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Mere Words

08.05.2004 | POLITICS

John Kerry had to give the speech of his life--and he did.
--Mark Shields, PBS political analyst, minutes after Kerry's acceptance speech in Boston

After listening to John Kerry's acceptance address last week, I did a little experiment. I decided to remove everything that was bullshit and see what was left. I invite New York Press readers to follow me on this journey, step by step.

I admit to using the widest possible interpretation of bullshit. Bullshit can be outright lies, bullshit can be calculating come-ons, and bullshit can be self-aggrandizing self-mythology, which is more commonly known in this country as self-aggrandizing bullshit.

I acted on all of these varieties of bullshit, but I also went a little further.

I edited out phony religiosity (pious bullshit) and pointless political platitudes of the sort that could be used by any politician in any situation, including Hitler (i.e., "We're the optimists": meaningless bullshit). I also chopped out all gratuitous flag-waving (patriotic bullshit), all forced and hollow tough-talking (saber-rattling bullshit), and all draping of the clearly unworthy self in the ill-fitting cloak of the great figures of history (name-dropping bullshit).

Further down the line were the intellectual crimes. Lies went out right away, but I also cut out things that were not lies exactly, but mere words. Also banished were the many species of literary fraud--from facile generalizations to redundancies to such crass, hypersentimental, factory-generated cliches as "trees [are] the cathedrals of nature." There were also many shades of disingenuousness to deal with, most of which came into play when Kerry levied attacks against George Bush--but more on that later.

I wasn't sure where to start, so I decided to first go after what one might call typical campaign bullshit, which includes such standbys as callow patriotism, syrupy talk about love of our vast and beautiful country and Hallmark-y references to the flag and the wonder and might of our armed services. Also targeted here were those nauseating constants of modern campaign speeches, the bald paeans to focus-group words like hope, the future, freedom, change, truth, pride, values and heroes.

A typical victim of this stage of the elimination progress was a line like, "I felt goose bumps as I got off a military train and heard the Army band strike up 'Stars and Stripes Forever,'" which actually could have been struck on three or four grounds--there were two army references, a flag plug and a fake memory of a fake emotion. I-can't-believe-somebody-actually-wrote-this lines like, "I learned the pride of our freedom" were similarly double- or triple-eliminated.

In some cases, this set of cuts blitzed out whole paragraphs, as in the case of the diffidently delivered, "We have it in our power to change the world again. But only if we're true to our ideals and that starts by telling the truth to the American people. That is my first pledge to you tonight. As President, I will restore trust and credibility to the White House."

Cut around the edges here, and this is just a straight focus-group word list: power, change, truth, ideals, truth, pledge, trust, credibility. It can all go in the bin.

At times Kerry's determination to ram buzzwords down the audience's throat caused his speech to dissemble into near-total incoherence. Just look at passages like the following:

For four years, we've heard a lot of talk about values. But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans. Values are not just words. They're what we live by. They're about the causes we champion and the people we fight for. And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families.

This sounds like it makes sense at first reading, but upon closer examination it's actually maddening gibberish. A rough translation would begin like this: "It is meaningless to merely say one has values without backing it up, but yet we say--we have values. Values are real. You know what I mean. Let's talk about causes you champion [which causes?] and people you fight for [which people?]."

Then, having arrived at this whatever-values-float-your-boat point of the passage, Kerry uses the old "to make America better, we must first better America," technique to simply flip values over on its back like a turtle and watch as its legs flail around in the air: "And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families."

An accurate translation would go like this:

Some people don't have values. That's wrong. Values are real. Values are whatever you think they are. And it is high time for you to watch as I turn this turtle over on its back.

In some cases Kerry's over-reliance on fuzzy, grammatically promiscuous words like "about" to mask the list-like nature of his rhetoric was so obvious, it was embarrassing. Some passages read like army color-blindness tests, which may in fact be where Kerry stole the idea from: If you squinted hard enough to avoid seeing the connecting words, you could make out the underlying message.

