Hamsters don't waffle!

Lest anyone continue to think John Kerry is a waffler, my old favorite Jodi Wilgoren has leaped to his defense in a piece called "Behind the Scenes, a Restless and Relentless Kerry." Her spin is that Kerry's not a waffler, but a very busy, eclectic hamster-man, who's so complicated that it really isn't fair to characterize him at all unless you get to know him:

BOSTON, June 12 — Like a caged hamster, Senator John Kerry is restless on the road. He pokes at the perimeter of the campaign bubble that envelops him, constantly trying to break out for a walk around the block, a restaurant dinner, the latest movie.
It's tough to know what to make of this. Could Jodi be up to her old tricks? Is this a stab in the back disguised as flattery, or is it real praise? Already, conservatives have picked up on Kerry the hamster (and it certainly seems that comparing a candidate to a rodent is not usually a form of adulation), but I must note that Jodi Wilgoren's idea is neither new nor original.

Before the Wilgoren article "KERRY IS MY HAMSTER" T-shirts were proudly marketed by Kerry supporters -- the theory being that "I'd vote for a hamster if I thought it would get Bush out of office!".

The idea definitely needs a little exploration. Hamsters lead very busy and restless lives, without regard to habitats or habitrails. Male hamsters have very large, prominent testicles. (They also live short lives, tend to develop untrustworthy personalities, and are susceptible to bladder stones.) Hamsters are sophisticated international critters (major varities include the Syrian, Dwarf Campbells Russian, Dwarf Winter White Russian, Chinese, and European Hamsters) are nocturnal, and have incisors. OK, they're restless, and, er, incisive.

This restlessness is one of many facets of Mr. Kerry's style and personality that is all but invisible to most voters in this era of stage-managed politics, where authentic insights into the people who would be president are precious few. Though it is impossible to know what Mr. Kerry is like when no one is watching him, observations on the campaign trail over several months, combined with interviews with politicians and aides who spend time by his side, help flesh out the one-dimensional portraits of Mr. Kerry as war hero or waffler proffered by the two sides' television advertisements.
Here are some choice glimpses of Kerry on the campaign treadmill:

relentless polisher, going over and over even well-worn sections of his stump speech until moments before delivery.

a diligent greeter, never speeding through a hotel kitchen without handshakes. He is chronically and unapologetically late — for campaign events, for meetings, even for church

an avid and able athlete, though he sometimes seems physically awkward, with custom-made clothes hanging off his lanky frame as he pumps a fist at rallies

A former prosecutor, he employs a Socratic style in policy talks with aides and advisers, though he rarely goes beyond chitchat in conversations that could be caught on camera.

His formal statements are filled with multisyllabic upper-crust phrasing — his campaign had an intern whose main responsibility was to look up all the unfamiliar words Mr. Kerry uttered — but one on one, he calls strangers "man" or "brother." He is careful to use people's names — he has interrupted himself more than once to introduce sign-language interpretations — yet he rarely remembers them.

strums his Spanish classical guitar in a kind of musical meditation. Lately, in the private front cabin of his campaign plane, he has been learning a new (old) song, "This Land Is Your Land."

Up on pop culture more than most people running for president; at the same time, he's read all these books by people whose names I can't pronounce."

"An awful lot of what appears to be standoffish is a sort of shyness in him."

Mr. Kerry is anything but simple and straightforward, a man of many sides and surprises, some seemingly contradictory.

constantly on a cellphone, seeking counsel from a wide circle or conveying concerns to staff members

the least interested in polling data of any politician they have known, rarely reviewing drafts of questions as Mr. Clinton did or calling for overnight updates like former Vice President Al Gore. But he is deeply involved in tiny details on policy, and spends hours fiddling with speech drafts. (This is an improvement; before a speech at Georgetown University that helped open his campaign in January 2003, Mr. Kerry was so preoccupied with the speech that he had to trim his fund-raising activities for three days.)

"He doesn't take anything as a given. He wants to understand and internalize and come to grips with everything in his own way and understand everything as completely as possible. He's not satisfied until he's achieved a level of perfection he's willing to call his own."

Then there is John Kerry the father figure, who drove an hour after landing from an overseas flight to attend the 2001 nuptials of his press secretary, David Wade, who has not seen his own father since he was a baby. And Mr. Kerry arranged his schedule last month to attend the Washington wedding of Jill Alper, a longtime political aide, sitting next to her single mother during the ceremony. He took a break from the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner to give a toast via telephone to the Florida marriage of a Navy crewmate, Del Sandusky.

John Kerry the athlete is constantly on display. In New Hampshire in January, there were hockey games with the pros. This spring, there were ubiquitous pictures of him snowboarding. And now, a day off rarely passes without a photo opportunity of him whizzing by on a bicycle. It is not, as with Mr. Bush, mainly an exercise regimen; there remains in Mr. Kerry a prep-school cultivated competitive sensibility

chafing at the confines of his celebrity. He had been to a Sox game a few days before, in the fourth row between the plate and third base, with a stop at the owners’ box. He spent much of the afternoon signing autographs and saying hello.

“I hardly got to see any of the game,” he lamented.

Hey, it's tough being a hamster!

And I have nothing against hamsters personally. Well, when I was a kid we had a pair who ate their babies, but I'm sure Kerry doesn't do that. But is this a winner as a campaign strategy? Not sure, but it's an old idea.....

Only time will tell.

UPDATE: Hamsters are legendary for their cheeks. Teresa Heinz Kerry has just described herself as "cheeky."

Coincidence, no doubt!

posted by Eric on 06.15.04 at 05:52 PM


He lost me (not that he ever had me) at the "This Land is Your Land" thing. That's not a song that you learn if you've been playing an instrument for more than three days, that's a starter song they include in the pamphlet in the box. If he's just now learning to play it, there must still be a price tag hanging off that guitar.

Teri   ·  June 16, 2004 12:24 AM

Hey! I had a pet hamster that ate its babies too!!

This whole hamster-as-compliment has me completely lost - yes, they're busy little critters, running and chewing, but they don't actually accomplish or build anything.

I can see the corollary, but not the compliment.

Persnickety   ·  June 16, 2004 2:25 PM

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