As I boarded the last flight from Boston to Atlanta I wondered why I was feeling so confused. Part of it, certainly, could be traced to my accidental two-hour ride on the “T,” where my keen journalistic instincts failed me and, in a fit of blazing incompetence, I took the train away from instead of towards the airport. But part of it was the convention. Certain moments kept returning to me -- talk of resuscitating hamsters (gerbils?), John Edwards’ beatific smile, Kerry snapping a dumb but politically brilliant salute and “reporting for duty.” All the right people had spoken and had stayed, with the momentary (and much exaggerated) exception of Al Sharpton, remarkably on message -- Kerry. Swiftboat. 3 Purple hearts. 2 stars. God. Country. Notre Dame. Strike that last one. But something had been missing -- off.
A secret habit of mine is watching Fox News. I can only stand it for a short period of time but it invariably produces the high of a good laugh or righteous indignation, and sometimes it gives me the idea for an article. On the night I returned from Boston it crystallized the confusion I was feeling and revealed its source with one ugly little word: “hatefest.” As is often the case, Fox’s coverage was diametrically opposed to the truth but as whoever it was repeated their charge that the DNC had been a hatefest I had my epiphany. Where was the hate? There was certainly no shortage of it on the floor of the convention. The delegates wanted blood and went wild at even the most veiled criticism of the Bush administration. But those on the stage staunchly refused to gratify the baser instincts of their audience, which, I’m pretty sure, is unusual behavior in politicians. I was reeling from watching the first rule of politics -- give ’em what they want -- violated by speaker after speaker. Even those who criticized the president directly, and there were precious few, did so with such good humor and restraint that the convention felt like a, well, what’s the opposite of a “hatefest?” “Love-in.”
It was an interesting move by the Democratic leadership made even more fascinating by the tenacity with which they stuck to their plan. We ... Will ... Be ... Good-Natured. Clearly it was an effort to show the elusive “undecided” voter that the Democratic tent is a nice place to be and at the same time take a little ammo away from the Republican attack machine. “Everybody’s coming in,” Dennis Kucinich told me, in response to a question about whether or not poor whites who had fallen in with the GOP would abandon the strange tradition of voting against their interests. Seeing that might not be enough, he elaborated: “There’s no place for them to go but to war with this administration.” And that, barring a couple of Clinton’s remarks, was the harshest criticism I heard of the administration. Concern for the welfare of a group that reliably votes against you. Hateful. But enough about that.
The Democrats, who I often and correctly accuse of being bad politicians, did a masterful job. They presented John Kerry, who in wartime saves the lives of Green Berets and in peace, hamsters, to the public. They correctly anticipated that if they could find a way for him to salute, that picture would be used on the front page of newspapers all over the country. They enunciated, in great detail, his strengths as a man and a leader and they dared the Republicans to attack him. Which puts the right in a rather odd position. It’s usually a bad sign when an incumbent president (or incumbent of any kind for that matter) has to resort to vicious personal assaults on his challenger early in the race. Think Bush Sr. vs. Clinton. Attacks from a president are far more palatable to the voting public when they are veiled as responses to the outrageous attacks of a challenger. Think Clinton vs. Dole. The neo-cons, who I often and correctly accuse of being very good at politics and very short on morality, have one glaring weakness: they don’t know how not to attack. If the Democrats succeed in making Kerry attractive enough to the voting public, and this I think is a large part of their strategy, Bush/Cheney’s relentless assaults will begin to seem as crass as they really are. It’s a weird and dangerous sort of rope-a-dope, but it could be one of the more brilliant political strategies to come out of the Democratic Party since Clinton’s first campaign. Or it may backfire terribly, sending us into four more years of Bush and nuclear Armageddon. Stay tuned.
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