Over two days I saw John Edwards and John Kerry speak at Dartmouth College. Edwards exhilarated my wife and me and the rest of the audience. We left the Kerry event before it ended and would have gone earlier if we had not hooked a ride with a more-patient friend—for we were bored, disappointed, and angry. Kerry has congratulated himself for abandoning "Washingtonese," but he was premature.
How, we wondered aloud driving home, could a man in public life for decades, running for President for more than a year, not do better than this? How could he say things like, "Two-hundred percent of poverty" or refer to his chairmanship of a Senate committee as—if I heard correctly—"Foreign Ops"? When he was served up a home-run pitch, "Why is this election so historic?", how could he begin so promisingly—"Three words. The Supreme Court"— but then maunder on inconsequently, satisfied with hitting a single? Why, above all, is he still running on his résumé? We know he's qualified to be President; his job as a candidate is to make us want him to be President.
As a personal-injury trial lawyer, John Edwards has made millions from his ability to persuade juries of ordinary Americans—by stirring their hearts with words, gesture, and sincerity. In contrast, John Kerry suffers from terminal Senatitis. Senators speak to themselves. Their colleagues don't listen to them. They can't see a single face in the galleries. The tradition of unlimited debate encourages prolixity. Senators talk (and talk) not to persuade but to justify their votes, and they inveterately sound defensive. Asked how an advocate of programs to help children could "favor ... partial birth abortion," Kerry caviled that he did not "favor" it; then he quoted the exact language of a resolution he supported allowing the practice under narrowly delineated conditions—in short, he justified his vote. Edwards would have evoked the agony of a woman faced with severe harm if she carried her baby to term—wanting that baby more than anything in the world and then being told that bearing it could kill or maim her. That is the stuff of tragedy, not legislation-speak. Kerry was asked why so few Senators have been elected President, and his answer on abortion showed why.
Again and again, in his Dartmouth speech, Edwards created waves of applause with his precise darts of language—"It's wrong!", "We can do better than this!", "Join our cause!". Kerry, who buried his applause lines in the gray lava of his monotone, got his loudest cheers when he entered the room. Once he opened his mouth the energy began to seep away—at any rate, in the "overflow" room from where we watched Kerry on a giant screen. Listening to him, I saw a long line of Democratic bores—Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Bradley, Gore—who lost because people could not bear listening to them. John Kerry belongs in their dreary company. I fear he could talk his way out of victory—that, excited by his résumé, his panache as a war hero, Americans from coast to coast will be disappointed in the real man; that, just as we did at Dartmouth, they will long for him to stop his answers at the one-minute mark and by minute two will have tuned out and by minute three will pine for the terse nullity of George W. Bush.