January 3, 2005


'I'm Going to Learn': First, the blame. Then, the healing. In a new book, NEWSWEEK talks exclusively with John Kerry about why he lost—and looks at his plans for another run (Evan Thomas, 1/10/05, Newsweek)

It was a little after 7 p.m. on election night 2004. The network exit polls showed John Kerry leading George Bush in both Florida and Ohio by three points. Kerry's aides were confident that the Democratic candidate would carry these key swings states; Bush had not broken 48 percent in Kerry's recent tracking polls. The aides were a little hesitant to interrupt Kerry as he was fielding satellite TV interviews in a last get-out-the-vote push. Still, the 7 o'clock exit polls were considered to be reasonably reliable. Time to tell the candidate the good news.

Kerry had slept only two hours the night before. He was sitting in a small hotel room at the Westin Copley (in a small irony of history, next door to the hotel where his grandfather, a boom-and-bust businessman, shot himself some 80 years ago). Bob Shrum, Kerry's friend and close adviser, couldn't resist the moment. "May I be the first to say 'Mr. President'?" said Shrum. [...]

Kerry has not given any formal interviews since his defeat. But on Nov. 11, nine days after the election, Kerry summoned a NEWSWEEK reporter to his house on Boston's fashionable Louisberg Square. He wanted to complain about NEWSWEEK's election issue, which he said was unduly harsh and gossipy about him, his staff and his wife. (The 45,000-word article, the product of a yearlong reporting project, is being published next week as a book, "Election 2004," by PublicAffairs.)

Despite, or because of, a somewhat stoical and severe New England upbringing, Kerry has a tendency to natter at his subordinates, to blame everyone but himself. ("Did he whine?" was the first question one senior Kerry aide asked of the NEWSWEEK reporter who had recently been to see Kerry.) On this damp November evening, he appeared alone in the house; he answered the door and showed his visitor into a cozy, book-lined drawing room. His face was deeply lined, his eyes drooped, he looked like he hadn't slept in about two years. But his manner was resolute, his mood seemed calm, even chipper.

Why did he lose? Kerry points to history and, in a somewhat inferential, roundabout way, to his own failure to connect to voters—a failure that kept him from erasing the Bush campaign's portrait of him as a flip-flopper. Kerry said that he was proud of his campaign, that he had nearly defeated a popular incumbent who had enjoyed a three-year head start on organizing and fund-raising. Sitting presidents are never defeated in wartime, he insisted (true, though two, LBJ and Harry Truman, chose not to run for another term during Vietnam and Korea). Kerry did not wish to be directly quoted touting himself, however; he did not wish to appear defensive or boastful.

He never quite came out and said it, but Kerry sounded very much like a man who was running for president again.

The stubborn persistence of the warrior president myth is almost inexplicable. Besides Truman and LBJ getting handed messages in their own primaries you had Wilson's Democratic Party get annihilated in the '18 midterm--despite winning WWI--FDR lost his New Deal coalition in the '42 midterm and George H. W. Bush was voted out of office after the spectacular success of the first Iraq War. The fact is, at least for the last century, presidents tend to pay a high price for waging war, even those they win. The GOP midterm victories in '02 and the combined Presidential and congressional wins in '04 must be seen as nearly unprecedented exceptions, rather than as expressions of a political rule.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 3, 2005 12:18 PM

Network polls showed Kerry up 3% in FLA and he lost by 300K.

Posted by: Sandy P at January 3, 2005 12:25 PM

"Did he whine".

Ouch. That's a killer.

There is no greater proof of a dodged bullet than a senior Kerry aide asking that plaintive question.

Posted by: Andrew X at January 3, 2005 12:39 PM

Related note. Local paper here profiled a local activist who was organizing protests (and doing bumperstickers, mail-ins, etc) saying Kerry really won, not Bush. The basis for her argument? The exit polls showed Kerry won OH and FL so therefore Bush must have stolen the election. The mindset that an exit poll is more accurate than the actual votes is an interesting one.

As for Kerry, he could be the '08 nominee if he raises his profile more. Then again I think Bush went too easy on him and another GOP candidate might really go after him (Senate record anyone?)

Posted by: AWW at January 3, 2005 12:40 PM

None of your examples contradict the fact that wartime presidents who run for re-election, win.

