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Columnists Discuss Their Observations of the Democratic National Convention

July 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And, finally, the observations of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks. David, what is tonight about?

DAVID BROOKS: Liberal night. Ted Kennedy, we also have Dick Gephardt speaking, you’re going to have a little tribute to FDR. This is the night when we begin to see true liberalism on display. This may be the only time during this convention. You know, I think that’s risky but important, risky because the country really…

JIM LEHRER: You forgot Howard Dean.

DAVID BROOKS: Howard Dean – well, he was a liberal for about six months. I suspect he’s come back to the center again. He was a liberal when it paid. I think that’s important because, first of all, that is the legacy of this party, FDR, the civil rights movement, the ’60s. That’s also the convictions for a lot of people in this party. There’s a slight danger for people in this party to be so prudential and controlled that they lose people. It just shows…

JIM LEHRER: They lose their own people you mean?

DAVID BROOKS: They lose their own people. They lose other people. Most Americans do not see left and right. They’re confused about which party stands for which. But they do recognize conviction. There’s always the danger of going too far left for this party, as for the Republicans going too far right. There’s also the danger of going too artificial. And I just think people want to see some true convictions– just let it rip. I’d like to see a little of that from Ted Kennedy. Dick Gephardt is not that sort of person. But I would like to see that to show this party has a soul.

JIM LEHRER: Let it rip?

MARK SHIELDS: I think you’ll hear the soul of the campaign of 2004 I think was Howard Dean and was John Edwards. I don’t think there’s any question. You’ll hear that tomorrow night. But I agree with David, Jim, that Ted Kennedy is a central figure to this party. I mean, there is no accident that we’re talking about two young naval lieutenants who in the Pacific saw combat and got the scars of battle.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, John Forbes Kerry, Ted Kennedy is the one link to those two that can stand up there and speak about both of them convincingly and compare John Kerry favorably, something John Kerry could never do for himself, and no other character witness can do for him. So I mean in that sense he can establish John Kerry, and let’s be very frank about it, John Kerry would not be the nominee of this party if Ted Kennedy had not…

JIM LEHRER: Explain that. In practical terms, you really mean that?

MARK SHIELDS: I really mean that. There is no question. Last fall, John Kerry’s fortunes and fate had plummeted. He’d been the early front- runner, he’d been the logical choice.

JIM LEHRER: We’d already crowned Howard Dean by then, most of us in our line of work.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But then Howard Dean emerged, eclipsed him. He was foundering. It was a campaign in search of a purpose and a mission. And Ted Kennedy came along and fired it up. I mean, he was with him when the going got tough, when he got in that fox hole, Ted Kennedy was there every step of the way.

JIM LEHRER: What did he do?

MARK SHIELDS: He fired up his own troops, first of all. First of all, John Kerry went through… you’re never supposed to in a presidential campaign, total shake-up of his campaign leadership. Ted Kennedy gave him his own chief of staff and one of his more gifted campaign persons, Mary Beth Cahill, to run his campaign. He gave him Stephanie Cutter, who is his own communications chief and press secretary to do that for John Kerry.

Ted Kennedy made it abundantly clear that he was committed. He went everywhere for him. I think he, for one thing, gave John Kerry a sense that he could win. Ted Kennedy’s example, leadership and passion was crucial during those darkest hours. Add to it — there were two other members of the Massachusetts delegation who also deserve special praise, Congressman Ed Markey and Congressman Barney Frank, both of whom, when Kerry was at the darkest point, supported him.

JIM LEHRER: Now, back to your point about how Ted Kennedy following up there, how he is the soul and you want to see some of the soul, but from a Republican point of view, I mean, isn’t he the number-one demon? Don’t they want to wrap Ted Kennedy all the way around John Kerry?

DAVID BROOKS: I think John Kerry’s going to have to make his own personality and show he’s not as left wing as Ted Kennedy. That’s going to be a problem. But I don’t care. Most people– I go back to this fact– most people don’t think ideologically.

JIM LEHRER: But they know about Ted Kennedy.

