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The Weblog at The View from the Core - Thu. 04/29/04 07:12:14 AM

John Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Kerry

Democrats in Self-Destruct Mode CCLXXXI

"He's kind of, like, world-weary, and he has that voice of wariness, almost like a Scandinavian winter."

Lots of reaction to Kerry's latest faux pas, Monday, especially since it is only his latest. First, John Podhoretz at the New York Post, Tuesday (ellipsis in original).

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The conventional wisdom is that the presidential election will be close. It's a 50-50 country, so the CW goes, just as it was in the year 2000.

The problem is that the conventional wisdom hasn't taken a proper accounting of John Kerry. Here's the truth that Democrats don't want to admit and that Republicans are fearful of speaking openly because they don't want to jinx things:

Kerry is a terrible, terrible, terrible candidate.

It's not so much the policies he proposes, although they don't add up to all that much. The problem is Kerry himself. He no sooner opens his mouth than he sticks first one foot and then the other right in there.

Yesterday, Kerry went on "Good Morning America" to try and clear up a controversy about the Vietnam medals and ribbons he threw over a fence in 1971 as part of an anti-war protest to "give them back" to the U.S. Congress. Instead, he only made himself look worse.

Since 1984, Kerry has said he only threw ribbons over that fence (as if throwing ribbons away wasn't powerfully meaningful in itself). But ABC News dug up a TV interview Kerry gave to a Washington, D.C., station 33 years ago. In it, he said he "gave back the others" — by which he clearly meant he had thrown his own Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts over the fence.

In 1971, he wanted people to think he had thrown away his medals. In 1984 and ever since, he has wanted people to know he had kept his medals.

But Kerry's interviewer yesterday actually saw him on that day back in 1971: "Senator, I was there 33 years ago, and I saw you throw the medals over the fence," Charlie Gibson of "Good Morning America" said point-blank.

"No," Kerry said, "you didn't see me throw the, Charlie, Charlie, you are wrong. That's not what happened. I threw my ribbons across... After the ceremony was over, I had a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart given to me, one Purple Heart by a veteran in the V.A. in New York and the bronze star by an older veteran of World War II in Massachusetts. I threw them over because they asked me to."

ABC reporter Brian Ross uncovered the 33-year-old interview. But Kerry tried to blame the controversy on George W. Bush instead: "This is a controversy that the Republicans are pushing," he raged, "and this comes from a president and a Republican Party that can't even answer whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard. I'm not going to stand for it."

Kerry mentioned Bush's National Guard service not once, but twice, during his five minutes with Charlie Gibson. So now we have the Democratic candidate for president himself making the accusation that the president of the United States was a deserter.

You don't have to be a Bush fan to think this is spectacularly stupid. The issue isn't Bush or his campaign. The issue is Kerry and a series of statements he made on the record in the media dating back more than 30 years. Trying to change the topic to Bush's service simply smacks of cornered desperation.

And that is Kerry's great weakness as a candidate — a weakness that will be hard for him to overcome, because it appears to be a character trait. The man who said "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" is a man filled with the conviction that he can talk himself out of a tough situation.

Sometimes, it's better just to be silent, take the hit and move on. But Kerry seems constitutionally incapable of doing that.

Kerry has been the presumptive Democratic nominee for two months now. Ask yourself: Aside from fund-raising success, has he had a good day? Has he come up with a winning soundbite? Has he made a policy proposal you've heard people talking about?

Bush has had about as bad a time as he could have had these past two months, and he's not only still standing, but doing better than he was a month ago. And why? Because when he takes center stage, as he did in the press conference last week, he usually helps himself.

Not so for Kerry. To put it mildly.

Yes, he has time, plenty of time, six months' worth of time. Kerry will surely get better, but that's only because he can't get much worse.

Here's the conventional wisdom: The margin on Election Day will be razor-thin because only 7 percent of the electorate hasn't made up its mind yet whom to support. So the entire campaign will be a fight over that 7 percent, and the whole business will come down to a few battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico — where polling now suggests the race is neck-and-neck.

