By Liz Cox Barrett

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a senator named John who found himself on Al Gore’s short list of potential running mates.

The campaign press in the summer of 2000 was entranced with John. It tumbled all over itself to describe John as the perfect match for what it saw as the somewhat wooden, robot-like Gore. One newspaper described John as a man with “an easy manner and good looks,” a politician whose “charisma [might] rub off on [Gore],” a person who could “bring some charm to the ticket.” John’s selection, it opined, would signal that Gore “thinks the election will be decided on personality.” A television reporter also regarded this John as “charismatic.” Another newspaper saw him as “younger and more telegenic than Dick Cheney.” Yet a third newspaper called him “handsome,” with “a record tailor-made to undermine the standard Republican attack on liberal Democrats.”

This John’s surname was Kerry — though if you guessed Edwards, you are more than excused — and the press outlets that offered the above descriptions were the St. Petersburg Times, NBC News, the Boston Globe, and the (New York) Daily News, respectively.

What a difference 1,460 days make.

The “handsome,” “charismatic” candidate who four years ago had an “easy manner,” “charm,” and a record impregnable to Republican attack has undergone a hideous transmogrification, as described by reporters.

Let’s listen in.

No longer handsome, Kerry has been compared this election season to “The Addams Family“‘s heavy-browed Lurch (by both former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines and by CNBC’s talk show host/comic Dennis Miller). The Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash sees in Kerry’s mug a “long-faced Easter Island mask,” while The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch observes “a long, angular face [that] has something of the abstraction of a tribal mask.” Kerry reminds Knight Ridder’s Dick Polman of “those long-faced walking trees in ‘Lord of the Rings,’” while the Chicago Tribune sees a “droopy, hound-dog look.” Kerry, it seems, was repeatedly whacked by an Ugly Stick sometime between 2000 and 2004. (Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Botox, if you — like the Tribune and other news outlets — entertain that sort of scuttlebutt).

But there are worse things than ugly; Kerry has also, apparently, lost any shred of charisma, and is now utterly free of charm. In April, the St. Petersburg Times wrote, “…rarely do [Democrats] have much to say about [Kerry’s] personal appeal or charisma.” On June 20, the (New York) Daily News editorialized that Kerry “is charisma-challenged by a mannequin.” (This from newspapers that sang the praises of the charismatic and attractive Kerry not four years ago.)

In March, Chris Matthews wondered aloud on “Hardball” whether John Kerry “has the stuff,” given that “nobody ever associated the word charisma with [him].” (Four years ago, Matthews had no such doubts about Kerry. “I think [Gore-Kerry is] going to be the ticket, I’ll say it here, because I believe that — that Bill Clinton, to his credit, set the standard: Pick a vice president who looks right from day one like he could be president,” he declared in July of 2000.)

And, during a televised Democratic primary debate last February, CBS’s Dan Rather asked John Edwards a question that perhaps set the rest of the press pack a-wondering: Did Kerry, Rather asked Edwards, have “enough Elvis” in him to beat Bush — “enough excitement factor, enough charisma, enough likeability?”

Well, apparently no. For, having lost not only his good looks but also his charisma, the once charming Kerry has apparently grown “aloof,” a favorite word in the new press lexicon. (Stripped of our face and our personality, we have to confess, we might grow a tad “aloof” ourselves.) Newsweek’s Howard Fineman wrote in February about “the matter of Kerry’s public persona: he can seem aloof, condescending and soporific.” In March, Gloria Borger asked her roundtable cohorts on CNBC’s “Capital Report”: “We always called [Kerry] aloof. Is he still aloof, or is this — or is he trying to warm up here for us?” On June 16, the Washington Post’s Lois Romano wrote that Kerry “often comes off as aloof and elitist.”

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.