The conventional wisdom throughout this campaign is that, whether you support Kerry or Bush, the latter comes across as the man with whom most people would prefer to have a beer, that somehow he is more likeable and warm than John Kerry. Even though I tend to disagree with assessments of Kerry that he seems standoffish or aloof and personally find him quite affable, I suppose that likeability is in the eye of the beholder.
However, when confronted once again last night with Bush’s snarkiness, bad jokes, flippant attitude, and unpreparedness (as James Wolcott noted, Kerry once again had a great command of local issues while Bush seemed barely aware of where he was) juxtaposed against Kerry’s poise and professionalism, I realized that the souls of these two men can be found less in peers of adulthood (such as the aforementioned drinking buddy) and more in those of childhood.
There are times in your childhood when you learn grown-up lessons. One of those times is when you find yourself a part of the playground audience of a bully. Maybe you find the victim of the bullying disagreeable in some way, or maybe you find him strange or awkward, or maybe you are glad for his persecution, because it is all that stands between your being the target, but whatever the reasons, you find yourself laughing along until some teacher or other breaks it up.
Occasionally, though, there is the rare and wonderful bird among us who knows better, does better, even as a child. There is the classmate who breaks the circle and rescues the picked-on child, who says, “Come on – come play over here with me.” In that moment, the spell is broken, the audience parts, as victim and rescuer wander away, two oddballs that shame everyone they leave behind, leaving them with their guilt and, inevitably, envy.
It may be true that Bush is the prankster, the class clown, the bully who gets by on charm and succeeds as long as people are afraid. But it is Kerry who is willing to step in and take the mistreated by the hand, to do the right thing even if it’s not easy, to be honorable rather than amusing. That is the difference between power and strength, and it is a distinction that Bush will never understand.