The attack of the Swift Boat vets did not catch the Kerry campaign by surprise, not entirely at least. Kerry's operatives had worried from the beginning that some right-wing group would try to use his old Vietnam antiwar speeches against him. In the summer of 2003 the Kerry campaign had quietly made some inquiries with C-Span, asking the cable network not to release old videotapes of Kerry as an angry young vet fulminating about war crimes and atrocities. Portions of his sometimes overwrought testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 could be twisted into an attack ad, the Kerryites feared. They were told not to worry: the rules prohibited the use of the tapes for political advertising. (When the Swift Boat vets made ads attacking Kerry with images from his 1971 testimony, they used a voice-over, an actor reading Kerry's words.)
In August, when the Swift Boat vets scheduled a press conference at the National Press Club, the Kerry campaign dispatched Gen. Wesley Clark to hold a counter-press conference. At the last minute the Swifties canceled. A cheer went up at Kerry-Edwards headquarters on 15th Street in Washington.
The cheers were premature. The Swift Boat ads--a first round charging that Kerry had lied to win his medals, then a second batch accusing him of betraying his mates by calling them war criminals--were misleading, but they were very effective. The Kerry high command failed to see the potential for damage until it was too late.
To respond to the ads would be to dignify them, argued both Bob Shrum and Mary Beth Cahill. Mostly the ads were stirring up the Republican true believers, not winning over the "persuadables," the undecided voters. At least that's what most of Kerry's advisers wanted to believe. It would be a mistake for him to hit back; the persuadables don't like negative campaigning. Better to float above it all.
But Kerry's chief pollster, Mark Mellman, wasn't so sure. He could see that the Swift Boat ads were having an impact--not much at the very beginning, but soon a measurable dent in Kerry's support. The old-fashioned mainstream press was ignoring the claims of the Swifties, but on Fox News, the "fair and balanced" cable network whose viewership was rough 80 percent pro-Bush, the Swifties were getting plenty of air time. And not just on Fox. Other cable networks, possibly trying to catch up with their flag-waving (and higher-rated) competitor, had jumped into the fray. The Swifties had bought only a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of ads, but each played over and over--free--on the cable channels, CNN and MSNBC as well as Fox. The Swift Boat charges were the source of constant debate in the blogosphere, the new online world of bloggers, the modern-day Internet pamphleteers whose screeds were widely read--especially by the young bookers and producers who set the agenda on cable TV.
With all this churning in the new media, the story was bound to spill out into the undecided electorate. Mellman could see it in the numbers. So, too, could Kerry's old campaign manager, Jim Jordan. As an adviser to America Coming Together, he saw lots of polling. He could see that in West Virginia, a key battleground state, 65 percent of voters told one survey that they had seen the group's first ad, which was impossible--but they had clearly heard about it. A fairly small slice--16 percent--said the ad made them feel less favorable to Kerry. Jordan knew that the real number was higher. People don't like to admit that they're influenced by propaganda.
Kerry himself was itching to hit back at the Swift Boat vets. He had been warned by a McCain aide two years earlier to watch out for the mudslingers on the Republican right. "They'll make it look like you fought for the Viet Cong," said the McCain aide, recalling the dirty tricks played on his own boss in the 2000 primaries. Kerry was furious at former senator Bob Dole, who had gone on TV to say that not all the Swift Boat veterans could be Republican liars. Kerry called his old Senate colleague (and fellow Purple Heart recipient). "You can't say this kind of stuff," Kerry lit into Dole, "and by the way, Bob, I bled from every one of my wounds." Dole blathered that Kerry was a great friend and that he admired him, but he didn't take back what he had said. ("He's an attack dog rehabbed as a statesman, and then he allows himself to be wheeled out for this," growled Shrum, in the midst of a fulmination about "the Big Lie.")
Kerry wanted to blister the Swift Boat vets in a speech he was scheduled to give to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 18. "We need to get these guys," he said. But at the last minute his handlers on the road were ordered by headquarters in Washington to restrain the candidate. Cahill and Shrum were worried that Kerry would seem too bitter and angry, the way he had appeared when he sarcastically thanked "Good Morning America's" Charlie Gibson, back in April, for doing the Republicans' dirty work.
Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, also wanted to take a swipe at the Swifties. Edwards was hardly an attacker in the Dole (or Cheney) tradition of vice presidential hit men; his whole persona and appeal were based on sunny optimism. But as early as Aug. 5, when the Swifties were just getting traction, Edwards wanted to push back, hard. McCain had just told the Associated Press that the Swift Boat ads were "dishonest and dishonorable... the same kind of deal that was pulled on me." Edwards wanted to begin a speech, "I join with Senator McCain in calling on the president to condemn this dishonest and dishonorable ad." But Kerry headquarters said no. Stephanie Cutter, the boss of the Kerry communications shop, explained that the campaign didn't need to give the Swift Boat vets any more attention than they were already getting.
Edwards played along, but his aides were indignant. They warned the veep candidate that the story was already out of control and about to get worse. Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of a wartime biography of Kerry, cautioned that Kerry's diary included mention of a meeting with some North Vietnamese terrorists in Paris. Edwards was flabbergasted. "Let me get this straight," the senator said. "He met with terrorists? Oh, that's good."
Kerry was personally hurt by the Swift Boat attacks on his valor and honor. On his cell phone, he called Vanessa several times in August to vent about the Swift Boat vets. He would go on about the unfairness of it all. Vanessa could hear the anguish in his voice.
The pain reached deep into the Kerry family. His first wife, Julia Thorne, had been the forgotten woman of the campaign. Divorced from Kerry since 1988, she lived quietly in Montana, recovered from bouts of depression that had plagued her as the privately unhappy wife of a very public man. Thorne never gave interviews, but she was watching the campaign closely, talking to her daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, at least once a day. She was very upset, she told Vanessa. She could remember how Kerry had suffered in Vietnam; she had seen the scars on his body, heard him cry out at night in his nightmares. She was so agitated about the unfairness of the Swift Boat assault that she told Vanessa she was ready to break her silence, to speak out and personally answer the Swift Boat charges. She changed her mind only when she was reassured that the campaign was about to start fighting back hard.
But Kerry's old ambivalence and caution were surfacing once again. At home he had always been reticent about telling his daughters about the war. They were intensely curious, and they knew their father had suffered. But he would not tell them exactly how. They never knew he had killed someone until they read about it in the newspapers. Alex had become a professional filmmaker. Her first short film was the "fictional" tale of a daughter struggling to connect with her father, a shellshocked veteran of a war reminiscent of Vietnam.
Vanessa assumed that her father was not hitting back because he did not like the dirty side of politics. The Kerry girls saw their father as a pillar of New England rectitude. He had never punished them for being late or for petty rule breaking, only for failing to tell the truth. He would invoke their Brahmin ancestors, looking at them sternly and intoning, "Vanessa Bradford Kerry," "Alexandra Forbes Kerry."
The girls were frustrated. At campaign events, voters would come up to Vanessa and say, "Did your dad really deserve his medals?" Why couldn't her father set them straight? He wouldn't be lying; he'd be telling the truth.
Kerry wanted the truth to come out, but he wanted to get it out in his own careful, deliberate way. The former prosecutor wanted to marshal the evidence, to build a case that would hold up. But that took time, and in the world of bloggers and 24/7 talking heads on cable, every day spent fact checking was a day lost. One quick pre-emptive strike might have been to reassemble Kerry's old Swift Boat crew, his band of brothers, and send them out on the talk-show circuit. But it was August; they were mostly a bunch of grandfathers, scattered on family vacations. Kerry remembered that one of the Swift Boat commanders, Donald Droz, killed in Vietnam, had regularly written his wife. Maybe one of those letters detailed the battle in which Kerry had won a Bronze Star and his last Purple Heart (the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were claiming that no shots had been fired). The campaign scrambled to find the wife, but she explained that she had no letters about the incident; she had seen her husband in Hawaii soon after on R&R, so there had been no need for letters. Kerry couldn't believe it. "Let me call her," he said. The whole process took four or five days, and the letters never turned up.
The Kerry campaign did work closely with the major dailies, feeding documents to The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe to debunk the Swift Boat vets. The articles were mostly (though not entirely) supportive of Kerry, but it was too late. The old media may have been more responsible than the new media, but they were also largely irrelevant.
