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The case for Kerry

It’s a peculiar science, the study of what makes a good President. Some of our brightest, like Jimmy Carter, have struggled mightily when thrust into the highest office. Some of our least educated, like Harry Truman, have etched new definitions of heroism into our collective consciousness.

Both 2004 Presidential campaigns have worked to define the election as a choice between two sets of core attributes, only one of which is useful for the Presidency. The Bush campaign has said a good President is consistent, tough and resolute—not surprisingly, the areas in which their man has a perceived advantage. The Kerry campaign has pointed out competence, experience and correct policies as the keys to Presidential excellence.

But I would argue that the campaign calculus of determining and exploiting comparative advantages has led to a false choice. All those listed qualities are useful in a President and none are required. The real key, the uniting force behind all our greatest Presidents, is the ability, willingness and opportunity to respond to a challenge with wisdom. Wisdom is that classic ethereum, accumulated but not learned—the great reserve that informs great men and women making great decisions.

Unwise people tend to look for substitutes for wisdom, generally with disastrous results. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush equated steadfast brawn to wisdom. The quality was useful insofar as Bush remained on the obvious right course—consoling the nation, invading Afghanistan, speaking brilliantly before Congress—but became mind-bogglingly frustrating and damaging once the task of leadership became obscure and Bush fecklessly pressed forward on the wrong path.

It is easy to praise the President for his leadership after a major security crisis, but the choices Bush left unmade will leave a tragic “what if” in the history books. What if he had called for every American to make a sacrifice to help us wean ourselves off Middle East faster? What if he had signed a USA PATRIOT bill that was both tough and Constitutional? What if he had sent American Special Forces to capture Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora? What if he had not begun preparing for the invasion of Iraq before the paint was dry in Afghanistan? What if he had kept us fiscally afloat by limiting his tax cuts to the middle and working classes?

Another President might have done these things and more. The sad truth is that Bush was blessed with challenge after challenge through which he had ample opportunity to demonstrate, or even accumulate, wisdom. He failed.

When life is a game, wisdom can be hard to come by. The challenges and the enemies—prep school elites, the parched deserts of West Texas, Ann Richards—are less ominous when you are strapped into a golden parachute of money, status and social ease. As a result, there is a tendency to stick with what you’ve got, personal evolution be damned. Wisdom is never sought and rarely found by these types.

For John Kerry, the challenges were real, right from the beginning. The experience of fighting for every inch gave him the foundation for wisdom, and I believe his Presidency would be a great one because of it.

Kerry was not born wise, he was born gawky. His words were too oppressively serious for the bemused insouciants of prep school, and his face betrayed pain and effort when it should have shown levity. Photographed on a boat with President Kennedy during his college years, the young Kerry looked like someone the young Kennedy might have depantsed in a college prank. But to his immense credit, over time, he learned to approximate the instinctive ease of a true politician. The magnitude of this achievement should not be overlooked.

When he fought in war, the challenge was real. Death was all around him, stinking up the jungles of Vietnam. He faced death down and saved lives, learning about the depths and heights of the human condition through his heroism and that of others.

As a politician, election after election has brought his career to near ruin. Each time Kerry got written off, he came through with flying colors—not with brute force, but with the note-perfect elegance and grace best attributed to wisdom.

Though life seldom came easily to him, Kerry studied every facet of countless people, places and things and amassed an incredible base of knowledge. His greatest gain in this effort was not the knowledge—it was the painful struggle to accumulate the knowledge, the lonely moments, the illuminating light cast upon a once-dark landscape. The trial of life forged wisdom in John Kerry.

If there is no starker choice between Bush and Kerry it is this: Bush does a pretty good surface impression of a fighter. He can strike the macho poses, brandish a chain saw, and talk about smoking ‘em out. He can stick to his plan because, well, that’s what you do when you’ve got a tough challenge, right, John Wayne?

But Kerry has been fighting all his life, and he has learned enough about challenges to know that in times of tribulation, nothing equals the weapon of wisdom. This is the most important lesson for a President, nebulous to be sure and incomprehensible for some, but John Kerry gets it and George W. Bush never will.

We don’t often get the opportunity to vote for a candidate who understands this truth as thoroughly as does Kerry. There are obvious “anybody but Bush” and Democratic arguments to be made for Kerry, but I would not vote for someone based on these ideas alone.

Rather, Kerry’s hard-earned wisdom in the face of challenges has convinced me that he would be a dazzling President. When the chips are down, as they are in this country right now, there is no one I would rather have on my side than John Forbes Kerry.

 

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior. He is president of Duke for Kerry, a Chronicle columnist and a former University editor for The Chronicle.

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