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A Bit More On Kerry And Mccain

Like pretty much everyone else, I was very impressed with Kerry's speech last night. In trying to figure out why he seems to have found his voice four years after he could have really used it, I think it's hard to understate just how personally betrayed he feels by McCain.

In a way, there was no bigger believer in "the myth of a maverick" McCain, as Kerry put it in last night's speech, than Kerry himself. The mere facts of their friendship, beautifully told here by James Carroll, seemed to serve as proof to Kerry that McCain was someone who possessed almost mythical character traits. But, in the last four years, Kerry, perhaps more than anyone, has come to see in McCain, as he put it last night, "the reality of a politician."

I tried to get at this a bit in the Kerry profile I wrote for the current issue:

[I]n 2004, Kerry approached McCain about being his running mate. But, when McCain said no, and news of Kerry's interest wound up in the press, Kerry felt betrayed. "The inability to get together on the veep thing was not a problem," says one Kerry adviser. "The fact that the McCain folks decided to leak it all was." (Weaver, who was McCain's chief strategist at the time, denies that charge and believes the leak came from Democrats opposed to McCain's joining the ticket.) Things went further down hill when McCain, after initially denouncing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against Kerry as "dishonest" and "dishonorable," refused to let Kerry use his image in rebuttal ads and then went on to vigorously campaign for Bush. "Kerry really believed that Band of Brothers bullshit," says one Democratic strategist. "He thought that he and McCain had come to a soulful understanding of each other that was strong and permanent and meaningful, and it clearly wasn't for McCain."

Kerry insists that his disagreements with McCain aren't personal. But he seems personally wounded by the political road McCain has been traveling of late. "I'm not unfriendly to John," Kerry told me in a resigned tone. "I do think he's taken a turn that I don't find in keeping with John McCain, the maverick, independent pre-2004. ... I think he's been catering to interests that have led us astray the last few years." Kerry's brother, Cam, says, "The sort of general public disappointment in McCain"--at least among Democrats who once admired him--"translates on a personal level for John." Kerry recalled a breakfast he and McCain had in early 2005 at the Capitol Hill restaurant La Colline, where the two talked over the presidential campaign. He said McCain told him, "Sometimes you disappoint your friends."

The thing that we often forget about defeated presidential candidates is that, after they lose, they live in a world of constant counter-factuals. You saw that clearly enough in Mike Dukakis's remarks the other night that he blames himself for the last eight years since, had he only beaten George H.W. Bush 20 years ago, his son would never have been elected.

So you have to believe that the last four years have been difficult ones for Kerry. Watching the horrors of Katrina on TV, he had to think, If only I were president. Attending the funeral of Massachusetts soldiers and marines killed in Iraq, he had to think, If only I were president. And when you consider that, four years ago, Kerry (according to some friends and advisers) evidently convinced himself that, by making McCain his running mate, he would be forming an unbeatable political ticket, you have to imagine that, in some way, he blames McCain for his defeat--and, as is the fate of all defeated presidential candidates, that he therefore blames McCain for all the problems of the world that he believes his presidency would have prevented or solved. If that isn't enough to help someone find his voice, I don't know what is.

--Jason Zengerle