The Nominee

Andrew O’Hagan at the Democratic National Convention

The old lady in the Sunday hat was telling her grandson the day was too hot for sale or rent. And just as she said this and wiped the backs of her hands with a Wet Wipe, a dog came padding down the opposite sidewalk before slowing to a halt outside the green house at 83 Beals Street, the house where John Kennedy was born. The windows on the ground floor had curtains of Irish lace. ‘That dog has no right to be walking over there,’ said the lady.

The young man smiled and snapped his fingers. ‘Dog got no sense of history,’ he said, then he laughed.

‘And you got none neither,’ she said, pressing the tissue into her sleeve.

Only ten minutes’ walk from the Kennedy house in Brookline, another house, quite grey behind a long line of elegant and stately trees, stands a little undressed in the afternoon’s heat. This is 10 Downing Road, near the corner of Washington Street. The house looks abandoned, dark inside, as if its stories had only recently moved to another place. It once belonged to a man called Frederick Kerry – real name, Fritz Kohn – who had come to America from what is now the Czech Republic, and whose grandson, John Kerry, returned to his native Boston this week to accept the Democratic nomination for president. Frederick Kerry made and lost three fortunes in America, but losing the last one had left him without a name: consequently, around lunchtime on 23 November 1921, he walked into the men’s room of the Copley Plaza Hotel downtown and shot himself through the head. One local paper reported that Mr Kerry was ‘unhinged’; another said he was ‘weakened and depressed’.

Today the hotel is busy with delegates to the Democratic National Convention; they sit in the Oak Bar reading the Boston newspapers, credentials swinging, and some of them drink whisky at 12 dollars a pop. None of them knows about John Kerry’s grandfather, but they know a lot about John Kerry himself: his name is printed on every other surface (badges, T-shirts, placards, key-rings) and his face grins expectantly from the front pages. In the park outside, someone had laid out 907 pairs of boots on the grass, each marking an American soldier who died in Iraq. Two sets of boots had flowers spilling over the tongues:

L Cpl John Van Gyzen IV. 21. MA.
Pt 1 Cl Gregory Huxley. 19. NY.

The number of dead is mentioned on a board, but the figure ‘907’ is printed on a piece of paper that flutters in the breeze; every small gust allows you to see the number ‘906’ underneath. A heap of shoes stands by the path to represent the unlistable deaths of 16,000 Iraqis.

The Boston afternoon, with its atmosphere of electioneering and death, brings to mind the insistent taps of Robert Lowell’s ‘For the Union Dead’:

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year –
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns.

Senator John Forbes Kerry, the nominee, didn’t spring like that other JFK from the Irish-American world his name might suggest, but partly from the universe conjured in the work of Robert Lowell: Brahmin Boston, the old churches, graveyards, and the later turmoil of Vietnam. The Winthrops, one of the Republic’s founding families, are fairly heavy on Kerry’s mother’s side and his kinsman Robert Charles Winthrop was a senator for Massachusetts in 1850. Lowell’s portrait of that society, ‘91 Revere Street’, creaks with patrician relatives and Edwardian furniture, people with large trust funds and profound neuroses, ‘an unspoiled faith in the superior efficiency of northern nations’, and with a shy and fumbling languor that lives to this day at the heart of Old Boston. John Kerry’s house on Beacon Hill has guards outside it for the duration of the Convention, but he hardly needs them: he has old guards which stand to attention in his DNA.

Kerry once said his childhood had been a life of summers, but with ‘no permanence . . . no roots’; it might also be described as love in a Cold War climate. The earlier part involved Brittany, a large family house at Saint-Briac, and Berlin, where his father served as US Attorney. Kerry was the cosmopolitan, French-speaking child of high-hoping Americans, and he still gives the impression of being someone who has spent too many hours doing prep. At St Paul’s School in Concord (paid for by his great-aunt Clara Winthrop), Kerry was, as a trio of Boston Globe reporters describe him in the first published biography of the Nominee,[1] ‘a Catholic in an Episcopalian school, and a Kennedy fan on a campus dominated by Republicans’. Since childhood, Kerry’s attempts to be popular have been hampered by a weakness that causes his displays of innocence to seem premeditated.