In early August, when the Swift Boat story started to pick up steam on the talk shows, Susan Estrich, a California law professor, well-known liberal talking head and onetime campaign manager for Michael Dukakis, had called the Kerry campaign for marching orders. She had been booked on Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" to talk about the Swift Boat ads. What are the talking points? Estrich asked the Kerry campaign. There are none, she was told. Estrich was startled. She had seen this bad movie before. In August 1988, Dukakis had blown a 17-point lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush by failing to hit back against a series of seemingly petty or low-blow attacks (including allegations of mental instability). Sitting in a bar at New York's Essex House hotel, in town as a liberal TV commentator at the Republican convention, Estrich gloomily replayed the tape in her head. "Dukakis is not crazy; details at 11," she bitterly mimicked a TV announcer caught up in the swirl of the Bush I smear campaign of '88. Kerry's August was just like Dukakis's August, she despaired. Even some of the people were the same, on both sides. Estrich e-mailed her friend Marylouise Oates, better known as Oatsie. Married to Bob Shrum, Oatsie was on Nantucket at the time with Kerry and the inner circle. "Do something," pleaded Estrich. She wouldn't reveal what Oatsie e-mailed back, but she said, "They know. They're shellshocked."
In mid-September CBS's "60 Minutes II" aired a sensational report, claiming to have obtained long-lost records of George W. Bush's superior officer in the Texas Air National Guard complaining that Bush had shirked his duty. For a moment it looked as if the tables had turned, and Bush would have to endure an uncomfortable round of questions about his spotty attendance record in the stateside guard while Kerry had been dodging bullets in the Mekong Delta. But the moment did not last. Even before the "60 Minutes" segment finished airing, a blogger was up on the Web questioning whether the documents were fakes. The story quickly turned from Bush's war record to Dan Rather's carelessness and overzealousness--and even to the question of whether CBS had been secretly working with the Democrats to smear Bush. Rather and CBS kept the story alive by refusing to admit error. The Democratic involvement in the story was minimal and essentially meaningless, but the whole flap diverted attention away from questions, never entirely resolved, about whether Bush had skipped out on his guard service.
At a Q&A session with reporters after the "60 Minutes" story broke, Laura Bush said that she doubted the authenticity of the documents. The White House had been lying low, not wanting to get dragged into the controversy. The cable-news pundits crowed over the brilliant strategy of having the First Lady attack the documents instead. At the White House, everyone had a good laugh. Laura's comments were off the cuff, not part of some clever West Wing strategy. Sometimes Karl Rove's well-disciplined message machine was just a mirage.
The men and women around the president were brimming with confidence and condescension toward the Kerry team. Most of Bush's top political advisers had been with him since his days as governor of Texas. Rove and Hughes, McKinnon and Dowd had exulted and suffered through the wild ride of election night 2000. They saw themselves as a family, not without stresses and rivalries, but bonded by victory and adversity. They were intensely loyal to the president, who demanded absolute and unquestioning fealty. The Bushites looked on the Kerryites, by contrast, as a band of mercenaries working for a Captain Queeg. Kerry depended on hired guns because he was unable to command the affection and devotion of his subordinates, the Bush aides thought. They believed they were winning the election because they had the better candidate but also because they were better organized and just plain smarter than the opposition.
Bush was feeling jubilant as he plunged into the September crowds. Minnesota had been regarded as a swing state, but just barely. It had gone Democratic every election since 1976. As he pored over recent state polls that showed him surging ahead, the president was incredulous. "If we carry Minnesota," he said, "we win big." Bush seemed to be enjoying the discomfiture of Dan Rather and CBS over the phony documents. At a press conference in mid-September with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Bush called out, "Is anybody here from CBS?" He sounded more needling than gracious.
His father had been worrying. The elder Bush's ulcers had been acting up. Bush senior had watched the "60 Minutes" "scoop" with rising indignation. He disliked the "60 Minutes II" anchorman, Dan Rather, who had staged a hostile confrontation with the then Vice President Bush in an interview during the 1988 campaign. George H.W. Bush was by and large an optimist and a forgiving man. But he nurtured long grudges against certain reporters, and Rather was one of them. Lately Bush senior had been keeping a sleeve of saltine crackers on his desk to tamp down his bile. He would munch on the crackers as he watched the talking heads and the evening news, his stomach churning.
But on Friday, Sept. 17, Gallup released a poll showing his son ahead of Kerry by an astonishing 13 points. Other polls showed the race closer, but Poppy was ecstatic. He fired off an e-mail to one of his aides. "Let's just say the e-mail had exclamation points," said the aide, laughing.
Kerry felt alone and isolated. It was not an unfamiliar feeling. His father had been a Foreign Service officer stationed in Berlin. As a boy, shipped off to a severe Swiss boarding school by his remote yet demanding father, Kerry had to take a night train through communist East Germany. The cold war had been at its coldest and darkest in Germany in the early 1950s. Recounting his memories to a NEWSWEEK reporter in the summer of 2004, Kerry could vividly picture himself clutching a piece of paper with directions written out by his parents--a somber, long-faced boy, traveling alone across a forbidding landscape, fearful but determined not to show it.
