Kerry’s pundit problem: Is it really just the hair?
   by  Gene Lyons

Somewhat like Al Gore, presumptive presidential nominee John Kerry  appears to be developing a bit of a pundit problem.
Shortly before the Democratic primaries, an extraordinarily revealing article titled  something like "The Problem with John Kerry"
appeared in a magazine I read fairly regularly. According to the author, a longtime political journalist I won’t name, Kerry was
an arrogant, equivocating SOB who was too tall, too rich, traded too heavily on his Vietnam War heroism and had disturbingly
thick, wavy hair. His preoccupation with Kerry’s appearance struck me as so peculiar that I asked a computer-savvy friend to
Google a recent photo of the author. Could it be? Alas, it could. Exactly as you’d expect in a "Saturday Night Live" skit, the
pundit resembled the "before" photo in a Hair Club for Men infomercial. It appeared that Kerry, who is 6-foot-6, made him
feel very small. If amused, I also was embarrassed for the pundit’s sake. The most inane criticism journalists get is that they
envy some politician’s charisma or seek another’s favor. Despite a few would-be insiders who socialize with the powerful,
most live very different lives by choice.

But Kerry’s height? His hair, for heaven’s sake? Healthy adults leave such insecurities behind in high school. Reading this guy’s
columns felt like eavesdropping on a therapy session. So I quit. Now and then, I check to see if he’s developed other interests. Nope.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean Kerry has no image problems. Quite the opposite. See, an American presidential contest is
the ultimate reality TV show. While tallness is normally a good thing (the taller candidate has won more votes in every presidential
contest since 1976), and while the last bald president (Eisenhower) was elected before most Americans had TVs, the perception
of aloofness can be hard to shake. In that sense, the pundit was Everyman.

Almost the entire GOP case against him boils down to this: John Kerry’s a two-faced, pseudo-intellectual aristocrat who thinks
he’s better than you. That’s how come President Bush’s surrogates have been so busy digging up absurd "controversies" about
Kerry’s heroic military record and his subsequent actions as a prominent activist with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

They’ve even gone so far as to question whether Kerry deserved the first of his three Purple Hearts—an "issue" laid to rest when
the one-time Navy swift boat commander authorized the full release of his service and medical records. They showed shrapnel
being dug out of his arm after a very hairy firefight with Viet Cong insurgents. A similar battle later earned him the Silver Star for valor.

His citation for the Bronze Star, which Kerry earned along with his third Purple Heart in March 1969, describes him ordering his boat back
into a hail of fire to rescue a Green Beret who’d fallen overboard.  "Lt. Kerry directed his gunners to provide suppressing fire," it says,
"while from an exposed position on the bow, his arm bleeding and in pain, with disregard for his personal safety, he pulled the man aboard."

Jim Rassmann, the soldier whose life Kerry saved, turned up unannounced in Iowa to volunteer for his campaign. Nominally a Republican,
Rassmann’s incredulous that anybody would question the man’s courage. In Douglas Brinkley’s book, "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the
Vietnam War," Kerry’s former shipmates all but unanimously praise his leadership. To them, he was no snob at all.
Interestingly, nobody mentioned his hair.

The effort to sully Kerry’s war record failing, attention was next directed to his activities as a protester. To a noisy minority, exercising
democratic rights during wartime is tantamount to treason. Needless to say, Kerry won’t be getting their votes. But if he could be shown
to have behaved badly as a war protester, maybe his heroic image could be dirtied for others.

Last Monday, ABC News began running a Web headline reading, "Medal Dispute, EXCLUSIVE: Did Kerry lie about Vietnam War medals?"
One of its authors was Chris Vlasto, a producer who also got a lot of exclusives during Kenneth Starr’s heyday. After some questioned
whether ABC had ever used the "L word" to describe Bush, the headline was discreetly altered to read: "Medal Dispute, EXCLUSIVE:
Why did Kerry change story about Vietnam medals?" At issue were some ambiguous remarks Kerry made during a 1971 TV interview.
Had he thrown away all his medals during a dramatic protest by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or only some ribbons? And so what?
one might ask more than 30 years later. Rather than quibble, Kerry aggressively returned rhetorical fire. He asked when Bush will get around
to proving he showed up for National Guard duty. If he’d wanted to be an arrogant SOB, however, Kerry might have asked what Bush and
Dick Cheney did with their medals.

• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.

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