People came to the 2004 Democratic Convention not quite knowing John Kerry, and not quite liking him either. Heavily supported by Edward Kennedy (and by Bill Clinton since the Wesley Clark machine puffed its last), Kerry is famous for having none of Kennedy’s backslapping, song-singing, law-making brio, and very little of Clinton’s natural empathy and charisma. People noticed Kerry, they even trusted him, but they didn’t necessarily like him, not in the let’s-split-a-beer kind of way that matters to so many American voters. Through the primaries, everyone said he could be aloof and cold, stiff and ambitious. His official job was to accept his party’s nomination, but the grand, unstated task was to make himself liked by people who were inclined not to like him. ‘He needs to hit a home run,’ said Martha, a delegate from Georgia with Kerry’s grin on her hat. ‘He needs to show himself.’

High above the Convention floor, snug in their net sacks, 100,000 biodegradable balloons were ready for action. The great hall was flooded with the glare of insincerity: arc lights, monitors, the lamps of the world that brighten and recede. Every state in the union plays its part, hollering and placarding for their own, with a sense of being very democratically photographed, as if chosen by the cameras in an orderly fashion. ‘This is what it’s like in America,’ says a young man with a foam cheese on his head. ‘The camera just picks you out and you end up on the video screen! You look up and it’s you everybody’s seeing.’ Presentation is ultra-slick, Oscar-like, every snippet, hush and panegyric squeezed between roars of unanimous applause and chunks of hi-energy disco music. More garish than a Mexican funeral, the Convention floor has swaying rows of evangelical grandmothers above an action-painting of shivering flags; tier upon tier of gleeful Democrats love the TelePrompted wisdom eddying out from the podium, and everywhere you look you find yourself staring at half-chewed doughnuts and Dr Peppers, lipstuck TV anchors and broken hot-dogs, Hollywood actors and P. Diddies, a prime-time pageant of the trashy and the principled.

Up on the stage, Senator Joe Biden was misquoting Yeats. Mavis Staples sang ‘America the Beautiful’. At one point, the screen filled up with the face of John Kennedy and his voice emerged giving his ‘Let the word go forth’ speech. At times, the hall became to me like the inside of the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with flashing lights timed so as to communicate new hope to the aliens. The dais went up and down to accommodate the varying heights of the speakers. A young man sat on the floor surrounded by thousands, reading Time magazine, his finger hovering over a sentence by Joe Klein. ‘Kerry is an oddly elusive character for a national politician.’ Maya Angelou spread her arms and jiggled her earrings and said: ‘Shine America! Shine! Shine them in!’ And Edward Kennedy, voice breaking, gnarled and cosy as an old lion, told the Convention that ‘America must be a light to the world and under John Kerry and John Edwards, that’s what America will be.’

In the days before Kerry appeared, the podium groaned with traffic that came and went to proclaim his greatness. Al Gore spoke with a face as burgundy as his tie. Controlled and not-angry, he made non-jokes about his non-defeat in 2000. ‘I love this country deeply,’ he said. Jimmy Carter came on to the tune of ‘Georgia on My Mind’, and said: ‘After 9/11, America stood proud . . . but in just 34 months we have watched with deep concern as this good will has been squandered by a virtually unbroken series of mistakes . . . At stake is nothing less than our nation’s soul.’ Hillary Clinton appeared in a canary yellow trouser suit and the crowd went mad. ‘Kerry knows very well,’ she said, ‘you have to lead the world, not alienate it.’ Then she introduced Bill, who hugged his wife and smooched the crowd with notions of Kerry’s bravery and the wonders of his programme to get America back on track.

