Friday, June 25, 2004

Kerry Grows a Message

And it's firmly in the, uh, center, and that makes our friends at the DLC all smiley and warm inside.

Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council and a longtime Clinton aide, fretted openly during the heyday of Howard Dean last year that the party was moving to the left. Today, Mr. Reed describes Mr. Kerry approvingly as "a pragmatic centrist in the Clinton mode."

Familiar faces from the Clinton years, like the economic adviser Gene Sperling, are now at Mr. Kerry's side; James P. Rubin, a State Department spokesman in the Clinton years who advised Gen. Wesley K. Clark during the primaries, is now traveling with Mr. Kerry full time.

But Mr. Kerry's message also reflects a very different time from the 1990's, framed by three unsettling years of terrorism, war and political division. Mr. Kerry's favorite refrain these days is a plea to "let America be America again." It is a quotation from a Langston Hughes poem that he uses to evoke the idea of restoration - for the economy, for a tax code that he asserts is increasingly unjust, for the dreams of the middle class and, perhaps most of all, for the country's foreign policy.

The Langston Hughes line has received some attention in the slogan evaluation department already.

This Yahoo news story from early June (thanks to Phoblog reader Jared for the link) offers one message critic praising the line for suggesting that "someone's hijacked the country, without being a frontal attack."

The poem from which the line is taken, however, pairs the uplifting call with the certainly dissonant "America never was America to me." Not quite as uplifting as the confetti and balloons would have you believe, is it? As the article says, there was little in Hughes's 1938 America for a black American to celebrate - in the poem, the America-ing desired wouldn't have been a re-birth for Hughes, but a chance to finally be let into the America trumpeted in, mainstream (read: white) poetry, song, and art. As the article says:

That exegesis of Langston Hughes would puzzle Democratic delegates in Boston in July, vibrant with life and mission. And it wasn't just that Langston Hughes had had a one-night stand with skepticism, along the way to capturing the need to let America be America again. No, Mr. Hughes had a very specific view about history, and his view was clear on the question of which historical road America should travel:

"Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
"Beat it on away from here now.
"Make way for a new guy with no religion at all --
"A real guy named
"Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.

Langston Hughes was asking America to "be America again," meaning, not an America that history had known and chronicled, but an America realizable in a new and different vision. The land of Marx and Lenin and Stalin. Mr. Kerry's campaign team is going to have serious homework to do before introducing Langston Hughes as the poet laureate of the Democratic Party in 2004.

Of course, no one will educate delegates, or American voters, on Hughes: The Man, the Poetry, the Message. That's not how we work here. Pop culture borrows and, frequently, well, castrates any meaning from some of our most biting American art. I can't help but think of the Tommy Hilfiger commercials (or were they Ralph Lauren or Sears?) that open with the first line of CCR's "Fortunate Son". The line sounds great over shots of rainbow Americans in patriotic clothing, living it up in Martha's Vineyard: "Some folks are born made to wave the flag/Ooh, they're red white and blue."


Oh wait - what's the next line, kids?

"And when the band plays hail to the chief/Oof they point the cannon at you . . ."

Seriously, read the rest of the lyrics. They're selling you something that doesn't exist. Just like Kerry is selling an America that hasn't always existed for many people. It's not an awful thing to do, not even a gaffe - I'm a bright-eyed believer just like lots of other people. But the cultural evolution and coopting of heavily symbolic language should be noted.

Back to the NYT article - note this tagline - something I heard him use in NH in January:

And he invariably brings Democratic loyalists to their feet when he declares: "The United States of America should never go to war because it wants to. We should only go to war because we have to."

It's interesting that when it's a "wanting" to go to war situation, America is "it" - but when it's a "need" situation, America is "we." He's subtle but effective in the way he's alligned the rhetoric - the wanted war given to some other, outside force. The needed, patriotic, necessary endeavor is Ours.

This is what I don't get about Kerry. On the technical achievement score - the guy's 6s all the way. But artistically - the oompf he packs in a speech, just not there. At least not for me. When I was in New Hampshire, squeezed in a Nashua high school gym with hundreds of screaming Kerry fans, I was struck by how unmoved I was. I trust him more than Bush. I think he's more competent than Bush. But he is, to quote Plato (via Legally Blonde) "reason free from passion." There's art in his words - but not much in his heart.

Have I wandered off message? Yes and no. I should be an absolute booster for Kerry - not give any room to Reeps, or worse - Greens/3ds, to say "see, even YOU don't like Kerry." But that's not accurate either. We should all see by now that blind allegiance to anyone, cause, thing, mantra, philosophy, or strategy results at best in failure and at worst in blood-soaked failure. I will be reasonable and deliberative in my support for the almost-nominee. I will hold him to an extremely high standard. I will vote for him, campaign for him, do whatever I can for him. But I can also ask him to be better.

I want a message from him and I want one now. I don't want recycled DLC rhetoric - a "Wah wah neglected middle class" message that must grow to meet the awesome challenge we are facing in November. I want leadership. I want passion. I want - here it come - America to be America again. But before that can happen - I need Democrats to be Democrats again.

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