Take this passage, which is Kerry-ese for the human sentence Elections, choices, choices, values, policies, programs, principle:

My fellow citizens, elections are about choices. And choices are about values. In the end, it's not just policies and programs that matter; the president who sits at that desk must be guided by principle.

Again, this sounds like it makes sense. But when you think about it, what is he really saying? "The president ought to have principles." After two-hundred-plus years, we still need someone to step up to a podium to tell us that? Are we fucking children, or what?

By my count Kerry had about 175 words' worth of references to his religious beliefs, which accounted for roughly 3.5 percent of the speech. I struck all of them on the grounds that I simply do not believe that Kerry is a religious man. Kerry is probably religious in the way that a person who has to be reminded to invite God to a ball is religious. I will eat my own foot if it ever comes out that he really "humbly prays," as he said he does in his speech.

By comparison, I believe that George Bush sincerely believes he believes in God. When Bush talks about Jesus, even die-hard Jesus people buy it. I know I buy it, because it scares the shit out of me. But when Kerry talks about God, even James Carville probably thinks his makeup is wrong or his lines need a little tweaking. Take this passage:

But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this Kerry's so nervous about the word "faith," he has to sprint from its fleeting use straight into the focus-group safe haven of values and hope, and from there straight to a place where he really feels comfortable--Vietnam, aka the war George Bush didn't fight in.

As for the Vietnam business, there is something embarrassing and insulting about Kerry's insistence on bringing up his war service at every opportunity. It's embarrassing because it's painful to watch a man so shamelessly prostitute his most meaningful life experiences. And it's insulting because the sheer volume of Vietnam references in Kerry's addresses strongly implies that Kerry or his handlers believe that America's undecided voters are incorrigible dolts who are ready to defect to the Republicans at the drop of a hat if they don't hear at least nine times a day that John Kerry Served In Vietnam.

Kerry's self-mythologizing in this area might be excusable if he didn't insist on referring constantly to Vietnam without offering a judgment, an opinion or even some information about that war. Kerry talks about Vietnam as though it were a territory on a distant planet, where the only human beings were his buddies on a swift boat, and the only salient fact about the place is that he was once there.

Kerry does not ask America to apologize to Vietnam, but he does ask America to let Vietnam help him get elected. This is a lie of omission (Kerry's actual views about the righteousness of the war have been well-documented). It is also an impressive show of spinelessness and an enormous insult to the Vietnamese people, who are being used to make an insecure Democrat look tough one more time.

All of which makes his Pattonesque grandstanding ("My name is John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty!") and his mawkish Band-of-Brothers hugs-and-medals act all the more transparent and meaningless. Kerry reminds voters that he served and fought seven times in his speech. He makes another half-dozen or so references to his military background--and at no time does he ever say anything more specific than "I fought" and "War is Hell." The verbal gymnastics that Kerry performed in order to avoid saying anything definitive about his Vietnam experience can be viewed in this passage:

I know what it's like to write letters home telling your family that everything's all right when you're not sure that's true.

Here Kerry is hinting at the kinds of letters soldiers in Vietnam wrote home at the time; letters that not only told their families they were safe, but that they were doing the right thing. "When you're not sure that's true" is the giveaway. No soldier at war is ever "not sure" that his situation is unsafe--he knows it isn't safe, and that he may not be all right.

But "not sure" is exactly how a lot of Vietnam soldiers, Kerry included, felt about the war mission itself. Kerry wrote this passage in such a way that you can take it the other way, too, if you feel like it. This is Mobius-strip rhetoric, which reads, "I'm not sure I'm coming home" and "I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing" on the same side of a one-sided strip, and as plain an example as you will ever see of a politician talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Kerry's name-dropping was not particularly egregious by campaign standards--seven solemn references to great figures past--but I struck nearly all of them.

Kerry's first reference was to writer Thomas Wolfe. Kerry didn't mention Wolfe's name, saying only, "A great American novelist wrote that you can't go home again." This seems harmless enough, except that in the course of the last year, while following Kerry, I noticed on numerous occasions that he was reluctant to say aloud the names of writers or intellectuals.

