After the strongest speech he has ever given, the Democrat candidate is
starting to convince America he can oust George Bush. Paul Harris
reports from Boston
Sunday August 1, 2004
The fireworks exploded in the night sky and illuminated John Kerry
dancing on the stage next to Boston harbour. It was way past midnight
and he had delivered the most important speech of his life.
The man who would be president punched the air and gleefully pointed at
the colourful explosions like a teenager. As the theme from Star Wars
blared out at the public party, his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, laughed
and mimed playing a violin. Their children looked on in celebration.
The Kerrys had every reason for feeling pleased with themselves. The
Democrats had just completed one of the most remarkable conventions in
their recent history. Normally famed for squabbling, the party united
solidly behind Kerry. From left to right internal critics morphed into
firm supporters. The party draped itself in patriotism and the heroism
of Kerry's Vietnam record.
It was a stunning turnaround. Just a year ago, as Democrat activists
scanned an unknown and fractious field of contenders, it seemed Kerry
and his ilk were battling only for the right to lose to President George
Bush. Kerry, if he won the nomination, would be a sacrificial lamb.
What a difference a year makes. Democrats have energised and united as
Republican woes have piled up. Now talk of President Kerry does not seem
ridiculous. Some experts see it as likely. Democrats now genuinely
expect to win. Kerry's convention, seen as a crucial test, has finally
introduced him to the national American audience. Many may have liked
what they saw.
But in reality the fight is far from over. Though Kerry was late to bed
on the Thursday night after his speech, he rose at dawn from his mansion
in the plush Beacon Hill district at Boston's heart. Before morning was
over on Friday Kerry was already hundreds of miles away, in the
battleground state of Pennsylvania, hitting the campaign trail on a
two-week tour across the mid-west swing states that will decide his
fate. He hopes it is a road that will lead to the White House.
If Kerry wins it is men like Bob McLane who will have sealed his
victory. Wearing a camouflage jacket, McLane stood up in front of a room
packed with Vietnam veterans who had come to Boston to campaign for
their former comrade-in-arms. 'Welcome home, brother,' one veteran
called. 'It is good to be home, brother,' McLane replied.
McLane's voice then quivered with emotion as he detailed his tour of
duty in the Vietnam killing ground of Khe Sanh. He praised Kerry's
service and later stance against the war. 'He stood up to tell the world
about the war that he saw at his own hands,' McLane said. He appealed
for veterans to get out and vote and then said bluntly: 'I am going to a
swing state.' He turned on his heel to leave the room, the applause
ringing out behind him.
Like no other Democrat candidate, Kerry has wrapped himself in the
respect veterans such as McLane command in America. Specifically,
Kerry's service in Vietnam has become the defining idea of portraying
Democrats as strong on defence. It is a powerful tool, especially when
compared to the dubious national service of his rival Bush. 'Kerry is
not your typical Democrat challenger,' said his foreign policy advisor
Susan Rice. 'He is a decorated, battle-hardened veteran. He understands
Vietnam and the three Purple Hearts Kerry won while commanding river
boats there dominated the convention. Pictures of Kerry in uniform
covered the walls. A nine minute video, produced with the help of Steven
Spielberg, used it as a centrepiece to tell Kerry's story.
It was a clever move. Kerry's record in Vietnam neutralises the
Democrats' traditional weakness of being seen as soft on defence. It
also helps flesh Kerry out as a person. His former crewmates, whom Kerry
refers to as his 'Band of Brothers', travel everywhere with him and were
a regular feature at the convention. They speak movingly of their
ex-commander. 'We were all with John Kerry in that damn stupid war. For
the 30 years I have known John Kerry he has never lied to me,' said Del
Sandusky, a shipmate aboard Kerry's PCF-94 boat.
Kerry's family have also played a role in trying to put across a fuller
picture of 'John Kerry the man' both to convention delegates and a wider
America. At one meeting of women delegates last week Kerry's wife and
two sisters gave speeches. They were backed up by John Edwards's wife,
Elizabeth, and their daughter Cate. The convention was a family affair.
In Boston Kerry's relatives were deployed as never before. His
daughters, Vanessa and Alexandra, were regular speakers. They helped
introduce their father with childhood stories. Kerry's stepsons, Chris
and Andre Heinz, were also regulars at breakfast meetings, lunches and
dinners. They all embraced Vietnam. In her speech to the convention,
Alexandra Kerry recounted stealing upstairs as a child to read her
father's Vietnam letters. 'Who knew a 23-year-old could have seen so
much, so young?' she said.