DAVID BROOKS: They know about Ted Kennedy. They know about Ted Kennedy because of Chappaquiddick. They think of certain personal failings. I don’t think they’d transfer to John Kerry. I don’t think John Kerry’s primary weakness is that he’s too liberal. The Republicans are going to try to hang that on him, but that’s not his primary weakness. His primary weakness is he’s a flip-flopper who can’t make a decision, who doesn’t have core principles, who can’t connect with people. That’s the primary weakness.

JIM LEHRER: From the Republican point of view?

DAVID BROOKS: If you have an entire convention day after day, which is packaged, prudential, cold and calculated, that underlines that weakness. I think that’s the greater weakness that they should be worrying about.

JIM LEHRER: So in other words, it’s real to have Ted Kennedy speak and speak his soul at a John Kerry convention. Anything less than that would be unreal?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s real for the Democratic Party. If you look at these Democrats, these people on the floor here, they agree with Ted Kennedy. They agree with what Howard Dean was saying. They agree with Dick Gephardt. This is who they are. Be who you are for a little while. It just resonates, “well, I don’t care about the ideology.”

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree out in the country that Ted Kennedy helps John Kerry? I’m not talking about the undecided voters, not the hard- core Democrats in this hall or out there, I’m talking about the other folks.

MARK SHIELDS: I think Ted Kennedy plays better in this hall than he does in the country among undecided voters. I think what Ted Kennedy can be is, as Al Gore was last night, as Bill Clinton was last night, is a character witness for John Kerry who is an antidote and a rebuttal to the charges that David made that he’s a flip- flopper or that he’s removed. Ted Kennedy, they talk about the fights he’s led, whether it’s a POW-MIA and took his own personal experience and continued that in his own public career, I think that’s part of Ted Kennedy.

Ted Kennedy and John Kerry are not, and have historically not been nearly as close as senators. Very rarely, Jim, do you find two senators from the same party from the same state who are close– very, very rarely. I could think of two exceptions in all the time I’ve been in Washington — because they’re both basically fighting for the undivided attention and affection of the same woman. That’s the electorate of the state.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s particularly true in Kennedy’s case.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that one of the things that… one of the remarks made in the piece of Teresa Heinz about what she said unflatteringly about Ted Kennedy, that relationship between Heinz and Kerry has been helped enormously by Teresa Heinz and Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s wife, who are good friends. I think they’ve brought them closer together. They disagreed on issues. They have not been in lock step on a whole bunch of issues.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your wisdom on Teresa Heinz Kerry?

DAVID BROOKS: I like her. When I first saw this couple, I thought that he was normal, and she was weird. Now I realize that she’s normal and he’s weird. I sort of… I think that she’s smart. If you go back to testimony she’s given on having to do with her foundation, it’s substantive, intelligent, she’s totally herself. She’s totally authentic. She does not smile when most political wives smile. She does not wave. She refuses to do that. At first watching her on the campaign trail, I thought she was going to crack up. Then you realize, that’s who she is. I’ve come grudgingly to have quite a lot of respect for her.

JIM LEHRER: The “shove it” thing doesn’t bother you?

DAVID BROOKS: No. People should be able to – allowed to speak their minds.

MARK SHIELDS: When she said she does speak her mind. She said in Iowa, “I don’t think personally that anyone is ever qualified enough to the president.” And she said, “but my husband John, he is pretty close to it.” You don’t get wives talking that way. We’ve really got this standoff. Laura Bush is an enormously popular figure.

JIM LEHRER: She’s one of the most popular figures…

MARK SHIELDS: She really is

JIM LEHRER: I saw a poll she’s maybe the most popular first lady ever.

MARK SHIELDS: That causes some tension at Kennebunkport when the Bushes get together, generationally, you can be sure. But we have… this is a competing types. I don’t think in the final analysis that people vote on the basis of first ladies, but I think it does tell you something about one’s comfort level with a strong, independent woman and, you know, what this convention is about, what kind of a person is John Kerry, what kind of a president will he be, can I have confidence in him, am I comfortable with him?

That’s what last night and somewhat tonight — tonight gets you to the future. Last night was about the past. Yes, Ted Kennedy was a character witness and the rest of it, but I think with the keynote we get to the future.

JIM LEHRER: For most people, too, for Teresa Heinz Kerry, this is the first time anybody’s seen her at any length. Up to now it’s been snippets. It should be interesting to see. We’ll be back here to talk about it then. Thank you.