‘Kerry’s more radical isn’t he?’ I said to the person from South Dakota standing next to me.

‘He’s a brave soldier,’ said the man.

‘But he’ll tax the top 2 per cent to pay for jobs and health insurance.’

‘Like Clinton,’ said the man.

‘No,’ I thought. ‘That was something Clinton failed to do.’

‘Both radical,’ said the man, nodding towards Clinton on the podium. ‘Both want to make America work with the United Nations.’

‘Funny,’ I said. ‘That’s now a radical position.’ To the man’s eyes I was deflating like an escaped balloon and he was shining with love for Clinton.

‘Great the way they hugged each other,’ he said.

There was a strange sense during the first three days of the Convention that people were conjuring a void, that they were using the words ‘John Kerry’ to describe it, nobody being sure what his nomination would represent. Kerry was invisible, a force striding towards Boston to make himself new; he was a mood over the wires – hopeful, ambitious for change, well-meaning – but as the hours of tributes ran on you began to wonder if this liberal paragon was merely a liberal apparition, and even as that apparition came riding up the Charles River in the company of his Vietnam buddies, it seemed he might never step out of his own myth and become solid. At that point his biography was a rumour, his politics an attempt to pour old wine into shattered bottles. We all preferred the idea of John Kerry, but he lived in that idea in the way a whisper lives inside a squall: could he now bring the fragments of himself together in a hailstorm of balloons and confetti?

John Kerry is a subject for Theodore Dreiser. The dimensions of his personality, the orderly force of his background, the keenness of his ambition, his moral weight and shape: it might require a novelist like Dreiser to play with the psychic arithmetic which had brought the Massachusetts politician to this pretty pass. Kerry was a young man whose leadership instincts were so apparent at Yale that his friends used to play ‘Hail to the Chief’ on kazoos when he entered the den. He travelled to hear his hero JFK speak and later sailed with him in Narragansett Bay. He taught himself to fly and had a go at looping-the-loop under the Golden Gate Bridge. He expressed doubts about American policy towards Vietnam, but signed up anyway, becoming skipper of a Swift Boat and suffering several injuries, saving several lives, before pursuing and killing an adversary who was threatening his crew with a grenade. He won three Purple Hearts and Silver and Bronze Stars. ‘You think again of losing all that is in front of you,’ he wrote. But Kerry was someone with more in front of him, in his own view, than the world could easily cater to. Whatever else it will be about, the coming election will include among its mysteries the story of a man who has been trying to become president since he was eight years old.

Kerry arrived in the convention hall and was wafted like a prize fighter towards the stage. Expectation bestows its own gravity on a presumptive leader, and Kerry seemed to radiate optimism and certainty as he glided through the arches of outstretched hands, smiling for all he was worth and introducing soft populist punches into the air. Kerry’s invisibility was over: the flash of numberless cameras had brought him suddenly into being; his famous aloofness turned rapidly to gravity; his patrician manner seemed quickly apropos. You could see American molecules warming instantly towards him, and when the balloons dropped from the ceiling they looked just like molecules hopping with festivity, microscopic matter on the move at the conclusion of some great scientific test. By the time he arrived at the dais and opened his mouth he had already seemed like the 44th president of the United States. ‘I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty,’ he said.

John Kerry’s rightness for the job in 2004 is a testament not only to the wrongness of George W. Bush, but to the ripeness of Kerry’s own blend of American values, and a mix of policies which have emerged from a very distinctive kind of natural selection. The ideas he sells (and which now sell him) are the ones he judges will be least unacceptable to the public. It has been a mainstay of the Kerry psychology – the instinct for what will make him palatable in the long term – and it is an instinct he has exercised, not always uncynically, at Yale and in Vietnam, as well as in his later career decision to become a prosecutor rather than a defence lawyer, and at every turn in his senatorial career. He is not a man of principle, but he must know that a man of principle is unlikely to be elected president of the United States now, and further, that no American president is ever as much a man of principle as legend would hope. Abraham Lincoln was the very thing Kerry is accused of being by his opponents, a ‘flip-flopper’, someone who moved his emphasis, or changed his description of what he was doing, or just plain changed his position, according to how the wind was blowing. ‘I will say, then,’ Lincoln said during the 1858 campaign for the Senate, ‘that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.’ Lincoln was a Republican, of course, but John Kerry’s journey has been a very modern one for a Democrat, a journey around every aspect of himself and every issue pressing in America, cutting and rounding and paring away as he goes, making jigsaw pieces from everything about himself and everything climbing up the polls, until a picture emerges at the centre of the puzzle: the face of a man who knows enough about compromise to be elected president.