But there is another war that got less attention at the Democrat
convention. That is the conflict in Iraq in which Fernando Suarez lost
his soldier son, Jesus. Suarez was not shy about mentioning Iraq and he
had a message for Kerry in Boston. 'My son died. For what? Because Bush
lied. Pay attention Mr Kerry. The people watch your actions,' he said.
But Suarez was not a speaker at the convention. He was at a peace rally
on Boston Common a mile and a half away. Inside the hall itself and at
countless convention meetings very few strayed off the simple message:
don't mention the war. That was an astonishing achievement. Polls show
that 93 per cent of delegates in Boston were against the war, far more
than most Americans. Iraq has been the most dominant and divisive issue
in American politics for a generation. It is the reason behind much of
the Democrat hatred for Bush. It is the main reason why Democrats are so
energised to win.
But both Kerry and Edwards voted for the war. Speaking out strongly now
would seem hypocritical and it would also open them up to Republican
attacks on their patriotism. A spat over Iraq could shatter the
carefully built up picture of strength on national security. Democrats
at all levels have made the decision to back Kerry in the belief that he
can win. Speeches were vetted and dissent was not tolerated.
'It is taboo. The war is why I am here but it is an issue only for the
outspoken,' said Democrat activist Vanessa Chapeton. Mentions of Iraq,
which became more common towards the end of the week, stuck to the line
of supporting the troops and criticising only the lack of intelligence
and ineffective post-war planning. The message was ruthlessly enforced.
Almost. Even in Boston cracks in the newly unified edifice of the
Democratic party did appear. It was only a few minutes into Reverend. Al
Sharpton's speech that the main teleprompter began to whirr up and down.
The operators should have saved themselves the trouble. Sharpton was not
reading from his speech. Scheduled for just six minutes, Sharpton spoke
for 20. He shattered the unspoken 'no Bush-bashing' rule and launched
broadside after broadside against Bush. 'In all due respect, Mr
President,' Sharpton exhorted. 'Read my lips: Our vote is not for sale!'
As top Democrats fumed, Sharpton was given a standing ovation. The anger
in the party still boils below the surface.
Dissent was elsewhere too. At a meeting with film-maker Michael Moore
and Kerry's ex-rival Howard Dean so many people turned up that 700 were
locked out. Dean was introduced with the words: 'Welcome to the
alternative Democratic party convention'.
Away from party handlers, Dean joked about the situation. 'No one is
calling the President a fascist. You can't do that. Well, not this week
anyway,' he laughed. Dean was mobbed by the throng, many of whom had
flocked to his anti-war campaign when he was the frontrunner. 'We like
Kerry, we will work for Kerry. But we love Howard Dean,' said delegate
Maggie Hanson. On her T-shirt she wore a sticker that said: 'I am in an
arranged marriage with John Kerry.' Back inside the convention hall Dean
did his duty. He backed Kerry all the way.
The simple fact is that Democrats are so desperate to beat Bush that
they have swallowed their differences. They know the elusive swing
voters scattered in a handful of key states want moderation, not
aggression. That is why another key theme of the convention was the
relentless stress on optimism. In a nation starkly divided 50-50, the
middle ground has to be won with smiles not shouts.
But as John Kerry travels America over the next two weeks he knows there
are signs of hope. Republicans have decried the lack of huge bounce in
the polls emerging from the convention. But in this election year, many
voters have already made up their mind and most experts expected little
In fact, by going in to his convention ahead of Bush, Kerry is already
in a strong position. In the last 50 years only three challengers have
entered their convention ahead of an incumbent president. All of them
won. Kerry may not have to persuade America to love him, just to see him
as a safe pair of hands.
Yet there is a long way to go. Polls show many voters have grave doubts
about Bush but they remain unsure of his opponent. It is a problem for
the Democrats that they have united, not out of love for Kerry but out
of dislike of Bush.
The battleground states are still up for grabs. Bush will hold his
convention in New York at the end of August. His formidable election
machine has also hit the road. Bush will rarely leave the campaign trail
for the next four weeks. Kerry concluded his convention speech with
simple words addressed to the undecided: 'I will work my heart out. But,
my fellow citizens, the outcome is in your hands more than mine.'