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.