Meetings were taking place in dusty rooms all over Boston. Just as Democratic royalty were gathering for a Sunday clambake at what people call the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, the Old West Church was echoing with anxious chatter but not with Democratic ghosts – more with a sense of hollowness abounding. The writer Arianna Huffington quoted John Kerry’s kinsman John Winthrop. ‘We must,’ she said, ‘bear one another’s burdens.’

‘Can I just say that John Winthrop was a slave-holder,’ said a man with a white ponytail, an old friend of Abbie Hoffman.

Al Franken was on the panel. Liberals in America now are often very like Al Franken, intellectuals who are moved to think of the opposition only in terms of their being liars and murderers and fascists and thieves. Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing fanner of hatreds who presents a popular radio show, has helped to make liberals into extremists after his own heart. Al Franken knows nothing about power. Like many people in the American media now, he imagines that celebrity is the only true marker of power, and he deals in the sort of belligerent, accusatory, semi-comedic liberalism that Michael Moore has turned into a cult that nets hundreds of millions of dollars.[2] Delegates at the Convention were much keener to meet Moore than they were to meet Howard Dean, who had led the field among the candidates for the nomination until he found himself coming over a bit crazed on television. Moore spent much of the week sitting next to Jimmy Carter in a private part of the convention centre’s dress circle.

John Kerry’s liberalism has had to walk through fire and he knows never to forget it. He came back from Vietnam a hero, but he augmented and complicated that heroism by turning against the war, and this has become both the central plank and the bar to his appeal. The 1960s were everywhere at this Convention, in references to Vietnam and Martin Luther King, but also in notions of protest and togetherness. A priest stood up in the Cathedral Church of St Paul’s in Tremont Street. ‘Don’t let people rob us of a legacy,’ he said. ‘That religion and progressiveness can be something not just for right-wing agendas.’ He was followed by a woman who read a Howl-style poem about the injustices of Wal-Mart. The speakers mentioned Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, The Beatles. Dennis Kucinich, a small, birdlike man with strong views and sharp claws, the only candidate for the nomination who had voted against the war and the Patriot Act, knew how to rouse a Boston audience. ‘We didn’t flee an empire to become an empire,’ he shouted. ‘There shall be no limitation on freedom of speech. We have to continue to challenge the status quo whether it is run by Democrats or Republicans.’ The old-style liberals pressed forward to touch the hem of his coat. ‘It is so essential for us to oppose the group-think which causes us to feel we live in a security state,’ he said, and Kucinich is certainly a kind of answer: he advocates teach-ins, talks about ‘the degradation of our Constitution’, and has the heart to spell out the lies and bunglings of the Bush shower. After his speech the crowd was on its feet. Jesse Jackson appeared like a pantomime ghost from behind Kucinich and the progressives stood on their chairs. ‘What do George Bush and John Kerry have in common?’ Jackson asked. ‘Answer: they both want to be elected president for the first time in November.’ Jackson has the ability to look exhausted nowadays, as if the dampening of his greatest hopes had left him with a permanent chill. A great wow at the Convention – and a man who must now accept the mantle of possible future black president – is Barak Obama, a lean young fighting machine of the left, who will soon join the Senate representing Illinois. Obama already seems like the answer to a question as yet unformed by the Democrats: what is the future if Kerry loses?

