Kerry Tries on Rose-Colored Glasses

Times Staff Writers

Sen. John F. Kerry had solemn matters on his mind last week as he took on such weighty issues as nuclear proliferation, bioterrorism and an overtaxed military.

But even as he charged that the Bush administration had failed to effectively confront those concerns, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee tried to strike an optimistic tone.

“I didn’t come to Missouri tonight to point out what was wrong,” Kerry told a crowd of about 1,500 gathered in a Kansas City airport hanger Wednesday. “I came here tonight to talk about what lies in the future and where we can take America, how we can let America be America again.”


The latter phrase, from Langston Hughes’ 1938 poem “Let America Be America Again,” has been cropping up frequently in Kerry’s speeches as he attempts to cast his candidacy in sunny sheen.

But to do so, the Massachusetts senator must overcome what is widely perceived as a dour image, political experts said, as well as find the right balance between critiquing the Bush administration and projecting hope.

“He has to activate in the electorate an anger or anxiety that things aren’t as perfect as they could be, while still identifying himself as the one who can steer the optimistic path,” said Thomas Hollihan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication. “That’s the rhetorical challenge that he faces.”

The power of projecting optimism is evident. Upbeat politicians -- such as the late Ronald Reagan, who invoked the image of “morning in America,” or Bill Clinton, whose campaign tagged him “the man from Hope” -- have triumphed at the ballot box.

Indeed, Reagan’s death Saturday provoked an outpouring of remembrances focused on his cheery resolve. Kerry told reporters Sunday that the late president “had a way of making people feel the next day would be better.”

Later, in a commencement address to students from a Temperance, Mich., high school, the senator praised Reagan’s outlook. “Today, in the face of new challenges, President Reagan’s example reminds us that we, we who are still here ... must move forward with optimism and resolve,” he told the graduating class of Bedford Senior High School.

Mindful of that lesson, Kerry launched a new television commercial last week called “Optimists,” and began salting his rhetoric with sanguine pronouncements.

“When we put our minds to do something, there’s nothing America can’t do,” he told Missourians, adding, “You have the privilege of changing our hopes and our future.”

His new ad, running in 19 states, features images of beaming children as Kerry proclaims, “We’re a country of the future. We’re a country of optimists. We’re the can-do people.”

But projecting a cheerful outlook may not be enough to combat the caricature of Kerry that has already taken hold in the minds of some Americans, analysts said. While his craggy visage and deliberative speech may help convey gravitas, it has led to frequent jokes on late-night television about his persona.

“He looks imposing.... He doesn’t look warm and sunny,” said Audrey A. Haynes, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Kerry advisors dismiss such descriptions and say the public has yet to get a full picture of Kerry.

“There are aspects to his personality and public demeanor that frankly we’re going to plead guilty to, like the fact that he is, much of the time, serious,” said senior advisor Tad Devine. “But anybody who knows him says he can be very comfortable, charming, nice to be with. Our challenge is to communicate that on a much larger stage.”

To accomplish that, the campaign plans to showcase Kerry in more casual settings and give him opportunities to share his personal experiences with voters. When he talks about policy proposals, aides hope to have him focus less on the nuts and bolts and more on what motivates his support for certain ideas. And they want people to see more of Kerry interacting with his family -- especially his two daughters and his wife.

Devine added, “We’re going to give people somebody to vote for, rather than something to vote against.”

The Bush campaign, not ready to cede the optimist label, responded Friday with a new television commercial in which the president declares: “I’m optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America.”

Called “Pessimism,” the ad flashes a grim image of Kerry as an announcer says, “Pessimism never created a job.”

“The claims by the Kerry campaign that they have an optimistic message are preposterous,” said Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt. “Their campaign has been relentlessly negative. In the blue sky, they look as hard as they can for a dark cloud.”

Kerry has continued to offer a glum assessment of the nation’s economy, even amid several positive signs. On Friday, after the Labor Department reported that nearly a quarter of a million new jobs were created in May, the senator said more needs to be done.

“That’s great, but guess what? There are still 1.9 net million jobs lost [in the private sector] during this presidency,” he said during a rally at the University of Minnesota.

“There are still too many people who can’t afford healthcare, can’t afford to go to college,” he said. “There’s too many people struggling. While at the top end, people get ahead. I think it ought to be the reverse. I think we need to make it possible for every American to get ahead.”

Kerry has tried lately to end his criticisms on an upbeat note. During a Tampa, Fla., panel discussion Wednesday about the threat of bioterrorism, he sought to reassure his audience.

“This is a daunting topic,” he said, adding minutes later: “But leadership is about telling the truth, and it is about talking about the real choices we face as Americans in order to be stronger. I know we can be stronger here at home.”

Wayne Fields, director of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said that for Kerry to successfully project optimism, he had to do more than speak in generalities. “He has to find some way of being convincing without being Pollyannaish,” said Fields, the author of a book on presidential rhetoric.

Democratic strategist David Doak said Kerry should stop short of declaring himself an optimist because that assertion would ring hollow with some voters. “If you get up and say, ‘I’m going to present a vision of hope and opportunity,’ people say, ‘Oh, another politician talking about hope and opportunity,’ ” Doak said. Kerry, he added, needs a device that will trigger those sentiments more subliminally, like Clinton’s use of the Fleetwood Mac lyric “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” in his 1992 campaign.

Kerry is hoping that Hughes’ poem will serve the same function for him. After he used its opening line in an address in Topeka, Kan., on the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, he began inserting it into his regular campaign speech.

Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois professor, called “Let America Be America Again” an apt choice for Kerry, noting that the poet called for the country’s highest ideals to apply to its most down-trodden citizens.

“The poem fits in this long tradition of the loyal opposition,” said Nelson. “It’s a poem that says you can criticize the country but still believe in it.”


Times staff writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this report.