they would impart to voters. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger's famous line, the story had the added advantage of being largely true. It began with a bright, earnest young man whose interest in politics was sparked in the early 1960s by John F. Kennedy, and whose idealism led him to don a Navy uniform and ?ght heroically in Vietnam. Coming home, and recognizing that the war had become a terrible national tragedy, he stood on principle to oppose that war, and in so doing revealed his patriotism as valiantly as when he was ?ghting. Devotion to public service carried him to the United States Senate. The 2004 presidential campaign would bring this forty-?ve-year journey full circle, as the legacy of one JFK in the White House would be honored by a new JFK in the White House -- a nearly mystical convergence of history. It was a powerful enough narrative to help make Kerry the Democrats' consensus front-runner for the presidential nomination from late 2002 through the spring of 2003.
But there was another way to tell the story. It was of a man who had been nakedly ambitious since his youth and had been willing to trim his sails to suit the moment ever since. The decision to go to Vietnam had been an obvious stepping-stone to politics. His tales of combat valor had been deliberately in?ated, perhaps even manufactured.