Every piece of information you've just read is true. But there's a strong possibility the conventional wisdom is wildly wrong.

Events over the past week suggest that Bush may win a substantial victory in November, and for this reason alone: Kerry's performance may seriously depress Democratic turnout. Or drive Democrats to vote for Ralph Nader, just as George Bush the Elder's performance in 1992 drove millions of Republicans to vote for Ross Perot.

Guys, you should have gone with John Edwards.

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Next, Joe Hagan at the current New York Observer (embedded ellipses in original).

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In recent weeks, even Senator John Kerry’s closest friends have been at a loss as to why the Democratic Presidential candidate has failed to communicate the most humanizing part of his biography: his war record as a decorated Vietnam veteran. "I know he’s quite capable of it," said Bob Kerrey, the president of New School University, former Nebraska Senator and fellow Vietnam veteran. "I don’t know why it’s not working now."

But there seems to be a very clear reason why: Mr. Kerry is terrible on TV.

"Abysmal," said John Weaver, the former strategist for Senator John McCain’s Presidential run and the man who coined the "Straight Talk Express."

Watching Mr. Kerry on TV, he said, "I don’t know if it’s a stream of consciousness or stream of unconsciousness."

"It’s a lot of words and no clarity, a lot of presence and no warmth," said Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, who was preparing to interview Mr. Kerry for an hour on April 27. "And I think he’s got to deal with that."

Take a look, for example, at NBC’s Meet the Press on April 18. Tim Russert aired a tape of Senator John Kerry’s appearance on the show 33 years earlier, when he was a young, jut-chinned veteran, 27 years old, full of baleful gravity, expressing a sense of shame for his actions in Vietnam. The camera cut back to Senator Kerry, now a man running for President of United States.

"You committed atrocities," said Mr. Russert gravely, asking Mr. Kerry to address the statements of the young man on the screen.

Suddenly, the current John Kerry, of 2004, gave a stumbling, inexplicable guffaw.

"Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That’s a big question for me."

And suddenly, inexplicably, the question showed up: Where did all that gravitas go, John? That’s the big question for the viewer. The appealing young veteran disappeared, the angry, vengeful Democratic candidate disappeared, and John Kerry, the callow Swiss-prep-school boy returned, as vividly as George Bush the smirking frat boy makes his appearances on national television. "Awful," said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. "Just awful."

In recent appearances, Mr. Kerry’s digressions and obfuscations about whether he threw a war medal or a ribbon on the White House lawn in 1971—or whether the young Mr. Kerry should have used the word "war crimes" to describe actions in Vietnam — have obscured the candidate. At every turn, he has managed to turn the TV screen into smoked glass: He’s right in front of you, but you can’t … quite … make … him … out. With his morose patrician mien and robotic delivery—parodied with precision by Jon Stewart on the Monday, April 24, Daily Show, surely not a good thing for the candidate—Mr. Kerry’s TV performances are sounding a gut-level alarm about his ability to inspire confidence in the electorate. "He needs to speak the truth and speak from the heart and not try to calibrate his views or his actions," said Mr. Weaver. "The public catches on to these things, and they can see through whether there’s a calibration going on or not. He needs to stop that."

He didn’t need to speak the name of former Vice President Al Gore. But a media strategist for another Democratic Presidential candidate said that Mr. Kerry had to lose the "legislative speak" and begin talking "like a normal person communicates, speaking in simple, more declarative sentences that have a clearer meaning for people." Compared to President George W. Bush, he added, Mr. Kerry appeared more intelligent, "but there are many instances in which George Bush communicates more clearly."

The Republican attack ads about Mr. Kerry that have run in 18 battleground states have set the tone for Mr. Kerry’s appearances. Since April 15, they’ve speared Mr. Kerry for having said, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion—before I voted against it." The context, of course, was important: Mr. Kerry was criticizing Vermont Governor Howard Dean at the time, arguing over how to balance the budget in the context of the war in Iraq. But instead of squelching that image with a decisive blow, Mr. Kerry has continually cemented it with distended, lumbering TV appearances.

