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The John Kerry Story: How a War Hero Did, or Did Not, Win the 2004 Election

Ed.’s note: The following story is fiction based on real-life events.

I. The Crisis Stage, December 2003

Senator John Kerry calls Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McCauliffe to talk about the campaign.

"Terry, what are we going to do about Dean? The guy’s like some kind of guru or something. People won’t stop giving him cash."

"That’s because they haven’t heard your message, John."

"I see, so what is my message?"

"That you’re electable."

"Well, uh, sure I am, but is that enough? I mean, won’t people need a more exciting reason to vote for me than that?"

"Not this year, John. You’re electable, just keep saying it over and over."

"But why am I electable when Dean isn’t?"

"Because you’re not angry."

"Not angry about what?"

"About the war, about the budget—Christ, Dean’s pissed off about everything!"

"Yeah, Terry, but it seems to be working."

"Not for long, John, not for long. Here’s the new line: ‘You can’t win on anger alone.’"

"I like it."

"Good, I’ll call Nagourney. The Times prints his opinion columns on page one, like they’re news."

"Alright, I’ll talk to Bayh, Biden, Teddy, and all the rest. I’m not sure about the slogan, though."

"Which one, John?"

"You can’t win on anger alone."

"No, that’s not your slogan, let others say it for you. You need something positive. Don’t forget that Bush in 2000 called himself the ‘reformer with results.’"

"Right, so how about I call myself the ‘insider with ideas’?"

"No, that’ll never work. Give ‘em Vietnam, John. Don’t forget that the Brinkley book is coming out soon."

"You’re not suggesting the ‘activist with an agenda,’ are you?"

"No way, John, you’re the ‘veteran with vision.’ The ‘veteran with vision.’"

II. The Campaign Trail, Winter-Spring 2004.

Primed by Democratic insiders, the media pounce all over Dean’s show of "unelectable anger" after his defeat in the Iowa party caucuses. The "Veteran with Vision" immediately emerges as the "electable" front-runner. The new Al Gore’s failed endorsement of Dean is treated as a sign of the new Gore’s lack of influence; oddly, Wesley Clark’s flop is not seen as a sign of his mentor Bill Clinton’s declining clout. Meanwhile, Adam Nagourney spearheads the successful charge to get Dean out of the race.

John Edwards, Bill Clinton’s other candidate, makes a sudden rise based on his opposition to NAFTA, which even Bill Clinton concedes—in private, of course—is now a political liability for the party. After some ritual sparring, followed by some cat-and-mouse, the two Johns—Kerry and Edwards—become the party ticket, pleasing Bill Clinton, Terry McCauliffe, and Adam Nagourney, but not the new Al Gore and Howard Dean.

III. The Great Debate. July 4th, 2004.

Somewhere on the St. Lawrence River, Skull and Bones holds its annual gathering. The organization is officially neutral in the presidential election, seeing it as a "win-win." Nevertheless, President Bush and Challenger Kerry are asked to stage a debate with one another, so that Skull and Bones members can make up their own minds.

"Now, Johnny, when are you going to stop with this fuss about me not going to ‘Nam?"

"When you release something more than dental records, eye charts, and those daily diary entries that some intern obviously wrote for you. And please don’t call me Johnny."

"Ok, how’s about I call you Lieutenant Kerry, and you call me Commander-in-Chief!"

"How’s about you explain why you were too busy to even serve Guard duty?"

"Well, Mr. Hanoi John, at least I wasn’t out there protesting the war."

"Maybe you need to see the horrors of battle in order to know what it’s really like."

"Maybe I knew what it was like, which is why I didn’t want to go!"

"Then what’s wrong with me protesting a war I disagreed with?"

"Well, um, some of us protested in different ways."

"How’s that, George?"

"By not going at all."

"Wait a minute, you’re telling us that you secretly opposed the Vietnam War?"

"Well, um, Johnny, it doesn’t matter what I thought then. What matters is that I’ve supported every war since Vietnam."

"Wait a second, that’s the tough-minded liberal position that I’m supposed to take."

"Gotcha, Johnny, gotcha."

IV. The Democratic Convention. Boston, late July 2004.

JFK is everywhere, representing both the candidate’s initials as well as those of his idol, whose image hovers above the city in 10,000 hot air balloons. Much to the chagrin of his sponsor, Republican strategist Roger Stone, Rev. Al Sharpton is denied a chance to address the convention; the Rev. instead talks to reporters at his headquarters at the Four Seasons. Not wanting to be upstaged by Kerry, Bill Clinton outdoes his rock star appearance at the 2000 LA convention. This time Clinton teams with Cheryl Crow for a duet of the party’s new theme song, "More than a Feeling" by Boston. As the number ends, Clinton pulls off Crow’s top, only to reveal her JFK-head nipple covers.

By the time Bill, Hillary, Teddy, and John the VP finish warming up the crowd, Kerry only gets five minutes to speak before the networks cut away to their more lucrative late-night programming. Almost no one hears Kerry vow "that I will go to Iraq and win the battle for hearts and minds myself," except Adam Nagourney, who writes the story in several different sections of the Times over the next two weeks, forcing Kerry to make good on his word.

V. Mission to Baghdad, mid-August 2004.

Lieutenant Kerry and his "band of brothers"—Jim, Mike, and Steve—meet up with director Ron Howard, actor Robert Duvall, and a cast and crew on the banks of the Tigris, just outside of Baghdad.