Kerry presents a problem for those to the left of Obama. How do you protest against a protester? The young people on the Boston Common came along with their guitars and beads, their black bandanas and zany hair, but it seemed only modern that for each activist there were at least two camera crews. The people who came to reject the Democratic Convention were either anti-abortionists – caged next to the FleetCenter in a Fort Apache-style ‘protest bunker’ – or else the youngsters on the Boston Common hopped up on the music of Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine, kids who believe in the environment, the internet and MP3s. They present a simulacrum of 1960s protest energies: Dylan songs, ethnic scarves, hating the pigs, loving old slogans (‘There’s no justice, there’s just us’). But all in all the drumbeats on the Boston Common couldn’t muster more than sixty people, a very light version of the kind of movement that initially brought Kerry to a position of power. An anti-war protest on the same piece of ground in the late 1960s drew 100,000 people, but the young things on the Common couldn’t understand why those people weren’t joining them now.

‘They’re too busy running for president.’

‘Hmm. Whatever,’ said the girl on the Frida Bus, a long painted school bus that runs on vegetable oil. It usually lives in Portland, Maine, the girl tells me. ‘We drive it to demonstrations all over the country.’ In the bus there’s a sofa and tables, a fridge full of organic fruit-juice and a shelf of children’s books about rainbows and snow. A helicopter seemed to be overhead the whole time. Anya, the girl, is very rational, correct, orderly, non-deranged; nobody seems to drink or take acid and everybody around the Frida Bus speaks like a young lawyer.

‘Well, he is a sort of a phoney, isn’t he?’ Richard Nixon said of the young Vietnam veteran John Kerry in 1971, when Kerry was proving effective in turning opinion against the war. There was later a question about whether, among other things, the Watergate burglars had gone looking for material on Kerry. But even as a hero of the campaign to end American involvement in Vietnam, Kerry was never a natural radical or a peacenik; his background and his neat haircut legislated against that. But in America now it is the record of his active service – and his later courage in taking a very public stand on a very unpopular war – that makes him electable. The military-minded respect him, they trust him, which increasingly means that Middle America might trust him too. Nearly every person who stepped up to back Kerry in Boston mentioned his courage and his capacity for strong leadership. That is money in the bank for any politician seeking high office in America. Even yet, the biggest strike against Bush is his non-appearance in Vietnam, and Kerry knows how to exploit that. He parades his service as the most glittering item on his CV, and it is working. In the Fleetcenter, he was called to give his speech by a friend and war veteran who had lost his legs. That’s showbusiness, and no matter how cheesy, it has enormous force when it comes to sharpening the narrative: people are beginning to believe that Kerry is not a light-eyed parvenu or a liberal elitist, but a man of destiny.

There were guns at the door. Lightning overhead. General Wesley Clark was about to address a group of forty industrialists and politicians in a private room at the Suffolk University Law School. Two tall congressmen sipped water in the last row. ‘This Convention is all about the parties,’ one of them said. ‘Cocktails. I just can’t do that anymore.’

‘You’re right. It’s all voodoo bars and weird drinks. What did you think of Teresa’s speech?’ He was talking about Teresa Heinz Kerry, the nominee’s wonderfully unwilling and accident-prone wife, who had told a Pittsburgh editor to ‘shove it’.

‘It was a bit passionless,’ the colleague said. ‘That’s what everybody’s been saying.’

‘Well yes,’ said the other. ‘But nobody’s voting for the First Lady.’