But it also showed the power of simplicity: a single one-liner could define an entire interview. Mr. Kerrey said the candidate needed to reconnect with his own history.

"I think he’s got to go back to remember what it felt like and help people understand what it was like in 1971," said Mr. Kerrey. "It was a terrible time, and he was a kid. And he just said some indefensible things. How unusual does that make him for a 25-year-old? Not very. Especially during that time. He served honorably, with great distinction."

But even when Mr. Kerry attempts to let his passion fly, he becomes hectoring and aggressive. On Monday, April 26, Good Morning America host Charlie Gibson asked Mr. Kerry to explain his inconsistent stories about whether he once tossed war medals or ribbons onto the White House lawn in 1971. Maybe it was a quibbling issue, all things considered. But was this the best way to tackle it?

Senator Kerry: Charlie, Charlie, you’re wrong! That is not what happened. I threw my ribbons across. And all you have to do is go back and find the file footage.

Charlie Gibson: And someone else’s medals? And someone else’s medals, correct?

Senator Kerry: Later, after, excuse me — excuse me, Charlie!

It hadn’t helped that the first live shot of Mr. Kerry was of him shaking his head in disgust at Mr. Gibson’s setup to the interview. On TV, Mr. Kerry projects a subtle disdain for the medium while he is appearing on it. He doesn’t even plan on answering the questions, if he can help it. "There’s no such thing as a trick question with Kerry, because he just won’t answer it," observed Mr. Matthews. "‘Well, let me put it this way, Chris,’ or ‘Well, the real question here, Chris …. ’ See, that’s the problem with him. And I find afterward, we’ll be having conversations afterward, and it’s hard to get to him even then."

Not only has Mr. Kerry not relayed his ideas with clarity, he has failed to relay the visceral presence of an unaffected personality. On his Meet the Press outing, he told Mr. Russert: "Now, we’re in a position now to be able to respond and introduce myself to the country. I look forward to that. I look forward to Americans getting to know who I really am." But why was he looking forward? There he was, live on television, with every chance to be himself.

"I’m not sure what the message is — that may be the essence of the problem," said Joe McGinniss, the author of The Selling of the President, the best-seller that detailed Richard M. Nixon’s media strategy. As a Massachusetts resident, Mr. McGinniss said he had never seen Mr. Kerry do well on TV—or even in public, for that matter. "When he sits down one-to-one with somebody, he’s not good," said Mr. McGinniss. But then again, he added, neither was Mr. Bush, or Mr. Nixon. "They knew Nixon was never going to be good in a situation like that. The shows that Roger Ailes directed had the appearance of spontaneity, but it was all carefully scripted. You put Nixon in a thing where he looks like he’s taking a risk where he’s not. They’re going to have to dress up the set for John Kerry, but he can’t do it on his own. He’s not Jack Kennedy, although he wishes he were."

Mr. Matthews described Mr. Kerry as more like Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson. "He’s kind of, like, world-weary, and he has that voice of wariness, almost like a Scandinavian winter," he said. "It’s cold and it’s weary. That’s what he sounds like when he’s interviewed."

Despite Mr. Kerry’s problems, a number of observers said it was still very early in the race. And it’s also not clear that the crucial voters even watch shows like Meet the Press or Hardball with any regularity, or even interest. "Typically, for the swing-voter type, when you’re asking somebody about the choice of words 33 years ago, those people have a 100 percent record of either forgiveness or completely not giving a f*ck," said Lawrence O’Donnell, the MSNBC political analyst. "Have we learned nothing from George Wallace’s career?"

Mr. O’Donnell said these TV appearances were simply testing grounds.

"The reason we stare at John Kerry in April is that Tim is the best indicator there is on how rough it’s going to be on you in a Presidential debate in October," said Mr. O’Donnell, who like Mr. Russert once worked for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "‘Oh, look at that, there’s a vulnerability there.’ And, ‘Oh, by the way, he’s got several months to work on that.’"

