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Making Over John Kerry

Chen Zhao

Super Tuesday has come and gone, with the predicted result. Senator John Kerry, barring some tremendous mishap, will be the nominee at this summer’s Democratic National Convention, right here in his home city of Boston. Now, he has eight months in which to face perhaps his largest challenge yet: unseating the incumbent, President Bush.

To attain this goal, Senator Kerry has to try to ingratiate himself with the common folk and try to dispel the image of him as the wealthy, privileged aristocrat that he is. This is not something he did very well in the primaries. Candidates, no matter how impressive their resume is or how much experience and knowledge they will bring to their post or how much the voters are actually in agreement with their stances on the issues, often have to overcome personality barriers. Nobody knows this better than Al Gore. In 2000, he was labeled as being “boring” and he was never able to rid himself of that characterization.

The media has already decided to make it their duty to point out the similarities in pedigree between George W. Bush and John Kerry and to wonder at the peculiarities inherent in Kerry, a descendant of British royalty, stumping about protecting the rights of the middle-class. This is epitomized in David Brooks’s recent column in The New York Times entitled “Clash of Titans.” Brooks labels Americans as hypocrites for calling ourselves a middle-class, democratic nation when we really just love the blue-bloods like the Kerrys and Bushes of the world. I beg to differ. We may be fascinated by royalty and the rich and famous, but we also are a country that loves and cheers for the underdog, and that wants to and does give every opportunity to those who do not get everything handed to them on a silver platter. We may have among our presidents the Kennedys and Roosevelts and Washingtons, but we also have our Lincolns and Jacksons. To this end, Kerry has to shed the image of wealth as much as possible so as to not put off a country in which the voting population is dominated by the middle-class.

So just how similar are Kerry and Bush and just how unrepresentative is Kerry of the common man? As is often pointed out, both Kerry and Bush went to Yale (Kerry was two years ahead of Bush) and both were members of Skull and Bones, a small, top-secret, elite fraternity for sons (and recently some daughters) of very prominent families. Skull and Bones counts three U.S. presidents, two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, over twenty Senators, and many other Congressmen, cabinet officers, judges, and state officials among its membership. Both of the candidates are also descendants of British royalty and especially strange is the fact that both families can be traced back to Queen Elizabeth I. Bush can also lay claim to Henry III, his wife, Mary Tudor, and her brother, Louis XI, and Charles II as ancestors. Kerry wins the royalty contest with a few more royal branches as he is directly descended from King James I and his bloodlines run straight through the Windsor and Hanover families. As if this was not enough, Kerry’s ancestors also include John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts and he is somehow related to just about every prominent family that has existed in the Boston area, including the Forbes family through his mother. Both men come from enormous wealth, but Kerry’s fortune of over $300 million from his first wife and over $500 million from his current wife -- widow of the ketchup man himself, John Heinz -- along with all the money he was born with, poses a stark contrast to the meager savings accounts of most Democrats.

So it has been clearly established that neither man is anything like the rest of the population. Bush, however, was seen by a quite a few as representative of the common man though in the 2000 election. It might have been his affinity for relaxed attire while trimming shrubs on his Texas ranch (which, by the way, is worth how many millions of dollars?) or his use of simplistic and often times, incomprehensible, speech. Many felt that they could relate to him. Thus, Bush has proven that being from such a privileged background does not preclude one from being viewed as a more or less common man.

Can John Kerry accomplish the same feat? He has certainly tried. During the primaries, he avoided all references to his initials (J.F.K. for John Forbes Kerry) so that he would not suffer comparisons to that other prominent liberal from Massachusetts. John Edwards still took every opportunity to point out the differences between himself and Kerry. Edwards, born poor, is a product of public schools (North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) since his family could not afford private school tuition. Kerry spent his childhood at a Swiss boarding school and St. Paul’s before heading to Yale. Despite the fact that Edwards has made millions from being a trial lawyer, polls showed that while people voted for Kerry because he was given the label “electable,” people liked Edwards because they could connect with him.

Kerry has already been tagged as stuffy and elitist, but with eight months to go, it’s not too late to turn that around. He and his campaign need to show the people that John Kerry can operate on the same level as you and I. In this crucial election year, while Bush-hating might suffice as a reason for some to vote for Kerry, swing voters will also want to be able to like Kerry before they cast their ballots for him.