A typical example is a line written by a famous poet that he uses in his stump speech. The line was also used by Ted Kennedy in his eulogy to his brother Robert: "'Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask, why not?'"

Kerry uses that line a lot, but he always introduces it by saying, "He (Ted Kennedy) quoted the poet who said..." When I asked a Kerry spokesman why Kerry didn't just say the poet's name out loud, he told me that the average voter might be confused by the mention of too many academic references. (The same spokesman also told me the line belonged to Carl Sandburg. It was actually written by George Bernard Shaw.)

If voters are going to be confused by too many references, why mention that the line was recited by Ted Kennedy at a funeral for Bobby Kennedy? The answer, of course, is that John Kerry is happy to have his name associated with the Kennedys in voters' minds, but reluctant to admit to being the sort of person who reads George Bernard Shaw--a European in a sweater!

That's why, in his acceptance speech, Kerry proudly says "John Kennedy" out loud but turns Thomas Wolfe into "a great American novelist." (Almost the same as "a great American," except for the novelist part. If you think this is accidental, you haven't watched enough American politics.)

If you were to write a history book with only the speeches of presidential candidates as source material, you might conclude that the only great thinkers in history were American presidents. I defy any journalist out there to show me a candidate not named Dennis Kucinich who would dare to publicly mention, let alone honor, a great foreigner, a Gandhi or a Tolstoy or a Mozart. I have had campaign spokesmen admit to me that they don't do this because they think the average Joe can't identify with such people (although one Kerry spokesman once humorously protested, "[Kerry] was saying something about Gandhi to Maureen Dowd the other day").

It is always difficult, when you look closely at the speech of a Democratic Party candidate, to determine what is a lie and what are mere words. I think the most obvious lies in John Kerry's case are his pledges about healthcare and trade. Take this passage:

And when I'm President, America will stop being the only advanced nation in the world which fails to understand that health care is not a privilege for the wealthy, the connected, and the elected--it is a right for all Americans.

If you honestly think that Americans will have easier access to healthcare under John Kerry, raise your hand. At best, Kerry's federal reinsurance plan sounds like a hugely complex legislative fiasco that will die in committee sometime around Lebron James' 30th birthday. At worst, it sounds like a means of funneling enormous amounts of taxpayer money to insurers and employers without guaranteeing that the cost benefits will be passed on to the consumer.

Every Democratic politician in the past 30 years has made promises about healthcare, and none of them has ever amounted to anything. And you're crazy if you think that John Kerry, one of the easiest marks in the history of the party for corporate influence, will be the one to break that pattern.

Then there are lines like this:

We value an America that exports products, not jobs...

Kerry voted for NAFTA, GATT, the WTO and permanent Most Favored Nation status for China. His solution for stopping job exports revolves around tax penalties for companies that open mailbox headquarters in foreign tax havens. That is not even a fig leaf of labor credibility. It is more like a daisy petal. You have whole industries moving to slave-wage territories like China and Indonesia, but Kerry wants to keep Tyco from having an extra corporate address in Bermuda. Look out, Eugene Debs!

Something that would qualify as mere words is a line like the following:

What does it mean when Deborah Kromins from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, works and saves all her life only to find out that her pension has disappeared into thin air and the executive who looted it has bailed out on a golden parachute?

What does it mean? I imagine it means sucks to be her. Beyond that, who knows? It's nice that Kerry makes the point, but does anyone really think that he's going to stop golden parachutes or the looting of pension funds? Maybe when it's done illegally, as in the case of Enron, but this hideous immoral practice is actually legal in this country. Will you hold your breath waiting for Kerry to change that?

Kerry's speech was basically divided up into three sections.