When Kerry was alone and feeling the unfairness of things, he sometimes lashed out and blamed others. He would call his advisers at all hours of the night. On a Saturday evening in late August, Tad Devine, Bob Shrum's partner and fellow media man and strategic adviser, was studying for an appearance on "Meet the Press" the next morning when Kerry called him. Devine was weary and in no mood to talk to the candidate. Kerry offered to call back later. "The most important thing is that I get a good night's sleep," the blunt-spoken Devine told his client. "Don't call me." Kerry had been ostensibly phoning to offer advice, but he blurted out what was really on his mind: the attack of the Swift Boat veterans. "It's a pack of f---ing lies, what they're saying about me," he fairly shouted over the phone.
Kerry blamed his advisers for his predicament. He had wanted to fight back; they had counseled caution. His honor was being dragged through the mud, and now he was being mocked for not standing up for himself. He wanted to turn on someone. Not a few staffers and advisers in the badly frayed Kerry camp believed that the candidate should blame his well-paid media consultants. Surveying the damage in late summer, a Democratic strategist privately scorned the media consultants for the narrowness, if not the selfishness, of their vision. Shrum and Devine were in the advertising business, this strategist said. All they really understood was the air war. They put their faith in (and fattened their pocketbooks with) paid political ads. When the Kerry campaign opted not to abandon the campaign-finance system and instead to stick with its allotted $75 million in federal funds through the November election, the decision effectively meant no money for ads in August. Remembering how they had run out of money in the Gore campaign in 2000, Devine and Shrum wanted to save their limited war chest for a media blitz in late October--at the end, when it really counted. But that left little or no ammo to shoot back at the Swift Boat vets in August.
Shrum would later insist that he saw the need to take action soon after the Swift Boat ads began cutting into support for Kerry in August. Still, the media men lacked a certain imagination, or at least gumption, about pushing back. In late August the campaign finally made a small media buy to answer the Swifties, but it was like using a fly swatter against an elephant.
Kerry was unhappy with Devine and Shrum, but he was not about to fire them. Shrum was his old friend, his peer; besides, Kerry procrastinated for as long as possible before firing anyone. As he fretted and moped, his eye fell on other, less independently powerful figures in the campaign. He was particularly annoyed at Stephanie Cutter, the communications director. In a crowded press room, Cutter was easy to spot with her dirty-blond hair, short skirts and high boots, as she lectured some sheepish or irked newsperson. Cutter had been the object of endless complaining by reporters and campaign staffers. She was considered too slow and too controlling, not nimble or clever. Tired of watching her berate interns and alienate reporters with vituperative e-mails after the most mildly critical stories, Kerry staffers snidely made a verb of her e-mail name (firstname.lastname@example.org). "To Scutter" meant to try to control or dominate. Its second meaning was cruder, "to f--- something up." In March reporters had begun to vent about Cutter to campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. By May they were taking their grievances to Kerry himself. In July Kerry said to Cahill, "I'm tired of hearing complaints about Stephanie. Fix it."
Cahill had already moved Cutter out of headquarters and onto the campaign plane. The idea was to marginalize her by confining her duties. But Cutter was a skillful bureaucratic infighter. She managed to keep sway over communications at headquarters in Washington and at the same time run the press operation on the plane. If anything, she was expanding her empire. She insisted that everything--all campaign communications--had to go through her, effectively slowing down response time to a crawl.
Cutter could be tough-minded, and some of her instincts were sound. Democrats are notoriously loose-lipped and leaky. Cutter was trying to impose some Republican-like message discipline, to be a sort of Democratic Karen Hughes. But she lacked the kind of gravitas and seasoned judgment to play such a role. Instead she exposed herself to ridicule by posturing. Staffers and reporters snickered about how, at a skeet-shooting photo op for Kerry in Iowa, she had grabbed a shotgun and struck a pose, aiming at the sky. She was notoriously jealous of rivals. In the spring Hillary Clinton's former press secretary, Howard Wolfson, had signed on to work with Cutter on campaign communications. He lasted all of two and a half days; he had gone to lunch on a Wednesday and never come back.