The room was no more than 75 feet square but displayed no fewer than ten American flags. ‘We’re here to discuss national security and the war on terror,’ said Congressman Marty Meehan. ‘But before we start I’d like the veterans in this audience to stand up and take a round of applause.’ Also in on the discussion were Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress in 1974, Congressman Ike Skelton of Missouri, the Ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, and Claudia Kennedy, a three-star general and the only woman ever to achieve that rank in the US army. They quickly came to the conclusion that the running of the war is a disaster – Iraq is a quagmire costing $200 billion a year and zapping military resources and personnel, and the War on Terror is a phantom operation, misguided and failing. But it was in this discussion that the most intelligent thing I heard over the course of the whole convention emerged. Insiders say it reflects Kerry’s foreign policy ideas entirely (and some say Lt Gen. Kennedy will be asked to be the secretary of defense in a Kerry government).

Clark: The government has overstretched the army and marine corps on the ground. We’re already 40,000 military personnel short of what we need, and giving $10,000 to $15,000 to these people to make them re-enlist. But they’re not going to do it year after year. We have a problem. We’ve got two years to fix the volunteer force before the bill comes in. That team in Washington just can’t do the job.

Skelton: These are difficult days. I had Jimmy Carter’s former security secretary in my office the other day and he said he’d never been so worried about the international situation as he was today. This is a man who worked through the Cold War.

Kennedy: One of the flaws in this government is about how we come to our decisions. At the top level in American government we seem only able to make decisions in a crisis. We need much more granularity – we need to look at finer shades of grey. We understand ‘hardware’ – weapons – in this country but we don’t understand the soft elements of power, which have to do with ideas and cultural understanding when it comes to other nations. We need to look at more abstract ways of mapping our world. ‘A war on . . .’ is not a subtle or good way to go about public affairs: ‘a war on drugs, a war on poverty’. We need to have a new definition of national security in this country. Do we actually have national security when we have poor education, poor race relations, poor ideas, poverty. I think it’s not just about weaponry, but about having a good understanding of foreign relations as well as life at home. These things enhance security: it’s a far bigger question than the budget for weaponry.

Lt Gen. Kennedy is speaking for Kerry. But in an America so comprehensively seduced by fear, the Nominee will have a lot to do, even with his shrapnel wounds and Purple Hearts, to convince the American public that a change in cultural attitudes (rather than more missiles) is needed if America is to outwit the hatreds it has tended to promote. ‘It’s not going to be an easy task for the new president,’ said John Murtha. ‘This administration created a dynamic of conflict in the region by making this "axis of evil” thing. He will have to turn off the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians.’

‘Yes,’ said Wesley Clark. ‘But we’d better be thinking about the draft and have it as a fallback. This administration was told it was wrecking the US army. Their policy has damaged the volunteer force and that will only be answered by a draft.’

From a window in the building where they discussed Kerry’s military future you can see the durable graves in the Old Granary Burying Ground. Lopsided, sunken, the tablets are made of local slate and each memorial has its share of sunlight and moss. If you use your thumb you can rub the dirt away and see a name. Ezra Dribble. Benjamin Bangs. Mary Goose. ‘Two of the 9/11 planes took off from Boston,’ said a gardener to some Japanese students on my left, and the graves continued to give up their Puritan names, a litany that spoke of a Boston not that many times removed from our world of presidential candidates and hijacked planes.

John Kerry has shown himself to be both a warhorse and someone with the judgment to see when a war is wrong. He did not support the first Gulf War (but applauded Bush Snr when it went well for America) and he reluctantly supported the second (but disliked the manner in which it was conducted and voted against awarding the funds to prosecute it further). This either makes Kerry a politician with nuanced feeling and understanding, or it makes him the ‘flip-flopper’, the ‘opportunist’, the ‘straddler’, the ‘phoney’ that those who oppose him have always said he was. He knows how to give his audiences the brand of hope they are addicted to. He knows how to play the bravery card in an era of fear. He is beginning to understand the old-style Democratic populism that was stolen in recent decades by the Right, and, more important, he can see how the Right were able to steal it and make it their own.[3] Kerry may be the ultimate protean man, breathing consensus, providing a listening ear, while all the while redrawing the lines of battle and survival. He is beginning to look and think like a winner, and he knows it, Bush knows it, the delegates at the Democratic National Convention knew it too, and there is no greater aphrodisiac than the whiff of a possible success.