Still, Mr. Kerry has a lot more history to contend with — TV history. "You create a tremendous number of obstacles in the obstacle course of life by going on television for 27, 30 years," said Mr. Matthews. "Because the age of television has created this incredible archive system. No matter what you’ve ever said, it can come popping out at you. But the only way you can replace old stuff is with new stuff, so you have to constantly make your new stuff more compelling. That’s how you do it. So television has a permanence, but you almost have to do battle with your old tape."

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for Mr. Kerry to transform.

"The Democratic friends I have keep saying, ‘Wait, wait, he’ll get better,’" said Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes. "Well, I’m waiting, and I don’t know if he will or not. He may yet surprise me and make it apparent why he’s the guy I’d like to see as President of the United States. I haven’t seen it yet.

"Maybe he needs some good professional advice," he added, "if he’s in a mood to take it." ....

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No matter what you’ve ever said, it can come popping out at you. What a cool way of paraphrasing Core's Law of New Media. :-)

Next, Jonah Goldberg at TownHall yesterday (emphasis in original).

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"Medalgate" — the inevitable name for the flap over Kerry's flip-floppery about what he did and what he said about his medals — is an amusing spectacle to behold and a story worth investigating.

It's amusing because Kerry has forced himself to offer explanations that make pretzels look straight. It's worth investigating because Kerry has made his service in Vietnam a central qualification for his presidency.

The superficial details of "Medalgate" are fairly easy to explain for anybody not determined to make Kerry sound consistent. From 1971 until about a decade later, Kerry wanted people to think he threw his medals away in protest of Vietnam.

In a 1971 interview, Kerry insisted that he "gave back, I can't remember, six, seven, eight, nine" of his medals. Around 1984, when Kerry ran for the Senate, the times changed and he wanted people to believe he kept the medals and "only" threw away the ribbons. Why? Because his union supporters in particular and voters in general were no longer enamored with the excesses of the anti-war movement.

"It's such a personal thing," he told The Washington Post in 1985. "They're my medals. I'll do what I want with them. And there shouldn't be any expectations about them. It shouldn't be a measurement of anything. People say, 'You didn't throw your medals away.' Who said I had to? And why should I? It's my business. I did not want to throw my medals away."

A decade later, he told The Boston Globe that the only reason he didn't chuck the medals was that he didn't have time to go home and get them.

And this month Kerry told the Los Angeles Times, "I never ever implied that I" threw away the medals.

Because Kerry "flooded the zone" with every possible version of events, it's impossible for him not to contradict himself. His only defense is a screaming offense.

So, he claims that anyone who questions any aspect of his Vietnam service or his anti-Vietnam service either is questioning his patriotism or is part of the "Republican attack machine," including the dyed-in-the-wool liberal producers and hosts of "Good Morning America." Indeed, the first time Kerry felt the heat, he dropped his promise not to criticize Bush's National Guard service like a bag of dirt.

But the problem goes much deeper for Kerry because this mini-scandal illustrates the more fundamental contradiction at the core of Kerry's candidacy.

The "argument" (quotation marks are necessary since often it's really a sputter) from Kerry's supporters and the Democratic National Committee is that his service in Vietnam proves that he's strong on defense and qualified to be commander-in-chief. (They also suggest his service proves he is patriotic, manly, cool, sexy and impregnable from criticism.)

The response from his critics (which in fairness often takes the form of a growl) is that whatever Kerry did in Vietnam is vitiated by his anti-war behavior and his long and detailed record of peacenickery in the Senate.

But if signing up for Vietnam proves Kerry's got the right judgment to be commander-in-chief, how come Kerry believes Vietnam was a huge mistake for America?

Think about it. Kerry and DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe have mocked Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush administration for not serving in Vietnam. But Kerry made his political career by saying that Vietnam was a moral and national security disaster. He claims that going to fight for "a mistake" (Kerry's words) was his defining moment. Well, if Vietnam was a mistake, how does it demonstrate Kerry's good judgment?

