Kerry finally gives us a glimpse into what makes him tick

October 14, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON -- With less than three weeks remaining until Election Day, most voters, including his supporters, still don't know much about John Kerry.

He is one of the most guarded, private and aloof presidential aspirants in recent memory -- and he seems intent on keeping it that way.

Apart from his four months in Vietnam, Mr. Kerry has shared little about his personal biography with American voters. When he throws out a tidbit, you have the sense he's holding back -- or worse, trying to deflect the truth.

Trying to decipher what makes Mr. Kerry tick is hard work, even for the journalists assigned to cover his presidential bid, which is why Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine profile, "Kerry's Undeclared War," is so impressive. Mr. Bai says that Mr. Kerry treats reporters as the enemy: "He acts as if you've been sent to destroy him, and he can't quite figure out why in the world he should be sitting across from you."

Mr. Kerry views the most banal issues as fraught with danger. In the most amusing anecdote in the long piece, Mr. Bai describes Mr. Kerry's wariness over a simple choice of what kind of water to drink:

"A row of Evian water bottles had been thoughtfully placed on a nearby table. Kerry frowned."

"Can we get any of my water?" Mr. Kerry asks, sending his communications director out to fetch a different brand.

"What kind of water do you drink?" Mr. Bai inquires of Mr. Kerry, trying to make conversation.

"Plain old American water," Mr. Kerry said.

"You mean tap water?'" asks Mr. Bai.

"`No,' Mr. Kerry replied deliberately. He seemed now to sense some kind of trap. I was left to imagine what was going through his head. If I admit that I drink bottled water, then he might say I'm out of touch with ordinary voters. But doesn't demanding my own brand of water seem even more aristocratic? Then again, Evian is French -- important to stay away from anything even remotely French," Mr. Bai fantasizes the candidate running through his options.

"`There are all kinds of waters,' he said finally. Pause. `Saratoga Spring.' This seemed to have exhausted his list. `Sometimes I drink tap water,' he added."

It's a funny episode, but also telling.

As is Mr. Bai's description of the one subject that seems to elicit any passion from Mr. Kerry: diplomacy. "The only time I saw Kerry truly animated during two hours of conversation was when he talked about the ability of a president to build relationships with other leaders," Mr. Bai says.

"He leaned his head back and slapped his thighs. `A new presidency with the right moves, the right language, the right outreach, the right initiatives, can dramatically alter the world's perception of us very, very quickly.'"

But are world leaders likely to trust Mr. Kerry, a man so reticent, so conflicted about what he truly believes?

Mr. Bai's piece has generated a great deal of attention because Mr. Kerry is quoted in it saying, "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." Mr. Kerry went on to compare fighting terrorism to fighting prostitution, gambling and organized crime. He argued that we need to reduce terrorism to the degree where "it isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

Reading Mr. Kerry's words, I had the feeling he'd finally said what he really believes. And suddenly I understood why he's so desperate not to reveal himself.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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