Kerry managed to make himself liked at the Convention. For those present, it was a tone-triumph, a message-triumph, an image-triumph, almost a let’s-split-a-beer triumph, and the Democratic Party has perhaps never been as united as it is now. The 2004 presidential race sees a pair of lawyers, Kerry and Edwards, a prosecutor and a litigator, attempt to face down a couple of discredited oil men, Bush and Cheney. The hope is that John Kerry may finally know something about the American people and that he may possess the secret of how to live above and beyond his compromises. The test of his life will be how dextrously and how ethically he is able both to make and withhold the kinds of concession that might bring him the presidency. He is already a supporter of the Patriot Act, a supporter of several foreign invasions, an opponent of affirmative action, yet the programme laid out in his speech called for the richest to pay more and the poorest to do better for themselves within a framework of good jobs and guaranteed healthcare. He aims to make America a freer, fairer and more likeable place: they all say that, but Kerry will not be able to unsay it, as Clinton did when he signed off on the Defense of Marriage Act, when he cut benefits to poor families under the rubric of ‘welfare reform’, and when he killed a proposal to spend $5 billion to improve America’s schools. Kerry’s combination of features, the pressure of his background, his political nature, will require him to end Bush’s unilateralist disasters, but also, most crucially for him, to question in some larger way the wisdom of seeing America as a warfare state in a corporate dream.

One afternoon I found Robert Kennedy Jr sitting alone at a signing table, waiting for people to buy his book. Every now and then someone would appear, but most of them didn’t want books, they wanted a photograph or a closer look. Kennedy just sat there dark-eyed and bored, and eventually he took out his mobile phone and made a few calls. In one of the back corridors of the Sheraton I came across the actor Ben Affleck crouched down next to a disabled black youth in a wheelchair, holding his hand. Affleck, who is looking more moderately groomed since he split up with Jennifer Lopez, just nodded his waxy head as the man told his story. ‘The state of Massachusetts doesn’t like disabled people,’ said the man.

‘No,’ says Affleck.

‘Don’t kid yourself,’ said the man. ‘They don’t like us.’

‘Is that a Federal position?’

‘I think so. Now. Yes.’

‘I’m going to try to do something about that,’ Affleck said. ‘I’m gonna do what I can to make people aware of that. John Kerry will not stand by and see people suffer.’

On the last night of the Convention, all Kerry’s Vietnam buddies were there to backslap him up to the podium. ‘The kind of people who know who you really are,’ said the Nominee. There was no sign of the activists who helped him end that war, or who helped him normalise relations with Vietnam afterwards; no sightings of the people who helped him hound the Contras during his early years as a senator; and no evidence of the Socratic dialogues for which he is famous among his staff. Kerry is a man for all seasons, but he knows it will be his bold winters of combat that could bring him to the door of the Oval Office. ‘My fellow Americans,’ the Nominee said, rising to the moment he has dreamed of for fifty years. ‘This is the most important election of our lifetime. The stakes are high. We are a nation at war – a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before. And here at home, wages are falling, healthcare costs are rising, and our great middle class is shrinking.’

‘During the 1980s,’ said an antic commentator beneath the Convention stage, ‘Senator Kerry voted against the Republican administration almost 80 per cent of the time!’

‘That’s not the issue. Not today,’ said a Massachusetts delegate speaking nearby as the balloons began to fall. ‘He knows a few things about survival – his own, other people’s. Help is on the way. That’s the only story here. Help is on the way.’

[1] John F. Kerry by Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton (Public Affairs Reports, 449 pp., $14.95, April, 1 58648 273 4).

[2] People who want to know more should read Franken’s book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (Penguin, 425 pp., £7.99, August 0 14 101780 5).

[3] A brilliant assessment of this tendency is contained in Thomas Frank’s new book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. It will be reviewed here by Anatol Lieven.