Cutter reported to Mary Beth Cahill. It was Cahill's job to see that Cutter worked out--or to make a change. But Cahill's own authority was becoming shaky. Kerry had never regarded her as much of a strategist, but he had been grateful for her hands-on, no-excuses management style when, in the fall of 2003, she had left her post as Ted Kennedy's chief of staff to rescue the floundering Kerry campaign. But over time Cahill had lost her effectiveness. Back in December she had succeeded in turning off Kerry's cell phone, curtailing the candidate's weakness for back-channeling and second-guessing. But Kerry's cell-phone addiction was hard to break, and within a few weeks he was dialing his dozens of campaign advisers and kibitzers, all day and much of the night.
Cutter became a symbol of Cahill's power, a test case of the campaign manager's increasingly precarious grip. Staffers could not quite understand Cahill's solicitude for the much-maligned Cutter. In late August, one campaign adviser wondered why, if the future of the Kerry campaign and possibly the nation was at stake, everyone was so worried about hurting the feelings of Stephanie Cutter.
The loudest grumbling about the sorry state of the Kerry campaign came from the so-called Clintonistas. The followers and former aides of President Bill Clinton had been the masters of rapid response, the creators of the much-mythologized 1992 war room that never let a news cycle pass without a charge rebutted. The Clinton team was also the only Democratic political faction to actually win any presidential elections over the previous quarter century. Not unreasonably, the Clintonistas felt a certain standing to pronounce judgment and offer critiques.
The loudest, and most colorful, sideline commentator was James Carville, the Ragin' Cajun, who, along with his peppery Republican wife, Mary Matalin, had become a kind of media-political institution in Washington. Carville (affectionately known by his wife as "Ol' Serpent Head") could be heard cheerfully squawking and blathering on CNN's "Crossfire" and at pretty much any cocktail party where prominent journalists and political consultants gathered. For a time Carville uncharacteristically restrained himself with Kerry. The two men talked on the phone, but the earthy Carville and the Brahmin Kerry were not natural soul mates. In the spring, Carville had urged Kerry to bring on his buddy and "Crossfire" cohost Paul Begala to help with strategy and campaign communications. An amiable, fast-talking Texan, Begala had helped out Kerry for a couple of weeks, but the two did not click. Kerry signaled to Cahill that Begala was not the campaign sidekick he was looking for (inviting the question of whether Kerry, the loner, really wanted such a companion in the first place). Cahill did not directly tell Begala it was a no-go, but she stopped returning his phone calls. Left hanging, Begala felt wounded. Carville hurt for his pal, and began having a harder time holding his tongue about the failings of the Kerry campaign.
In August Joe Lockhart, President Clinton's last White House press secretary, joined the campaign plane to bolster Cutter and bring some energy and action to the slow-footed communications department. Lockhart had the idea of sending Max Cleland, the former senator from Georgia who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, on a mission. Cleland was dispatched, in his wheelchair, to the gates of the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, to deliver a letter calling on Bush to renounce the Swifties' smear campaign. The stunt, while gimmicky, at least showed some pluck. But it did not move the polls, which were sinking fast for Kerry.
During the Republican convention Kerry repaired to Teresa's house on Nantucket. He had bounced around between his marriages, renting small apartments, bunking on the couches of friends. Teresa had called it her husband's "homeless period." Of Teresa's five houses (Washington, Boston, Sun Valley, Pittsburgh, Nantucket), Kerry seemed to feel most at home at the heiress's weathered, shingled "cottage" with its wide porches overlooking --Nantucket Harbor. He went windsurfing, inviting along press photographers. This was a mistake: he was effectively providing the Republicans with more ammunition to portray him as effete and overprivileged, indulging in rich man's play (and--even more devastating--affording the perfect video of Kerry symbolically tacking back and forth in the political winds). But mostly, in the last days of August, he disappeared inside, away from his staff. A silence descended over the candidate, a disturbing, distant quiet. His aides looked at his stony stare and tried to read his mind. They wondered, was he back in Vietnam?
Teresa just seemed fed up. According to her carefully cultivated image in the press, Mrs. Heinz Kerry had been initially reluctant to see her husband run for president. "First Lady?" she would coyly ask. "No, thanks!" Then, according to this script, she had felt the call of duty and history and rallied to her husband's cause. The truth, as her family and close friends were well aware, was more like the opposite. She had always coveted the White House, and had hoped that her first husband, Sen. John Heinz, might get her there. She had been an active and aggressive strategist in Kerry's campaign. That is, she had tried to be. But too often, she found, her ideas went unheeded.
