Kerry gets a `no' man

September 08, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Whenever a presidential candidate makes changes in the top echelon of his staff, it's generally read as an admission that the campaign has problems. That reading is usually correct.

So it is in the decision of Democratic nominee John Kerry to bring veteran Massachusetts political operative John Sasso aboard his plane as a senior adviser and assign another seasoned Bay Stater, Michael Whouley, to take over for Mr. Sasso as coordinator of the Democratic National Committee's campaign role.

Mr. Sasso, 56, fills a glaring Kerry need for a "no" man - someone with the experience, personal relationship and respect of the candidate, and with enough gray hair on his head to speak to the candidate on a daily basis as a contemporary, with the bark off.

Well before the 2004 primaries, when Mr. Kerry was uttering ambiguous statements on the need and wisdom of invading Iraq, I asked a campaign insider if there was anyone traveling with Mr. Kerry who had the political smarts and confidence of the candidate to tell him to his face when he was screwing up.

The answer I got was nobody. It showed as the Kerry campaign first stumbled, then righted itself in the primaries and then careened through the late spring and summer with more Kerry statements that were self-inflicted wounds to his election chances.

Most recent was the candidate's observation, in response to a challenge from President Bush, that had he known no weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq, he still would have voted to authorize Mr. Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein.

It should not have taken anyone to tell Mr. Kerry that he was handing the Bush campaign a sharp knife with which to cut him into pieces. But Mr. Kerry blurted out the answer. The president quickly pounced on the reply and has been beating Mr. Kerry with it ever since.

The most successful campaigns have a "no" man, an adult who owes nothing to the candidate and wants nothing from him but to see him win. Among the very best of the species were Lawrence O'Brien for John F. Kennedy, Fred Dutton for Robert F. Kennedy and James Carville for Bill Clinton on the Democratic side, and Melvin Laird for Richard M. Nixon, Stuart Spencer for Ronald Reagan and James A. Baker III for George H. W. Bush among the Republicans.

Mr. Sasso was just such a "no" man in 1988 for Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis, until he got involved in the leaking of a tape demonstrating that primary rival Joseph R. Biden Jr. had borrowed parts of a speech by a British politician without attribution. Mr. Sasso was forced to resign temporarily, a history that is likely to be resurrected by the Bush campaign.

Mr. Kerry's dire need for someone to say "no" to him before he commits more verbal gaffes, however, warrants the risk. Despite the fact that Mr. Dukakis in 1988 committed his share - notably his soft debate response to a question about whether he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife - Mr. Sasso was regarded then, and is now, as a savvy operative who doesn't hesitate to confront his candidate if necessary.

It's true at the same time that a "no" man can't always save his candidate from himself. Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 was such a loose cannon that seldom a week went by without him shooting himself in the foot. And the wise men around Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972 didn't prevent him from saying he was "1,000 percent" behind running mate Thomas Eagleton before stories of Mr. Eagleton's shock therapy forced him off the ticket.

Some vice presidential candidates have required a "no" man just to keep them on the reservation. Nixon aide John Sears served that role with Spiro T. Agnew in 1968, and Mr. Spencer and partner Joseph Canzeri were called on to do the same with Dan Quayle in 1988.

Essential to a "no" man being successful, however, is the relationship he has or develops with his candidate, built of mutual trust and respect, and his skills of persuasion. Mr. Kerry is betting that Mr. Sasso is up to the job, and his appointment indicates that Mr. Kerry recognizes the need.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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