You might fairly respond that Kerry's decision to fight was an indication not so much of his judgment as of his patriotism. OK, though that's not always Kerry's position. Then again nothing is always Kerry's position.

Plenty of politicians in both parties want to have it both ways on Vietnam. The problem for Kerry is that he's taken such diametrically opposed and ultimately irreconcilable positions on the war.

He wants credit for fighting in what he insists was a criminal war. He even confessed that he and his comrades committed "atrocities," though he hasn't run any commercials bragging about calling his comrades war criminals.

Kerry's position is a mess. He wants credit for throwing away the symbols of his service (the ribbons) and for the service he rendered to earn those medals (which he kept, but claimed until recently he didn't). If that sounds like a contradiction, it should. Because that's what Kerry is: a walking contradiction.

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Now, Deborah Orin at the New York Post today (brackets in original).

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Some key Democrats are "pretty freaked out" by John Kerry's last two bumpy weeks on the campaign trail — and are demanding he get his campaign in gear fast.

"If John Kerry thinks he must be doing something right because all the polls show a tight race, he shouldn't. Democrats feel they could have nominated Al Sharpton and it would almost be this close," says a "pretty freaked out" senior Democratic strategist.

"The concern is that in the long run the attacks that President Bush is making against Kerry will stick — and if Kerry continues not to offer up a vision, not to offer up a rationale, he'll go down in history as another Michael Dukakis."

Dukakis, who lost to Bush's dad in 1988, was once seen as a winner-to-be but became a symbol of how not to run a campaign, as he got portrayed as an out-of-touch member of the Massachusetts liberal elite.

The flare-up of criticism from pro-Kerry ranks — including talk-show host Don Imus, the Village Voice and the New York Observer — comes amid a flap over Kerry's Vietnam medals, questions about his wealthy wife's taxes and his missteps over owning SUVs and foreign cars.

There is growing worry among some Democrats that Kerry is coming off to voters as aloof, thin-skinned and angry, particularly after launching bitter personal attacks at President Bush's National Guard service.

One Democratic veteran says bluntly, "Kerry can't win because he's too negative. His whole message can be summed up as, 'The other guy is worse.'"

But some insist Kerry has plenty of time and recall how in spring 1992, Bill Clinton was running third behind Bush's dad and Ross Perot.

Democrat Howard Dean's pollster, Paul Maslin, said, "It's only April. [Kerry] wouldn't even have dreamed of being this close. Bush got in the first shots, but he didn't get much for it."

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Howard Dean's pollster. Howard Dean's pollster? Howard Dean's pollster!

Finally, Tina Brown writes at WaPo today a very amusing piece in which she tries to both (1) admit how bad Kerry is and (2) blame it on the dark forces of evil called "Republicans".

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There was a surreal moment at a serious Manhattan dinner party Tuesday night when 12 power players who had all been talking at once about the mess in Iraq suddenly fell silent to listen to the waiter. He dove in shortly after he had served the coconut cake with lemon dessert — perhaps to give moral support to the only Republican present, who was beginning to flag. Or perhaps he just thought it might be helpful for the guests to hear from one of the Ordinary Americans whose unhappiness with the status quo they are in the habit of earnestly invoking.

"I'm from the suburbs," he announced, "and I'm voting for Bush."

All eyes turned to him. "It might seem odd that a savvy New Yorker like me is voting for a guy in a cowboy hat," he went on, as he recklessly doled out ice cream to a network anchor, "but what we want is stability. This Kerry guy — he's all over the place."

Huh? Stability? What about all the mayhem in Iraq? His intervention immediately brought the table back from a troubled analysis of American options in Iraq to how the medals debacle is affecting perceptions of Kerry. It was as if the waiter was a plant from the Bush campaign, diverting attention at a critical moment, just as he was supposed to.