At least Bob Shrum had been polite about it. The ever-courtly Shrum had flattered her and seemed to listen before rejecting her advice, and then did so ever so gently and almost never directly to her face. But Mary Beth Cahill lacked Shrum's tact or subtle gifts. With her unvarnished manner, Cahill appeared annoyed by any meddling from the candidate's wife. Teresa, for her part, decided that Cahill was arrogant, and the two strong-willed women clashed, most openly when Cahill rejected Teresa's nomination for a new press aide in June. Kerry was caught in the middle. If he sided with his staff, as he usually did because he had more regard for their advice, he risked an unpleasant argument with his wife. All through the disastrous "Sea to Shining Sea" tour in July and August, he and his wife had squabbled. Now, as the campaign entered the fall stretch, Teresa was visibly tired of it all. She still badly wanted to beat Bush, she told her close friends and family. But she was looking forward to getting away from politics and spending time with her kids.
Kerry was brooding, pondering a move. He didn't want to fire Cahill or Cutter, in part because it would set off another round of Kerry-campaign-in-disarray stories and feed the impression, already starting to take hold in the press, that he was a poor manager. But he was at last ready to shove Cutter to the side, and to undercut Cahill's authority.
Kerry was still stewing over Cutter's blunder, unrecognized and unreported by the press, at the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9, when he had disastrously affirmed that he would have voted to give the president the authority to invade Iraq, WMD or not. At the time, adviser Jamie Rubin had taken the fall. But it had actually been Cutter who urged her boss to give a one-word "yes" answer to the question they had known was coming. Other top aides had debated the question, but in the end Cutter had acted on her own authority. Because cell phones couldn't reach into the Grand Canyon, the traveling campaign had been cut off from Washington headquarters. Conveniently overlooking his own responsibility, Kerry blamed Cutter for the consequences--the Republican ads crowing that flip-floppin' Kerry was now backing the president on Iraq.
It was Carville who led the charge against Cahill and Cutter. Carville had been feeling guilty, fretful that he had not directly confronted the Kerry campaign with its failings. On the last weekend in August, the old Clinton alumni gathered in the backyard of a former embassy off 16th Street to celebrate the wedding of Gene Sperling, Clinton's former economic adviser. After a few drinks, the celebration veered toward becoming a wake for the Kerry campaign. Carville, in particular, was in a high state of agitation, going around telling anyone who would listen what a mess the campaign had become.
Carville was working himself up to a confrontation. On the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, with the Republicans basking in the success of their convention, he decided to try to force the issue. Along with Clinton's old pollster Stan Greenberg, Carville went to see Mary Beth Cahill and Joe Lockhart at the Kerry campaign headquarters on 15th Street. Greenberg was soft-spoken and generally supportive of the Kerry team, though he did offer a critique demonstrating that Kerry's speeches sounded about five different themes without any organizing principle. Carville, however, was so worked up that he began to cry. He wanted so badly to beat Bush, he said, yet the Kerry campaign was failing miserably. Carville came right out and said that Cahill had to step aside and let Lockhart, the Clintonista newcomer, run the campaign. "You've got to let him do it!" implored Carville, pounding Lockhart's arm until it was bruised. Carville spoke as if Mary Beth weren't in the room. "Nobody can gain power without someone losing power. If somebody doesn't lose power, nobody's gained power," he lectured. The "somebody" sitting a few feet away just remained silent. Carville threatened to go on "Meet the Press" the next day "and tell the truth about how bad it is" if Cahill didn't give effective control to Lockhart.
Cahill and all the others later dressed up the truth--it had been her idea, they said, to bring in Lockhart and other old Clinton aides to strengthen the campaign. But, in fact, the campaign had undergone a silent coup. Kerry's hand was hidden, but he had given his silent assent.
The most prominent Clintonista also weighed in that Saturday, Sept. 4. Former president Clinton was resting in a hospital bed in New York City, awaiting a heart-bypass operation. But he couldn't resist injecting himself into the Kerry campaign crisis. For 90 minutes that night, as various campaign aides listened in on a conference call, the ex-president lectured the would-be president on what he had to do to get back in the race. Clinton urged Kerry to spend less time talking about Vietnam and more time engaging on Iraq. This was not the first time Clinton had weighed in. Some of the suggestions were a little over the top, the Kerry aides thought. In an earlier phone call, Clinton--ever the political triangulator, looking for ways to pick up swing voters by reaching into the so-called Red States--had urged Kerry to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, "I'm not going to ever do that."
