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.”
Could it be that not just John Kerry’s face, but also his manner and his personality have really dissolved into a puddle of wrinkles in just four years? Has he aged poorly? Has caution suppressed his charisma? Has the once captivating conversationalist become a snooze-inducing bore? Or could it be that what has aged poorly is the press’s hackneyed shorthand descriptions of the candidate and his attributes? That the Kerry press corps is tiring of the grind of the campaign trail, of hearing the same old stump speech delivered from the same old mouth, and that this personal weariness has seeped into their coverage? In 2000, Kerry was a relatively fresh face to journalists outside of Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts. In 2004, after the Democratic primaries and months on the trail, Kerry’s face is fresh to no reporter.
The new fresh face — despite also being a 2000 VP also-ran — is, in the press’ estimation, John Edwards. In fact, this election season, John Edwards is the old John Kerry, having very nearly cornered the media market on adjectives like “handsome” and “charming” and most variations thereof. It is Edwards’ charisma, the press tells us, that will doom him in the veepstakes — unless, of course, it seals the deal for him. Among those in the “dooms him” school of thought is Tucker Carlson, who in March on CNN’s “Live From” declared the following: “[Edwards] is so charismatic that to put him against Kerry doesn’t make Kerry look good. It’s like a 40-year-old mother of three hiring J. Lo as the babysitter … You don’t look that great by comparison.” More recently, the Washington Post, relying entirely on unnamed “Democratic insiders,” one of whom spoke off the record because of the “topic’s sensitivity” reported that “[Edwards’] main strength is also his biggest handicap” — his “main strength” being his “ability to electrify crowds and charm voters out of their socks.” Kerry “must consider whether Edwards’s sizzle would make his own more prosaic style seem unacceptably wooden by comparison,” the Post wrote.
On the other side, and of the Edwards’-charisma-is-just-what-Kerry-needs school of thought is, among others, MSNBC’s Flavia Colgan, who in April on “Scarborough Country” said this: “I certainly hope he picks Edwards. … I think he needs a lot of that charisma that Edwards would bring to the ticket.” On June 21, the Buffalo (New York) News chimed in with this: “Edwards’ media mastery could be the difference for the charismatically challenged Kerry in a tight race.”
There are reasons that presidential elections are sometimes described as beauty pageants (although ones judged by the voting public rather than a panel of washed-up celebrities.) And as the revealing swimsuit portion of this campaign approaches — the conventions, the debates, and the inevitable autumn opposition research ramp-up — who knows what the eyes of reporters will see?
Heck, by October, Kerry could become “fetching” and Bush “articulate.” Or, things could head only downhill, with Kerry devolving to “grotesque” and Bush to “tongue-tied” as the days until Nov. 2 wind down.
Campaign Desk is willing to bet on only one certainty:
Whatever descriptions of the candidates and their demeanors become the flavors of the moment with the campaign press, we urge you, the readers and the listeners — resist. For those characterizations will bear little or no relationship to reality, and in the Kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man will be king.Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.