Political Pundits on How to Win the White House

Sensing an opportunity to preen for the cameras in the antiwar moment, Kerry made a big show of discarding his war medals, but secretly hung on to a prized few. He affected a Kennedyesque accent and went before a Senate committee and prattled on fallaciously about alleged war crimes by his fellow servicemen. Elected to the Senate, Kerry found a natural home for himself as a vain and, thanks to two advantageous marriages, wealthy politician, with his ?nger in the wind and his hair under a blow-dryer.

Would the real John Kerry please stand up? Of course, both versions of his life had truth to them. Whenever Kerry's self-image tried to stand up, it was knocked over by a Freak Show interpretation. Every positive element of Kerry's existence was neutralized or turned into a weakness. Every vulnerability was maximized. By the end, this proud man was lying on the bloodied ice like a freshly clubbed harp seal.

One reason political operatives such as Jim Dyke value Freak Show politics is that it is never entirely clear who is swinging the club. From the average voter's vantage point, the Cristophe item just seemed to materialize. But the purpose and timing of Freak Show attacks are almost never coincidental, and they always landed at inopportune moments for Kerry.

A month after the Cristophe exposure, Kerry took his ?rst trip as a candidate to Iowa. The Republican National Committee researchers again had done their jobs well. They had found a Boston Globe story from 1996 in which Kerry said: "I hate going to places like . . . Dubuque to raise large sums of money. But I have to. I hate it. I detest it."

Kerry no doubt did not even remember saying such a thing, or the context in which he said it, but others made it their business to unearth these kinds of statements. Drudge was again the bene?ciary of the RNC research. He reported this "breaking news" during an appearance on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes. The date was January 16, 2003. By design, this was only two days before Kerry was scheduled to make an appearance in Dubuque. Hannity closed his interview by telling Drudge: "It's great for the country that you are out there. And keep giving the elites a tough time." On the Drudge Report, the dispatch quoted an outraged "Dubuque resident Marsha Vittal" who demanded to know where Kerry gets off by claiming he "wants to be my president, but he detests, detests coming to where I've chosen to live my life to ask for my support."

Curiously, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald could not ?nd anyone named Marsha Vittal listed in local phone books, Internet directories, or county voting records. By this point, though, it did not matter whether she existed or not. The Drudge item was dominating advance coverage of Kerry's visit in both the Iowa and the national media. Kerry and his aides were left to brainstorm over how to put the best face on their circumstances.

As he stood up before Dubuque Democrats, Kerry said, "I'm thrilled to be here, contrary to all . . ." The next phrase was drowned out as the crowd erupted in laughter. The Drudge Report may be the leading platform for Freak Show politics, but it is not the only one. Under the right circumstances, even the New York Times can play a role.

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