Will words come back to bite Kerry?

Perceived skill of politician counts, experts say

March 17, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Since he declared his candidacy for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has had few good things to say about George W. Bush's policy on Iraq. Three months ago, in fact, Kerry dropped a bomb of his own - a slab of rhetorical ordnance, that is, which left America's copy editors scrambling for their hyphens and asterisks.

"When I voted for the [Iraq] war," said the presumptive Democratic nominee in a December Rolling Stone interview, "I voted for what I thought was best for the country. ... Did I expect George Bush to [expletive] it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did."

Kerry's unguarded moment, if such it was, didn't just hand his critics a welcome chance to paint him as foul-mouthed, impetuous and quite possibly unsuitable to hold the highest office in the land. It signaled that the candidate would be only too glad to damn the rhetorical torpedoes.

So when a live mike caught him last week calling Republican opponents "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen," pundits say it wasn't the first time he'd forced a basic question into the open: How, exactly, do Americans want their presidents to talk, and what do we learn when they don't edit their thoughts?

The questions aren't new. As Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University, points out, Ronald Reagan caused shock waves in 1984 during a radio mike test when he, uh, joked that he'd just declared war on the Soviet Union.

"My fellow Americans," said the president with an amiable grin, "I am pleased to tell you I have just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes."

Sly or scatterbrained? Some guess the remark so rattled Soviet generals that, in the words of Newsweek, it "helped push them into what turned out to be a terminal funk."

In any case, he got away with it. "It could have been the end of the world," says Vatz with a laugh, "but he was seen as a genial politician. It would've hurt someone else a lot worse than it did Reagan."

Kerry's opponent had his own open-mike moment. At a campaign rally in Illinois in 2000, then-Governor Bush, spotting one of his least favorite newspaper reporters, offered an aside to running mate Dick Cheney. "There's Adam Clymer of The New York Times," he said, unaware that a mike was trained on him, before proceeding to equate Clymer with an orifice rarely mentioned in polite company.

Perhaps politics alone determines aptness. If words don't cost votes, are they really wrong?

"When Reagan said what he did," says Patrick Basham, a senior fellow specializing in government at Washington's Cato Institute, "a lot of conservatives thought, `great!' Accidentally or otherwise, he was getting out a message they wanted to hear."

Bush paid little price for the Clymer slam, possibly because it only echoed his backers' views of the mainstream press, and those he might have offended had no intentions of voting for him anyway.

"To be fair to politicians," says Basham, "it's a difficult line. You might be trying to show you're honest, you're your own man, not intimidated, but if you step too far over that line on-camera, you might well suffer for it. Americans like plain talkers, and Kerry is clearly going with a `tough-guy thing,' to show he's a tough enough man to be president. But the campaign trails are littered with the corpses of those whose `honest thoughts' didn't seem all that thoughtful."

Is Kerry cagey enough to have sounded "inadvertent" deliberately? To Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson who studies presidential speech, that's unlikely.

"This is a lesson each presidential candidate has to learn the hard way," she says. "With 245 days left in the campaign, you don't want to spend two days on an issue like this. And as the campaign goes along, the equipment gets better. They can catch your words from a greater distance. Kerry's going to have to be careful."

To hear Basham talk, he might already be doing just that.

"I don't want to assume [Kerry's] not up to the task" of calculated spontaneity, he says. "It can be a way of signaling something to the electorate, and maybe even to the media, and yet escape the full consequences.

"And if this wasn't scripted," he added, [the Kerry campaign] may look at the reaction, and if they view it as a positive, they might script such things in the future."

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