On Monday morning, less than 36 hours later, Kerry read a none-too-flattering account of his phone call with Clinton on the front page of The New York Times. The article made both Clinton and Kerry look a little desperate, engaged in a sickbed seance over Kerry's political survival. The imagery was demoralizing: if Kerry was so hapless at running his own campaign, voters were going to start wondering how well he would run the White House. Kerry was furious and chewed out Lockhart, whom he suspected to be the source. Not true, insisted Lockhart, still new on the job but already on the verge of quitting (others suspected Carville of the leak). Kerry was beleaguered. He was wary of the agenda of the Clinton exiles: if he lost in November, the way would be open for Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2008.
Kerry's small circle felt surrounded, besieged, cut off. The campaign had made much of contesting more than 20 swing states. But one of those battleground states, Missouri, already seemed lost. On Sept. 9 Alex Kerry traveled there with her father. At a Kerry rally she decided to try to find out what "real people" thought by asking a few of them. A group of Democratic voters didn't recognize her. Encouraged by her anonymity, she crossed the street to talk to some Republican protesters. "We know who you are," one of them spat out. Others began shouting that her father was a "baby killer." Shocked by their vehemence, she went to find her father, who quickly saw how upset his daughter had become. He cleared the room of aides. Alex dissolved in tears. "What if they steal the election?" she cried. "We're not going to let that happen," Kerry tried to reassure her. Alex was feeling more and more isolated. Her friends tried to console her, telling her, "Everything will be all right." But she didn't believe them.
Kerry's top consultants weren't having a much better time of it. Tad Devine trooped up to Capitol Hill the week after Labor Day to hear the complaints of Democratic congressmen, who were fearful that the whole party would suffer in November, that any hope of regaining control of the House was fast disappearing. As Devine tried to buck them up, he noticed that congressmen were getting up and walking out. He heard bells ringing, and assumed, or rather hoped, that they were leaving to go vote on the House floor. They weren't. They were just showing their contempt for the Kerry campaign.
Bob Shrum was brooding over a rough profile in the Style section of The Washington Post. Shrum generally got good press, in part because he was a source and friend to so many top political journalists. But this article went on about the "Shrum Curse," his 0-for-7 record in presidential races, and revealed that Kerry staffers wanted to make up T shirts reading break the shrum curse. The story dwelled on gritty details, like Shrum's habit of parking his Nicorette gum on the rim of Diet Coke cans. Shrum was wounded and wanted to find the campaign mole. He recovered after a few days, but his friends wondered if he might not disengage from the campaign and fade into the background.
At Kerry headquarters on McPherson Square, quiet gloom had settled in. By the end of the summer the campaign was sponsoring cocktail happy hours, encouraging the troops to go to a local bar and put on a glow before coming back for a long night of work. But the drinking had taken a melancholy turn; the mood had a "last hurrah" feel to it. Young staffers who once dreamed of a job in the White House were now wondering what they might do after Nov. 2.
On the Tuesday after Labor Day, a special guest slipped in. Ted Kennedy didn't want it known by the press that he was visiting Kerry headquarters; the campaign had been careful to keep the very symbol of Massachusetts liberalism at arm's length. Kennedy had heard the staff was dispirit-ed, and he wanted to give them a pep talk. He told how his brother Jack had played through pain during the 1936 football season at Harvard. Turning red in the face, he shouted, "In the next two months I want you to fight harder than you'll ever fight!" The staffers roared. Morale improved, at least a little.
The real boost came when Joe Lockhart took over the campaign's communications and "message" from Cutter and Shrum. Every morning at 7:15 Lockhart held a meeting for top staffers. The topic was always the same: "What headline do we want and how do we go about getting it?" Lockhart wanted, in classic Clinton fashion, to start winning the news cycle of the day. The Republicans had been beating the Democrats at their own game of rapid response. Lockhart was going to win back the franchise.
In the beginning of the last week of September, Kerry went on the offensive about Iraq. The war was getting much worse again. There had been a lull (in the fighting but especially in the news coverage) after the United States had handed over authority to an interim Iraqi government on June 30. But in July, August and September, casualties steadily climbed, and the fighting bled back onto the front pages. Former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg had been pressing Kerry to tie the war to domestic needs--to declare that $200 billion spent on Iraq meant that much less funding for education and health care at home. Kerry used the line in a few speeches, but reluctantly. He didn't really believe it. In truth, he was willing to spend whatever it took to win in Iraq, or at least to extricate the United States with some semblance of honor.
