If only he hadn't smiled. Appearing on "The Late Show with David Letterman" Monday night, John Kerry opened with a pointed, nasty joke, saying that during the upcoming debates, Bush will be sitting on Cheney's lap. It took a second to sink in. And then, just as you were asking yourself, "Did he really say that?", Kerry broke into a friendly "just kidding" smile, and it was as if he hadn't said it at all.
What he needed in the aftermath of that line was to show that he wasn't kidding. A sardonic grin, or better yet no grin at all, something that would have said to the Bush junta, "Yeah, I called him a fucking puppet. You gonna do something about it?"
It was the same smile Kerry later flashed after reading each item on the night's Top 10 list, "Top 10 Bush Tax Proposals." And you wished that lines like "Attorney General Ashcroft gets to write off the entire U.S. Constitution" or "George W. Bush gets a deduction for mortgaging our entire future," were accompanied by something other than the smile that seemed to say it was all in good fun. Screw good fun.
The force -- and the fun -- last night, was left to Green Day. Appearing after Kerry to perform the title cut from their new CD "American Idiot," the band acted as Kerry's id, saying the things we fantasize about him saying. If Kerry is still trying to find his voice, Green Day had theirs. After spawning dozens of bands that don't matter, Green Day had grown to seem like one of their own imitators. But Letterman introduced the band as "single-handedly" keeping rock and roll alive, and their performance almost made that seem like the truth.
Playing with murderous precision, the band signaled from its first line that they weren't out to be good sports. The sound was turbulent, churning, big and tight, veering off into guitar whirlwinds and then snapping to attention in an instant. Standing in a line across the stage as if they were a firing squad, the band communicated the feeling of both being on the front line and laying out a deadly line of attack. The strongest moment in the performance came when lead guitarist and vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong sang, "Maybe I am the faggot America." A great line, summing up how the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld swaggerers look upon those who dare to question their fantastical claims of progress in Iraq, who, even as Green Day were playing, were twisting the strong speech John Kerry had given earlier that day in New York to mean that, as Bush himself said, "[Kerry] prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy."
Green Day played as if their music had the power to pick up Bush and Cheney by the throat and shake them lifeless. But there was another target in the song, a risky one embodied in the line "Calling out to idiot America." In other words, Green Day was singing to anyone who believes that John Kerry prefers a dictatorship to democracy -- or who believes that under Bush's leadership there is hope or security or democracy in Iraq.
Saying that the people who disagree with you are stupid always risks snobbishness, which the left has, to its shame, often been adept at. And it's easy to underestimate just how powerful fear, which Bush and Cheney wield masterfully, can be as a propaganda weapon. But stupidity seems a reasonable thing to conclude when most people polled still believe that Bush is better equipped to deal with Iraq, or when 42 percent of the American people still believe Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11.
What made the Green Day performance so tough, what makes the song so thorny, is that the band isn't satisfied only to say that we are being pulled down by an idiot. It's saying Tweedle Dum can't thrive as he is unless we are willing to play Tweedle Dumber.