First was the introductory part, an autobiographical section, in which prospective voters learned that Kerry the child had a model airplane, a baseball mitt and a bicycle, and found the world "full of wonders and mysteries." His father was a member of the Greatest Generation and he learned at a young age that communism was different, and that the Stars and Stripes were good. Then the 60s happened, and that taught him to value change and cherish a hope for the future. After the 60s, he looked back and realized what a debt he owed to his parents, who incidentally were members of the Greatest Generation. Then he went into the Senate and put 100,000 cops on the street before deciding to run for president.

Next came a long policy statement that doubled as an indictment of the Bush presidency. Not all of this was bullshit. There are a number of pledges in here that he would certainly honor. There would be some kind of middle-class tax cut under Kerry, and some of the higher-end Bush tax cuts would be eliminated. We can feel confident that his vice president will not have secret meetings with polluters. He can be counted on to increase the size of the military, double the Special Forces and spend more on weapons systems. He won't privatize social security. And he won't allow American troops to fight under foreign command.

The rest of it, about the economy and healthcare, is basically balder and dash and I chucked it in the bin.

Finally, once his policies were laid out, Kerry moved on to his "big idea," another idiotic prerequisite of these proceedings. Bush I had kindness and gentleness; Bush II had compassion; Kerry went with "optimism." I don't know why anyone ever does anything but vomit when politicians lay things like this on us. "We're the party of optimism." As opposed to what? Despair? Psychic agony? I don't know what the hell any of this means, and so tossed that stuff, too.

Close to the end, Kerry rallied for one final flourish. Clearly pointing a finger at Bush, he denounced the practice of politicians "wrapping themselves in the flag" and questioning the patriotism of "Americans who offer a better direction." Then he charged those politicians to remember that America is about (he lapsed into a list) idea, freedom, purpose, democracy, challenge, patriotism, heart, soul and patriotism. Recovering himself, he then brazenly stole Howard Dean's shtick of pointing to a flag and hurling handfuls of patriotic paint at the audience ("We call her Old was shot through and through and tattered, but it never ceased to wave in the wind...that flag is the most powerful symbol of who we are...") before screaming out that that flag belongs to everybody, not just to Republicans.

Of course, if you were paying attention to the previous "Red, White and Blue states" part of Kerry's speech, you knew that in the Sister Sledge-themed party this year, the Democrats believe they are everybody.

In other words, the Republicans think the flag belongs only to them, but we think it belongs to everybody--and everybody is us.

Kerry closed his speech with a remarkable passage.

It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come.

If you can fight your way through all the stale cliches--through those dreams you reach for, across the horizon, past the rising sun--just look at that one sentence: "For America, the hope is there." Just look at the way the passive "is" leaves the fake hope lying like a dead fish on the sun-baked deck of this wrecked address. Then ask yourself how someone as seemingly intelligent as Mark Shields could moments later call this the speech of John Kerry's life.

It's not fair to expect brilliance from politicians. It's not fair to expect them to be charismatic, or to electrify the hall with their speaking skills. It's not even realistic to expect them to tell you what they actually think about things.

But it is fair to demand that they at least make an honest attempt to tell us something about something. Give us some kind of plan; explain something to us. John Kerry has had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the highest levels of the U.S. government for nearly 20 years. He knows more about how the world actually works than all but a handful of people in this country. He has something to tell us.

But what does he do? He climbs up a mountain of cliches, shouts "Think Positive!" from the summit and then calmly skies down into a sea of champagne and confetti with a toy M-16 draped over his shoulder. That is a gross insult, both to our intelligence and to our natural human desire to have some kind of active role in the management of our own affairs--and we all ought to be mighty pissed about it.

Don't get me wrong. Kerry said nothing in this speech, but nothing is still a vast improvement over the other guy. Maybe that's what he was thinking. Just don't tell me this is a great speech. It isn't. It's crap and an affront to human thought. This incredibly cynical politics of mechanized pandering and condescension poisons all of us. And the worst thing is, John Kerry is smart enough to know this--and he doesn't care. Not as long as he's still in this thing, anyway.

When I was done cutting, there were only two lines left.

I was born in Colorado.
America can do better.


Originally published in New York Press.

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