TEMPE, Ariz. — Several months ago, back during the New Hampshire primary, John Kerry told me, in an off-the-record conversation that he later repeated in one other interview that I know of, about his mother's dying moments. She was a gracious, beloved figure — the Forbes in the name John Forbes Kerry, from an old Boston Brahmin family. "As she lay dying, she said to me, ‘John, the only thing that matters is: integrity, integrity, integrity.’”
It's a nice story, and the fact that the normally rather shy Kerry told it to 50 million viewers in the last presidential debate was noteworthy — and a good move. You don't win the White House without giving people some appealing personal glimpse into who you are, and Kerry needed to do so.
For beyond the fusillades of facts (and anti-facts) that Kerry and President Bush hurled at each other was a deeper, harder-to-quantify contest: to connect on an emotional level with the American voter.
Love him or hate him, all Americans at this point have a fix on the volatile character in the White House: proud, defiant, intense in his beliefs to the point of what many regard as recklessness, eager to make a joke at his own expense even as he disdains his opponents. We know Bush: a faith-driven West Texas guy by way of the Ivy League who gets mad and gets even and who is out to reshape the world in response to 9/11.
Who is John Kerry, really?
But who, really, is John Kerry? I was looking, in the third debate, for the senator to reveal something about himself beyond his now-obvious tactical skill as a debater. Finally, there were some. He came across as a Brahmin whose interpretation of Catholicism led him to stress not just faith but works: a Catholic in the social-welfare tradition that reached its epitome in America in the late 20th century in the life and mission of Dorothy Day. You have to “love your neighbor as yourself,” he told moderator Bob Schieffer, adding that there is a lot more of that spirit needed “in this country and on this planet” — the key word for Kerry being “planet.”
He also was gracious — and shrewd — in praising Bush for his handling of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, reminding the president of the hug that he and Sen. Tom Daschle exchanged in Congress that first week after the attack.
He was wry and truly funny when he made a joke about his wife's vast wealth in a question about spouses. Kerry said that he and Bush all had married above themselves — in his own case "maybe more than others.” It drew a big laugh from the hard-bitten types beside me in the press room, and Kerry — for the first time I can remember on national television — flashed a genuinely broad grin.
Such moments matter, because in choosing a president the voters are, in an odd sense, picking a close-quarters companion — a leader, to be sure, but someone with whom, through the medium of television, they have a direct, visceral connection. A guy laughing a real laugh is a guy you tend to like.
Gasps in the press room
But do you like one who mentions someone else’s child to make a nasty political point? There were no laughs but gasps in the press room when Kerry noted that Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary, was a lesbian. It came during a discussion of sexual orientation. Now, of course, everyone knows something about Mary — she is open about her sexual orientation and has worked in outreach programs to gays and lesbians, and even brought her partner to the vice presidential debate in Cleveland.
Still, what was Kerry's point in hauling her into the discussion? Was he trying to highlight the fact that the vice president doesn't share the president's support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman? Was he trying to say that Cheney should actively OPPOSE it because of his daughter? Cheney and Kerry actually seem to share the same views.
The GOP wasted no time complaining, with Lynne Cheney calling it a “cheap and tawdry political trick.”
“Now I have had a chance to assess John Kerry once more,” she said, “and the only thing I could conclude is that this is not a good man." An overreaction, perhaps, but Kerry did come off in that exchange as politically manipulative and cold, very cold — a glimpse into at least one part of his personality that he is better off not showing on television.
Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.