Tin Man swings his ax … finally | NevadaAppeal.com

Tin Man swings his ax … finally

John L. Smith

For weeks, I’ve watched Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry trudge forward to deliver tepid speeches before ringer audiences and wondered where I’d seen that style before.

Tall, stiff, searching for a heart: thumping a hollow chest, but refusing to swing an ax.

Why, he was the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Kerry was running like a typical liberal Democrat, the kind who’d lose to Alan Alda in an arm-wrestling match and blush with pride after being mistaken for Phil Donahue in the airport. Kerry won his party’s nomination but managed to lose his party’s debates. President Bush jumped into a nasty war in Iraq, but you couldn’t make Kerry jump with defibrillator paddles.

“This is a decorated Navy veteran?” I thought. “What did he medal in, water ballet?”

Kerry talked about compassion, but he appeared to lack the brand of passion it takes to oust tough-campaigning incumbents, and Bush is a blistering campaigner.

No wonder the Tin Man had been sinking in the polls next to the Scarecrow. In the movie, the Scarecrow had a head full of straw but was light on his feet and wasn’t afraid to take a swing. The Tin Man was a clunky, fretting mope.

Kerry was so hard to track in August, I began to suspect he was French and had taken the month off. In a recent interview, even Kerry’s unabashed supporter, former Sen. Max Cleland, didn’t have a good answer for the candidate’s late-summer lay down.

Not only wasn’t he registering with many voters, but he’d failed to shake his icy intellectual aura. Bush was probably a helluva guy to have a beer with back when he drank. The only reason you’d place a six-pack near Kerry is to keep it cold. Even Kerry’s loyal supporter, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, can’t recall a single warm, friendly encounter with him.

With the campaign sputtering, Kerry has wisely added some meat eaters from the Clinton years to his collection of vegetarian advisers. Meaning: Kerry’s starting to hit back without hesitating, something Bush and his talented team of insiders have done from the start of the campaign.

Then came last Thursday’s speech at the Las Vegas Convention Center before the National Guard Association, in which Kerry not only criticized Bush (nothing new in that) but pointed to specific instances in which he claims the president misled the American public. In his speech, Kerry sounded less like an armchair quarterback and more like a man who was morally outraged.

“True leadership is about looking people in the eye and telling the truth – even when it’s hard to hear,” Kerry said. “Two days ago, President Bush came before you and you received him well, as you should. But I believe he failed the fundamental test of leadership. He failed to tell you the truth.”

As they say in the Old West, them’s fighting words.

Kerry outlined his view, bolstered by the publication of a confidential intelligence memo prepared for Bush in July, that the war in Iraq figures to get hotter through the end of 2005. With increases in insurgency, January’s scheduled elections are threatened, and the report suggested the real possibility of civil war. American casualties increased each summer month, and that trend appears unlikely to change soon if the National Intelligence Estimate’s research is accurate.

Kerry’s words drew a thoroughly mixed reaction at the National Guard convention, but for once he wasn’t so droning, lukewarm and canned. In fact, he sounded like a man who was willing to step into the breach, take some flak and lead.

If historians search for a turning point in the 2004 presidential race, they one day may trace it to last week in Las Vegas, where the president told the Guard gathering that steady progress was being made while the challenger described a clearly different reality.

Nevadans have been told for months that ours is a battleground state. After last week, there are defining differences on the subject of Iraq between the candidates vying for our votes.

Now that the Tin Man is oiling his hinges and appears to have found his heartbeat, the race for Oz may get interesting yet.

John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.