Kerry: Fallout From a Flub

Chuck Schumer got right to the point. On Thursday afternoon, the New York Senator, who's leading the Democrats' efforts to win back the Senate, called John Kerry and let him have it. The Massachussetts Senator's supposed "botched joke" about the president's handling of Iraq had become a feast for Republicans—sucking up tons of airtime and knocking Democrats off message in the crucial remaining days before the midterm election. Kerry's attempts to fight back, by calling the Republicans "stuffed suits" and "right wing nutjobs," was only prolonging the story and making things worse. Apologize now, Schumer told him, according to a high-ranking party official who didn't want to be named talking about a private conversation. (A source close to Kerry said the exchange was cordial.)

Just the day before, Kerry had been all swagger as he took swipes at President Bush in a speech to a crowd of Democrats. But Kerry, never known for his verbal agility, or his sense of humor, mangled what was supposed to be a biting laugh line aimed at the president's handling of the Iraq mess. "If you … do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." Nervous laughs from the audience. It sounded for all the world like Kerry had just called U.S. soldiers stupid. Republicans pounced with amazing speed, denounced Kerry with unmasked glee. Sen. John McCain demanded an apology. Even the president got in on the action, appearing on the Rush Limbaugh show. After months of trying, and largely failing, to weaken Democrats as anti-military and soft on terror, here was Kerry making their point for them.

Kerry tried to get on top of the problem. He explained convincingly that he had simply "botched" the line. He was supposed to say, "… you get us stuck in Iraq." As in Bush. But the explanations came too late. If he had corrected his garble during the speech, or quickly produced a copy of the text afterward to show that it was merely a slip of the tongue, that might have been the end of it. Or, he could have simply apologized. But instead, Kerry—who still kicks himself for not fighting back harder when Republicans "swift boated" him in 2004 —responded with defiance. It was the chance he had been waiting, and preparing, for: The opportunity to debut the new John Kerry, the one who doesn't get rolled. "I've seen the worst of what they throw at you, so there's no hesitation on my part to know how to handle that or what to do," Kerry told NEWSWEEK a few weeks before the incident. "I'm in a fighting mood." Appearing on the Don Imus radio show two days after the speech, Kerry was clearly looking to show he wasn't going to let the GOP make a mockery of him again. "These guys have failed America," Kerry said. "The people who owe an apology are people like Donald Rumsfeld, who didn't send enough troops, who didn't listen to the generals, who has made every mistake in the book." Imus flat out begged Kerry to cease and desist. "Stop talking. Go home, get on the bike, go windsurfing, anything. Stop it. You're going to ruin this."

Perhaps Kerry thought the radio appearance would calm things down and at the same time prove he was no wimp. Instead, it gave Republicans more ammo, and made Democrats—who were hoping he would issue a simple apology and let the controversy die—angrier, too. Three Democratic candidates, including Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, cancelled appearances with the senator. Rep. Harold Ford, locked in a key senate race in Tennessee, called on Kerry to apologize. Hillary Clinton chimed in, calling the former Democratic nominee's comments "inappropriate."

After Schumer's phone call, Kerry apparently took the hint and issued a grudging Washington-style apology. "I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform," he said. "And I personally apologize to any service member, family member or American who was offended." Clearly, this was not how Kerry envisioned his comeback. Banished to the political wilderness after losing to Bush, Kerry has been plotting his second run at the White House. Though always well behind Hillary Clinton in national polls, he was at least in the running on paper, consistently neck-and-neck with Al Gore and John Edwards. He did all the right things. He showered money on hundreds of Democratic candidates around the country and visited New Hampshire more than any other Democratic contender. He gave sharply worded speeches. As the keynote speaker at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's big fundraiser several weeks ago, the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he'd brought them to their feet by calling Bush a liar. He still had the loyal support of a close-knit group of Massachussets political operatives. But among big name strategists, pollsters and fundraisers, a second Kerry campaign was not taken very seriously.

Now, he faces even longer odds. For the moment, at least, Kerry is simply radioactive among Democrats. Publicly, some activists were still sticking by him. Mark Gorenberg, his former finance chair for California, told NEWSWEEK he would definitely be with Kerry if he ran in '08. The influential Daily Kos blog tried to make the best of the gaffe with a post saying, "I haven't been shy to pile on Kerry when warranted, but what a load of bulls--- this is. And showing that he has learned from his Swiftboating days, Kerry hit back hard." But not everyone was feeling so generous. On the ground in New Hampshire, some activists who'd been open to him pre-blunder, were now shutting their doors and turning out the lights. "It's not that this gaffe was so bad," says Ann McLane Kuster, a prominent New Hampshire activist, "But it plays into all the traits he has that are out of touch, like using intelligence as a way to distinguish himself rather than compassion. The underlying joke wasn't funny."

Not surprisingly, the judgments were a little less diplomatic inside the Beltway. "There is not a Democrat in Washington who thinks John Kerry is a viable presidential candidate after last week," says a longtime Democratic strategist (who isn't working for one of Kerry's potential rivals). The strategist, who spoke freely and at length about Kerry on the condition of anonymity, says the gaffe reminds Democrats that he is politically inept. "This is not something that will linger in pool halls and bars and normal places in America," he says, "but among the donors and activists who like to win, this memory will last a long time. Remember, his entire candidacy is based on electability. And when that's the basis of your candidacy, and you've already lost once, amateur hour doesn't begin to describe John Kerry. And that's without even getting into the personal animus towards the guy."

In other words, Kerry has some repair work to do. Even before last week, he recognized he needed to get Democrats to trust him, and believe in him, a second time around. On a recent Saturday in Lewiston, Maine, Kerry mused about the problem over lunch at an Italian restaurant. "They'll just have to make a measurement of whether or not they think any of the other people who think they're running would have done better against George Bush," he told NEWSWEEK as he worked his way through a plate of spaghetti. "I mean, that's an initial threshold question people ought to ask themselves. Would anybody else have beaten a wartime president—this wartime president—under those circumstances?" As he spoke, Kerry absentmindedly jabbed at his meatballs with a fork.

"Is America a country where you can learn from something or isn't it?" he asked. "Why did Ronald Reagan get to run four times for the nomination? Why is John McCain running for the second time? Didn't he get his ass kicked around South Carolina by George Bush for not being patriotic enough?"

Kerry put down his fork. His meatballs lay in ruins. "I always thought that in America you do get a second chance," he said. It's the third chances that are harder to come by.