Still, he was appalled by the carnage in Iraq and the waste of the war. On Sunday night, Sept. 19, the campaign staff met to discuss, one more time, the candidate's position on Iraq. The Clintonistas pushed a harder line against the war. But the campaign's old guard wasn't so sure. Couldn't Kerry play it both ways? Shrum cautioned against appearing too dovish. Kerry seemed to let the debate go on, circling around and around.
But then he spoke. "It's gut-check time, folks," he said. "This is not about whether it's politically expedient. This is a f---ing war. Kids are dying out there, and this president continues not to tell the truth. You'd have to be out of your mind to go in there the way he did. There was no WMD, no imminent threat, no ties to Al Qaeda. The answer is no. Anything else is crap."
Kerry had decided to be the antiwar candidate. Not for the first time, to be sure. He had called himself an antiwar candidate when he was trying to peel off the Dean vote in January. But he spoke without any equivocation this time. The next day he gave a blistering speech at NYU, attacking Bush for the folly of invading Iraq. The Bush campaign had some fun with an ad showing Kerry tacking back and forth on his windsurfer. But to campaign staffers desperate for some sign that Kerry was turning a corner--that the famous fourth-quarter player had finally taken the field--he sounded convincing.
For months Kerry had been the oldest political person on his campaign plane by about 20 years. He may have liked to be a loner, playing his guitar and watching old movies, but he needed a grown-up to advise him and deliver bad news if necessary. John Sasso had been Kerry's original choice as campaign manager in 2002. A much-sought-after consultant to private businesses, Sasso had been unwilling to drop all his clients and join the campaign. After Kerry locked up the nomination in February, Sasso took a job at the Democratic National Committee running the party's get-out-the-vote operation, which allowed him to play part-time adviser to the Kerry campaign. An old Boston hand, Sasso was a gut player. He didn't always win (he had been brought in, too late, to try to salvage the sinking Dukakis campaign in 1988), but he had good instincts and wasn't intimidated by Kerry's intellectualism. In September, Sasso started traveling with Kerry. When the nominee began to complain that he was losing his voice only a week before the first debate, Sasso saw an opening. He took away Kerry's cell phone. "You need to rest your voice, Senator. I'll tell you if there are any messages you need to know about." Kerry grumbled, but he went along.
The other new player on the plane was Mike McCurry. One of the best-liked White House press secretaries, McCurry had weathered the Lewinsky scandal and the chaos of the Clinton years with a wry smile and a deft touch with reporters. His relaxed demeanor starkly contrasted with Stephanie Cutter's hard edge. Kerry had tried to hire McCurry back in the spring of 2004, but he, too, had been unwilling to give up all his private clients, and campaign manager Cahill (possibly sensing a rival) had insisted on all or nothing. Now everyone agreed that McCurry's soothing presence was critical. Typically, McCurry joked that he had given up an easy and well-paid life to go to work for his former subordinate--Joe Lockhart, who had been his deputy at the White House before succeeding him.
With the new team onboard, the campaign actually began to win a few rounds of the battle for cable-news supremacy, the daily struggle over who can control the 24/7 airwaves of CNN, Fox and MSNBC. But, somewhat disturbingly, the candidate would improve--then regress. He was sharp and tough in his prepared speeches on the war. But at a town meeting in the Wisconsin hamlet of Spring Green in late September, the old Kerry was on full display. He rambled about, wreathed in nuance, as he puzzled then lost his audience. Seeking to be all things to all people, he tried to be empathetic about rising college tuition. He earnestly told the crowd that he knew how hard it was to find the right financial options because he had two children and three stepchildren. His audience, mostly farmers and laborers and small businessmen, audibly laughed at him. Kerry was married to a billionaire, right? What did he know about making ends meet?
The town meeting was Kerry's only public appearance that week. The campaign was preparing for the first of three presidential debates. It was obvious that Kerry could not afford to lose any of them, and certainly not the first. For several weeks Kerry had been demanding more debate-prep time. He would take practice questions, sometimes for hours, and then go off and write. This exercise was, generally speaking, beneficial. Kerry usually stuck to the script when he wrote it himself. But he deviated and wandered when he was using someone else's words. Still, his aides worried when the candidate disappeared to his room for the night. Was he living in some kind of bubble, a fantasy land? Would he ignore the professional advice of his handlers? Kerry was alone, again.