The Republican attack machine — again — has made the right calculation: Hit 'em with trivia. Bait the hook with the absurd "issue" of whether it was medals or ribbons that Kerry hurled over the wall when he was a 27-year-old hothead. Then watch the media bite — they'll do it every time — and let Kerry rise to it and blow it. Presto, a thrice-wounded, decorated war hero running against a president who went missing from the National Guard is suddenly muddying up his own record on the morning talk shows. Shades of 2000, when Bush jokily bowled oranges down the aisle of his campaign plane while Gore argued about whether he did or didn't say he invented the Internet.

The blueprint for what's happening now is all up there on the screen in the unapologetically partisan documentary "Bush's Brain," about the president's political strategist Karl Rove, which opens at the Tribeca Film Festival next week. It tracks the techniques of Rove from his earliest days running Republican campaigns in Texas, using interviews on camera and off by two Texas journalists, Wayne Slater, senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News, and James Moore, TV reporter and producer.

"When I watch Kerry trying to swat away the issue of ribbons and medals I see Karl as the Oz figure all over again," Slater told me on the phone. "Rove's technique is always to go for a candidate's strength, not his weakness. In Texas, when Bush was running against Governor Ann Richards, her strength was her tolerance, her inclusiveness. She had brought a lot of women and minorities into government. So suddenly in conservative East Texas there was a whispering campaign about why she had hired so many lesbians and homosexuals. It's the same with Kerry. The war record is his strength — so instead of leaving it alone, Rove just goes right at it."

It's spooky to see it working, both in the polls and anecdotally. In the past 10 days, Democrats in New York have been distracted for the first time from focusing their wrath on Bush to dumping it on Kerry. Even among heavy donors there has been a wave of buyer's remorse.

"You don't have to fall in love," Hillary Rodham Clinton reportedly reproved a top Democratic fundraiser who was recently moaning about Kerry's lackluster performance as a candidate. "You just have to fall in line."

New York Dems, having raised a staggering $9 million for Kerry on his last swing through town, now want to see their money in motion. They're vexed with the campaign's sluggish response to attack. They want Kerry to quit being his own surrogate on the talk shows. They want Max Cleland, John Glenn and Bob Kerrey to do the talking about the medals — like how he earned them in the first place. Get his old Vietnam buddies to do a commando raid on the Bush-Cheney mud machine! Get those guys to travel with him all the time in a pack in sweaty old uniforms! Democrats long to bring on a new attack dog with unimpeachable Q ratings. Unleash the scimitar chin of Eliot Spitzer!

Insiders ask whether Kerry was right to turn down an invitation to meet with Tony Blair (a real foreign leader in a real New York restaurant) in favor of trolling for swing votes in Pennsylvania. By missing the Blair photo op, Kerry booted away a presidential moment with a global player.

Micropolitics vs. macroimagery: That's the Kerry dilemma. There's a terror among the macroschool that Kerry will choose a running mate for reasons of geography rather than imagery and wind up in dullsville. A veep groundswell is building again for John Edwards. So what if he doesn't deliver a state? He has charisma. He's a jury-pleaser. He'll stay cool under fire. Choose him right now to change the subject!

Most of all there is a sense in New York that what Democrats need is someone as dark and devilish as Karl Rove to go after Bush. It's a nostalgic experience for some to dip into George Stephanopoulos's 1999 memoir of his Clinton years, "All Too Human." There's not just a sentimental longing for George in the war room but for the villain of the book — brilliant, conniving, unscrupulous Dick Morris.

"'This is the moment to strike and watch the poll numbers go UP!'" Stephanopoulos quotes Morris. "On that last phrase, Morris threw his hands high above his head while wiggling his fingers and standing on the tips of his toes — a political shaman casting a spell, enraptured by his own ecstatic dance." Bring back Morris?

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You don't have to fall in love. One can readily imagine Hillary Rodham Clinton having said that on more than one occasion. Bill, too. Maybe even at the same time, come to think of it.

Oh. RAM: the Republican Attack Machine. That must be the new version of VRWC: Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Puh-leeze.

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Lane Core Jr. CIW P — Thu. 04/29/04 07:12:14 AM
Categorized as Democrats in Self-Destruct Mode & John Kerry.


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