Chronicle of a Life Untold

Ask any first-year film student about script writing and she'll tell you it's all about narrative arc. Whether it's Sophie's Choice or There's Something about Mary, the screenwriter understands that information about where the lead character is coming from is crucial to creating tension about where he's going.

What's true for film is as true for presidential campaigns. Unfortunately for Democrats, President Bush's handlers understand the power of narrative arc far better than John Kerry.

By now George W.'s story is fairly well known. It goes like this:

As a young man he was a prankster and goofball. Never the brightest of Daddy's kids, George fell into drinking and maybe even drugs. His business deals always fell apart. And, because of his drinking, his marriage was on the rocks.

And then he found God. He became a family man. He became close to the evangelical community in Texas. And he helped his father politically. Just as he made the cut-and-dried decision to quit drinking cold turkey, George Bush is decisive about what's right and what's wrong because he's a man of principle. His decisiveness and moral vision has been especially important post 9/11.

At the center of it is a moment of redemption – a surrender to God. Being born again anchors Bush's appeal to the solid third of the country that self-identify as fundamentalist or evangelical Christian. And for voters who don't pay much attention to "the issues" – that is to say, the swing voters who may determine the election - George Bush's story appeals because it positions Bush as a man of principle.

Swing voters pick candidates based not on their position on Medicare or prescription drugs and but rather on whether or not they identify with – or look up to – their values. These voters decide which values candidates hold not just by their catch phrases and slogans but also by the stories their lives tell.

The Kerry campaign isn't so much telling a story about Kerry as it is making a 30 second TV ad. There is no narrative arc, there's just imagery of Kerry in Vietnam winning medals. The problem is that "Kerry in Vietnam" is nowhere nearly as powerful as "John Kerry: The Life Story."

Here's a guy who was born with privileges most of us can only dream of. After standing out in boarding school and college, Kerry does something radical: he volunteers to go to Vietnam. That act is not simply about patriotism (however blinding). It was also Kerry's way of expressing that, despite his privilege, he didn't consider himself to be any better than any of the working-class Joes stuck doing America's dirty work in Vietnam.

In his speeches, his ads and his PR, Kerry doesn't mention his privileged childhood. For the Kerry campaign, the Senator's life began the moment the plane landed in Saigon. Ironically, it's the campaign's fetishization of "Kerry in Vietnam" that made the Republican swift boat attack on Kerry's veracity so powerful. If we can't trust Kerry to be telling the truth about his war record, what else is there?

The Kerry team needs to tell the full story of Kerry's life to establish the man's credibility after nearly a month of controversy about Kerry's Vietnam service. The Kerry team should start by more directly contrasting Kerry's decision to go to war with Bush's decision to evade service. That singular act of courage would provide a much needed balance to Kerry's second great courageous decision, made just four years after the first: to testify in front of the Senate about the horrors of war.

Kerry's privileged background stripped away from his decision to go to Vietnam is as unappealing as Bush's pre-atonement alcoholism. If the public is to understand and identify with the core beliefs that have motivated Kerry all his life, they need to know as much about Kerry before Vietnam as they now know about him during and after.

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