Posted by: Brandon at January 3, 2005 12:55 PM

brandon, I've no dog in this fight, BUT:

how many 'wartime' presidents' have won? if the number is as low as I think it is (I can think of 4).. it might just be a fluke --- you can toss a coin and have it come up heads 4 times in a row..

Posted by: jonofatlanta at January 3, 2005 1:15 PM


1. Bush in 2004
2. Nixon in 1972 (this example is a little shaky as we were mostly out of Vietnam by then.)
3. Johnson in 1964
4. Roosevelt in 1944
5. Lincoln in 1864
6. Madison in 1812

It's not a huge sample, but it's not a myth either.

Posted by: Brandon at January 3, 2005 1:42 PM

Johnson in 1964 was NOT a 'wartime president', Vietnam was an issue, but no one thought of us as being 'at war' there at that time. (I was 12 years old and remember it well)

So, giving you Nixon in '72 you're down to 5, and with Johnson and Truman as examples of the opposite, you might say:

'71% of the time (5 out of 7) an incumbent president will win re-election during a war' ..
not too impressive, or definitive, as a trend..

Posted by: jonofatlanta at January 3, 2005 3:17 PM

It all depends on the war. By 1918, most Americans understood that our wrongful participation in WWI was based on a tissue of lies developed in the British Foreign Office and spread around by its agents provocateurs in the States. The notion of fighting on the same side as the Czar and Perfidious Albion in a 'War to Save Democracy' would be laughable if so many American soldiers didn't die and so much ethnic hatred against Germans did not result. Political analysts curious about the reason for the apparent dovishness of the Upper Midwest need refer to nothing more than the Liberty Cabbage and other hysteria of WWI.

I don't think the 1942 midterm tells us much. The GOP had only 26 Senate seats and 166 House seats. They had nowhere to go but up. And in 1944, GOP gains were reversed significantly, as they lost 19 House seats.

AWW, it should not surprise us when the Democrats see exit polling as more accurate than actual votes. They are the same party that wanted to use 'statistical sampling' instead of an actual head count for the Census. One of them, Cong. Carolyn Maloney of NY claimed that it would give us a better picture of 'all 52 states.'

Brandon, McKinley in 1900 also counts. We were fighting Aguinaldo at the time in our attempt to 'Christianize' the Philipines, as McKinley himself put it.

Posted by: Bart at January 3, 2005 3:29 PM


Nixon and LBJ didn't start their war. Wilson, Truman, and LBJ all had to quit. Madison didn't run after the war. Lincoln wouldn't have won if the South voted. Polk had to quit...

Posted by: oj at January 3, 2005 3:51 PM


What does that have to do with it?


I don't agree that LBJ in 1968 and Truman in 1952 count as examples of the opposite. Neither actually ran for reelection. And you can say that "they would have run if they could have won," but that is just speculation. I could also say that "if they'd run, they would have won," but that is also speculation.

Posted by: Brandon at January 3, 2005 4:28 PM

Prior to '04, only four presidents have ever been re-elected during wartime--Lincoln (without the South voting); William McKinley; FDR; and Nixon (during a war he inherited but was ending).

FDR would have lost in '42, but by '44 was able to squeak by.

Posted by: oj at January 3, 2005 4:42 PM


All that is true, except I think Madison counts as five. But that doesn't make the "warrior president" a myth. How many presidents running for re-election in wartime have been defeated?

(And mid-term elections don't count.)

Posted by: Brandon at January 3, 2005 4:51 PM


Madison decided not to run in 1816. The War of 1812 started after he'd been re-elected.

Truman and LBJ both withdrew after primary "defeats." Only FDR was re-elected in the 20th Century.

Posted by: oj at January 3, 2005 5:12 PM

The War of 1812 was declared in June of that year - before Madison was re-elected.


Posted by: Brandon at January 3, 2005 6:14 PM

You are correct, sorry.

Posted by: oj at January 3, 2005 6:21 PM

I really am gonna learn!

Posted by: JFK'08 at January 3, 2005 10:47 PM

I think your right about the myth. A few points:

Would Jefferson's Barbary campaign count?

Winning generals have done quite well at becoming presidents later; Washington, Jackson, Grant & Eisenhower. Tho' not "Old Fuss and Feathers" Winfield Scott or "the Young Napoleon" George B. McClellan nor "The Brown-Nosing Mediocrity" Wesley Clark.

LBJ got a huge JFK-sympathy vote. He should have invaded Cuber instead.

Posted by: Noel at January 3, 2005 11:23 PM