TCS Daily

Thinker in Chief

By Ryan H. Sager - October 18, 2004 12:00 AM

If there's one thing John Kerry has proven over the course of this campaign, it's that he would be well suited to join the last two losing Democratic presidential nominees in academia. How else to explain his comments to The New York Times Magazine last Sunday that Americans need to get back to a place where terrorists are "a nuisance"?

Kerry may believe this. It may even be true. But the sheer fact that he would say it shows that he doesn't understand the nature of the office he seeks. Kerry seems to think that he is auditioning for the job of thinker in chief, or debater in chief -- but there's a reason the president is called the commander in chief. His job is to project the nation's strength and resolve, not its weakness and doubts.

Democrats, it's safe to say, don't fully grasp this; or, they simply disagree with it. They complain that their candidates -- such as Michael Dukakis (political science professor at Northeastern) and Al Gore (visiting journalism professor at Columbia) -- get unfairly labeled as "eggheads,"

unable to connect with the common man.

"But how could a president be too smart?" they ask. Bill Clinton and Dick Nixon come to mind, but that's a digression.

Take Kerry's nuisance comment. On one level, it's easy to feel sorry for the guy. He's making an honest and serious point: Terrorism, to the extent that it can be constituted by any extremist strapping a bomb to himself or herself and blowing up civilians, cannot be eradicated; the best we can hope to do is keep it to a low level and prevent any major (read: nuclear) attacks.

For his honesty, Kerry has been subjected over the last week to no end of abuse in the media -- and not just on the conservative side. In perhaps the most devastating political cartoon of the race, Mike Ramirez of The Los Angeles Times drew Kerry standing among the wreckage of the Twin Towers. The words in Kerry's speech bubble: "What a nuisance..."

This may be unfair in a literal sense; Kerry's not calling 9/11 or any given terrorist attack a nuisance. But in a broader sense, it is entirely fair.

Leave it to the professional thinkers, debaters and talkers -- the think-tank wonks, the professors, even the Congress -- to pontificate about the nuances of what victory in the War on Terror will look like. All that Americans want from their president is for him to tell them how he's going to fight the war -- and, in Kerry's case, frankly, to reassure them that he's going to fight it at all.

Take, for two other examples, how Kerry has handled himself with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Iraq, of course, Kerry has consistently criticized President Bush for alienating our allies (read: Germany and France), while at the same time insulting our coalition partners as a "so-called coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought, and the extorted." Again, it's not that Kerry doesn't have a point, it's that he's so intent on scoring it that he's willing to throw the diplomacy he so famously considers himself skilled at to the wind.

An incident that underscored this trait of Kerry's further -- largely forgotten, a distant month after the fact -- was his despicable attack on Iraq' Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, moments after the leader of the newly free nation addressed a joint session of Congress. "The prime minister and the president are here obviously to put their best face on the policy, but the fact is that the CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story," Kerry said. "The United States and the Iraqis have retreated from whole areas of Iraq ... There are no-go zones in Iraq today. You can't hold an election in a no-go zone."

Again, it's not that Kerry doesn't have the right, even responsibility, to criticize. It's that he seems to have absolutely no concept of when it's appropriate to complain versus when it's appropriate to stand steadfastly with a man leading a fledgling government under daily threat of assassination.

Along those lines, it is also amazing that Kerry sent John Edwards out, four days before Afghanistan's first ever democratic election, to give a dour assessment of that nation's progress in the vice presidential debate. "Not only are they providing 75 percent of the world's opium, large-cut parts of the country are under the control of drug lords and warlords. Big parts of the country are still insecure," Edwards said.

In retrospect, the elections went off without a hitch; but it certainly wasn't the vote of confidence interim President Hamid Karzai -- or the election process itself, for that matter -- needed at the time.

There's a way to run for president, criticizing the present while providing a vision for the future, without sounding like the head of the Yale Political Union. But Kerry hasn't hit on it yet. He could still win, but this election season would have gone better for him had he come in understanding the difference between being right and leading people in the right direction.

Ryan Sager edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections. He can be reached at


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