Behind the scenes, campaign 2004


Geraldine Sealey
November 5, 2004 1:28AM (UTC)

If you're ready to relive the 2004 election from the primaries to the last bitterly fought month, does Newsweek have some articles for you. The magazine planted reporters with both campaigns over the last year or so, and the campaigns gave them unique access with the understanding that certain revelations would not be disclosed until after the election. Here are a few morsels, with a warning: If you haven't reached closure on the results yet, it's pretty maddening.

First, for any of us tempted to be nostalgic for the Clinton years -- and there's probably a lot of that going on this week as Republicans further tighten their grip on government, here's something to temper our longing for the '90s. "Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the Red States, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with Kerry, urged the Senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, 'I'm not going to ever do that.'" Being more Clintonesque on gay marriage may have won Kerry some swing votes, but that comes with a price, and one Kerry wasn't willing to pay.

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The Swift Boat disaster was the darkest period for Kerry, and any Monday morning quarterbacking about his campaign must question how slowly Kerry moved to challenge the well-orchestrated attack on his Vietnam record. Newsweek reports that: "In early August, when the Swift Boat story started to pick up steam on the talk shows, Susan Estrich, a California law professor, well-known liberal talking head and onetime campaign manager for Michael Dukakis, had called the Kerry campaign for marching orders. She had been booked on Fox's 'Hannity & Colmes' to talk about the Swift Boat ads. What are the talking points? Estrich asked the Kerry campaign. There are none, she was told. Estrich was startled. She had seen this bad movie before." It was "shades of Dukakis," Newsweek says. It was obvious at the time that the Kerry campaign was slow to react to Swift Boats, but this anecdote is still disturbing. Although, we are amused to know that Faux Democrat Susan Estrich even called the campaign to ask for talking points. Could the campaign just have been ignoring her? From the look of the lame Kerry camp response to the swifties, Estrich probably wasn't the only one who asked for talking points that didn't exist.

But who was to blame for the fumbling of the Swift Boat response? Newsweek says Kerry blamed Mary Beth Cahill and Bob Shrum for letting it get out of control. Apparently, the duo had argued that responding to the ads would only dignify them. We all know in retrospect that this was an inadequate approach, both for the campaign and for the news media, which came way late to the game in debunking the smears. Kerry, for one, was pissed. Newsweek says, "By August, the attack of the Swift Boat veterans was getting to Kerry. He called adviser Tad Devine, who was prepping to appear on Meet The Press the next day: 'It's a pack of fucking lies, what they're saying about me,' he fairly shouted over the phone. Kerry blamed his advisers for his predicament ... He had wanted to fight back; they had counseled caution. Even Kerry's ex-wife, Julia Thorne, was very upset about the ads, she told daughter Vanessa. She could remember how Kerry had suffered in Vietnam; she had seen the scars on his body, heard him cry out at night in his nightmares. She was so agitated about the unfairness of the Swift Boat assault that she told Vanessa she was ready to break her silence, to speak out and personally answer the Swift Boat charges. She changed her mind only when she was reassured that the campaign was about to start fighting back hard."

There's way more in the Newsweek package; it's a must-read.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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