It’s difficult to know where to start with David Halbfinger’s virtuoso display of not-so-subtle digs at John Kerry in the New York Times today. So let’s just begin at the beginning: Halbfinger’s opening paragraphs use Kerry’s decision on whether to ski or snowboard while on vacation as a way to needle him — three times — for being a flip-flopper (all italics ours):

John Kerry was in the air, approaching the Continental Divide, and the candidate often ridiculed as straddling both sides of political divides was wrestling with the big matter at hand.

Should he ski, or snowboard? Or maybe both? He gave no clue where he stood. But that was Wednesday night.

A longtime adviser recently suggested that there were two John Kerrys: “indoor John and outdoor John” — one who agonizes over decisions, and another who acts boldly on them.

Halbfinger then refers to a New York Times/CBS poll that indicates to him “that many Americans were beginning to see [Kerry] as the kind of politician who says what he thinks people want to hear.”

This is Halbfinger pretending that the story line he’s pushing somehow exists in a mythical ether independent of his own coverage. Americans’ belief in Kerry’s supposed insincerity may be rooted in many things — among them, his tendency to dance around an issue in a sort of stream-of-consciousness approach, and the Bush campaign’s quickness to exploit that in its own ads. But Halbfinger is kidding himself, as well as his readers, if he thinks the ways the mainstream press frames the issue isn’t a factor itself.

The potshots don’t let up as Halbfinger moves on, although they do get slightly subtler. Halbfinger refers to Kerry as an “image-conscious candidate.” Say, there’s a new concept — a candidate concerned with image? Who would have guessed?

When a waiting skier asks Kerry, “Hey, John! What foreign leaders talked to you?” — a reference to a recent flap where Kerry was incorrectly quoted as saying he’d talked to “foreign leaders” who wanted him to triumph over Bush — Halbfinger writes that Kerry “beat a retreat back into the lodge … where he would be sure to draw even less attention.”

Beat a retreat? The wording suggests that when faced with adversity - even in the form of some wisecracking skier — Kerry turns tail. Bush/Cheney ‘04 couldn’t have written it up any better.

There’s plenty more here to parse, but we suggest you read the piece yourself, with an eye on the coded messages contained within. There’s a reason Matt Drudge linked it prominently on his website this morning.

We can’t blame Kerry — or any candidate — for being image-conscious when the image-makers put out pieces like this.

Brian Montopoli

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.