John Kerry

[MASSACHUSETTS SENATOR AND DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE]

“I’VE GOT THE MOST DIVERSE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IN THE HISTORY OF THE COUNTRY.”
We have to:
Streamline
Fight for the progress that we make
Look at John Kerry’s character over thirty-five years
Have a review of our current sentencing structure
Not abandon children, that’s what we have to do

Despite Massachusetts Senator Kerry’s near 100 percent approval rating from the NAACP and his long history of promoting policies benefiting minorities, many African Americans have been slow in warming to Kerry. “I can imagine him going to a black church,” said Carol Jones Ali, a Washington D.C. native attending the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “and I can imagine him picking up a hymnbook, but it’s hard to imagine him getting into it and singing along.”

Though I agree with Ms. Ali—it is hard to imagine Kerry singing along at a black church—should this matter? Apparently it matters to the Kerry campaign, for the same reasons the GOP loves showing the video feed of Bush cutting back brush on his ranch in Crawford: it’s an image that galvanizes the loyal base.

The loyal base for the Democrats has long been the African-American electorate. When blacks vote, they vote overwhelmingly Democrat, with percentages hovering around 90 percent for registered black voters. In a close election, where voter turnout is key, it’s no surprise that the Kerry campaign has been sending the senator to every major black organizational event it can schedule before the November 2 election.

So far Kerry has attended Brown vs. Board of Education’s fiftieth anniversary, the Rainbow/Push Coalition Convention in Chicago, the National Urban League’s convention in Detroit, the Unity Conference of minority journalists in D.C., and several graduations at HBCUs—historically black colleges and universities. The do-not-miss event, however, was the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, which Bush famously snubbed on the grounds that its leadership had been too critical of him, though he’d at first said that he was too busy to attend due to “scheduling conflicts.” In the organization’s keynote speech, Kerry derided Bush for his no-show, quipping, “The president may be too busy to talk to you, but I have news for you: he’s going to have plenty of time after Election Day on November 2.”

What, then, accounts for this feeling that blacks still don’t really know Kerry—even as he’s made it a point to convene with members of nearly every major national black organization along the campaign trail? Why do so many blacks continue to say they are more “against Bush” than “pro-Kerry?”

Some said it was because the Kerry campaign had few blacks on its staff early on and was slow to address issues that were of particular concern to African-American voters. Others chalked it up to Kerry’s patrician demeanor—a perception which, if true, is hardly limited to the black electorate.

I interviewed Kerry in a concrete bunker–like hallway of the Philadelphia Convention Center, shortly after Kerry’s speech to the NAACP. Interviewing Kerry was a little like a ping-pong match, with Kerry often answering before I’d finished a question, prompting me to ask the next question as soon as I’d intuited he’d finished answering the previous one.

—ZZ Packer

*

THE BELIEVER: You’ve stated many times that you didn’t regret your October 2002 Senate vote giving Bush authority to use force in Iraq because you believed he would have a tenable strategy for both the war and the peace. In other words, you seemed to disagree with Bush’s execution of the war and his reneged promises of securing an international coalition, rather than the war itself. But how do you feel now that the bipartisan commission declared it found no credible link between Al-Qaeda and the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

JOHN KERRY: That we haven’t found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq raises very serious questions about the quality of our intelligence and the need for serious intelligence reform. It matters when the president of the United States says that we have evidence of weapons of mass destruction, lays out a case to the American people, Congress, and the world, and then our case appears to be either flawed or even perhaps exaggerated. It matters when the United States loses the credibility and power of persuasion we need to get allies and other countries to help us win the war on terror.

I don’t regret my vote on Iraq. I believed Bill Clinton deserved the authority to use force in Iraq years before to galvanize the world to force Saddam Hussein to comply with UN resolutions and disarm. The problem is that this president drove away our allies instead of bringing them to our side. This president rushed to war before exhausting the diplomatic process and as a result we ended up in Iraq almost alone, without a plan to win the peace, and with American soldiers paying the heaviest price and American taxpayers picking up most of the bill. That’s wrong. It just didn’t have to be that way.

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ZZ Packer is the author of the short-story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and a 2004 PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist. Her stories have been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s, Zoetrope All-Story, and have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories in 2000 and 2003. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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