Six years ago, I helped put together the 30th anniversary issue of the student alt-weekly paper I edited, which gave me the opportunity to familiarize myself with our archives. It was a bit startling to see that the coverage of John Kerry's ultimately failed 1972 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives already depicted Kerry's ultimate goal as the White House.
Kerry's loss in 1972 slowed his political ascent. He went to law school, passed the bar in 1976, and went to work as a prosecutor. In 1982 he became lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. In 1985 he entered the U.S. Senate. By the time he re-emerged on the national stage, in other words, his name had already been bandied about as a potential president for over a decade. In 2004, 32 years after that initial defeat, Kerry ended up both closer and farther than ever, as George W. Bush narrowly secured re-election. Not only did Kerry lose, but he did so in a particularly dispiriting manner, running amid a controversial and failing war without anything resembling a clear message on it. To some extent, he was merely the victim of circumstances, but it was infuriating for liberals to spend months backing a candidate who would neither denounce the decision to begin the war nor call for its end, all in the name of the higher cause of beating Bush, only to see Bush win anyway.
Last night, Kerry gave a mix of the speech liberals wished he'd given in 2004 with the speech liberals wished the other convention speakers had given earlier in the week. With the Denver festivities dominated by the need to "humanize" Michelle Obama, to introduce a vice-presidential nominee who'd been announced just over the weekend, and to devote two major slots to Bill and Hillary Clinton ritually passing the baton to Barack Obama, the base was thirsting for some red meat.
And politically, some meat was very much in need. Contrary to the myth that Obama would somehow be winning the election by default if only people were more comfortable with him, the Democratic nominee has a 60 percent favorable rating combined with the misfortune of an opponent who's also popular. Someone had to take the shine off McCain, and Kerry razed him in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.
Taking a stand he never publicly articulated in 2004, he demanded that we "make clear once and for all that the United States does not torture." He took the clear stand against the invasion of Iraq he never stuck to in 2004, deeming it "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The case that McCain is a flip-flopper is one that needed to be made, but no other prominent Democrat was stepping up to the plate. Kerry launched the rhetorical equivalent of a kamikaze attack. He lit into John McCain, observing that "candidate McCain now supports the very wartime tax cuts that Senator McCain once called irresponsible." He contrasted McCain's immediate eagerness to leap from 9-11 to Iraq with Barack Obama's view that Iraq offered nothing more than "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs and undetermined consequences."
Borrowing a phrase from Matt Welch's excellent book, he assailed "the myth of a maverick" and introduced the public to the reality of a politician who's abandoned every heterodox position he once held in a breathtaking sell-out to his party's right wing. He observed that McCain the candidate has denounced his own bills on climate change and immigration -- "talk about being for it before you're against it."
It sounds like a strange thing to say about a political attack speech, but last night Kerry showed the moral courage that made him famous in the first place. Freed from the curse of his own predestination for the White House, one of the politicians most-loathed by the press assailed the media's favorite son. Unlike the other speakers, Kerry put the needs of the party over his own desires in order to get the job done. Yet, thanks to the stupidity of cable news producers, few will have seen it -- the broadcast networks didn't cover that hour of the convention, and CNN, MSNBC, and Fox saw fit to broadcast talking heads talking about the convention rather than Kerry's speech. But for those of us who watched it on C-SPAN or PBS, was not just a great speech but a redemptive one. It offered the vision of a post-presidential Kerry playing a continuing and vital role in the progressive movement.