"Why the civilians, Lieutenant?"

"Howard is making a war picture, starring us and Duvall."

"Were Coppola and Spielberg not available?

"I’m not sure. It’s more a matter of Ron being the first to ask. Anyway, he promises to pay homage to Coppola."

"Lieutenant Kerry, Ron Howard, nice to meet you. We’ve got a surprise coming out of the sky for you in just a minute."

"Oh yeah, what’s that?"

"Look up sir, look up. PBR street gang this is Romeo Foxtrot, shall we dance!"

"Look brothers, that chopper’s carrying our old Swift Boat, the 44!"

"That’s right, Lieutenant, and my crew is going to drop the boat right down here in the Tigris for you and your boys."

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

"Somebody tell Duvall we’re not in Vietnam."

"Charlie don’t surf!"

"Bobby, the enemy here’s not Charlie, it’s hajji."

"Then hajji don’t surf!"

"Wait a second, Ron."

"What’s that, Lieutenant?"

"You’re sending me and the brothers down the Tigris into the center of Baghdad, making us a target for Baath Party remnants, Sunni and Shiite extremists, wandering jihadists, the educated middle class—and everyone else who hates the idea of America as a colonial occupying force?"

"Yes, Lieutenant, and if you pull through, you’ll be today’s war hero, instead of yesterday’s!"

"Let’s go, brothers, let’s go!"

VI. The Republican Convention, late Aug.-early Sept., 2004

Hundreds of thousands of anti-Bush demonstrators protest peacefully in the Bronx. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rob Lowe host an orgy for liberal Republicans at the Mark. Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, and Rick Santorum are caught at a tea party at the Eagle in Chelsea. Denis Miller and Jay Leno do 24 hours of standup comedy at Ground Zero. Mayor Mike Bloomberg refuses to be photographed, fearing his support for the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-social party will come back to haunt him in the following year’s mayoral election.

Trailing in the polls, the party unveils its "September surprise," which is to move Dick Cheney off the ticket. Cheney, the party assures, will remain in charge, but now as the "executive vice president." Taking his place on the campaign trail is Elizabeth Dole, who promises to win over Midwest soccer moms who don’t feel strongly about abortion rights. "We are the party with the most genuine symbols of token integration," proclaims Rudy Giuliani, wearing a Yankees cap, as he introduces the president. "Unlike my opponent, I don’t need to fight in wars to know that they are what the American people really want," says Bush.

VII. Ending #1—Kerry triumphs.

At the end of September, the Senator, leading in the polls by 5-10 points, fears that the rumors of Karl Rove’s "October surprise" –the capture of Osama bin Laden—will prove true. "The war hero thing," Kerry tells his advisers, "may not be enough." Against the wishes of Terry McCauliffe—who, despite the failures of 2000 and 2002, still insists the party can win without taking a clear stand on any issues other than abortion rights—Kerry launches a whole slew of innovative policy proposals.

Putting teeth into his "Real Deal," Kerry says he will collect the hundreds of billions corporations owe in unpaid back taxes and use it primarily to fund education, reducing class sizes and purchasing new computers at every public school in America. He pledges to use some of the same money to create public works projects, rebuilding roads, bridges and infrastructure across the land. "If corporations won’t put people to work, we will," says Kerry. He crusades against predatory lending and all forms of fraudulent consumer practices. And most of all he pushes for comprehensive health care, declaring "the bottom line is that a civilized nation provides health care for its people."

Kerry’s domestic positions allow him to withstand any foreign policy challenge, be it Osama or Iraq. "I will not let our own country fall apart and only spend money on Iraq," says Kerry. As a result, he is now dubbed a "radical isolationist," which, of course, was the stance George Bush rode to victory in the 2000 campaign. Tireless in his effort to convince American voters that they need more from their presidents than endless war and giveaways to the richest one percent, Kerry prevails, sending Bush and his fellow kleptocrats back to their spider holes of despair, located somewhere in the Cayman Islands.

VIII. Ending #2—Kerry loses.

McCauliffe and company convince Kerry to say nothing other than "I am a veteran, but I am not a liberal." This replay of Al Gore’s 2000 strategy results in low voter turnout. Bush and Dole unite Nascar dads and soccer moms, Bible-thumping creationists and the decadent super-rich into a coalition that wins over 25 percent of eligible voters, 51 percent of whom had better things to do on Tuesday, November 2nd than go to the polls.

On November 3rd, Terry McCauliffe calls Bill Clinton to assess the party’s fate.

"Well, Bill, were we too liberal again?"

"Yes, Terry. Kerry failed because he chose not to run on my policy legacy."

"You mean NAFTA, welfare reform, and all the rest."

"You bet, Terry. We need someone who can match the Republicans on policy, and also in terms of image."

"I assume you mean downplaying the war hero thing?"

"Yeah, Terry, neither George nor I went to Vietnam, and we both defeated war veterans."

"Ah, I’ve got it, Bill. We need someone who’s not a vet, but supports all wars. Someone who likes the Clinton policy legacy, and is not a liberal."

"Precisely, Terry. Call Nagourney and have him profile the ideal candidate for 2008 on the front page of the Times."

"Sure thing, Bill. Who do you have in mind?"

The End.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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