Political Pundits on How to Win the White House

In April 2003, a Times story by chief political writer Adam Nagourney and White House reporter Dick Stevenson quoted an unnamed Bush adviser commenting on Kerry's appearance. "He looks French," the adviser cracked. Whether a planned insult or a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, it was one of the most ingenious remarks of the entire campaign. It brilliantly combined two Freak Show themes that were central to the Bush case against Kerry. One was that he was an exotic, even feminine, character.

The other was that he was a virtual quisling, since the French were the most vocal foreign opponents of Bush's war in Iraq. Nagourney and Stevenson played the dig deep in their story, but it hardly went unnoticed. Teresa Heinz Kerry, the candidate's wife, perhaps did not help her husband's cause the next day when she responded with a shot of her own at White House advisers: "They probably do not even speak French." The Times story showed that one of the Trade Secrets of politics is truer than ever in the new environment: Little things can become big things.

The "looks French" line was picked up on Rush Limbaugh's show. Ann Coulter devoted a column to it. House Republican leader Tom DeLay delighted audiences with his new opening line: "Good afternoon. Or, as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour!' " As 2003 stretched on, Kerry faded as a laugh line. But only because his presidential ambitions were similarly fading, under the weight of his own lassitude and disorganization, and in the face of the ?eeting rise of Howard Dean. Jim Jordan was sent packing by Kerry; some other staff, startled by the candidate's lack of loyalty and the discord he tolerated on his own team, chose to leave with Jordan. Yet one of Kerry's virtues as a politician had always been an ability to rise to the occasion. In January of 2004, he roared past erstwhile front-runner Dean and a ?eld of others to win the Iowa caucuses, and then the New Hampshire primary. For a ?ickering moment, people seemed to be viewing Kerry in a new, more favorable light.

The golden light quickly turned harsh again. In mid-January, there had been passing references in the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Herald, and elsewhere to speculation that Kerry was freshening his look through injections of Botox. But this speculation did not ignite until it was highlighted on the Drudge Report on January 28: "New and Improved Kerry Takes New Hampshire." There were before-and-after photographs with analysis of the respective furrows. Kerry and his spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, both denied that he had received Botox injections. Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee once described a certain type of especially delicious story: "Too good to check!" Kerry's alleged Botox treatments fell in this category. Whether true or not, it ?t so neatly into the existing image of Kerry as a popinjay that the story scurried through the news.

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