January 18, 2005

"Kerry failed because of his inability to tell his own story."

The great filmmaker Errol Morris brings his storytelling expertise to political analysis on the NYT op-ed page today. The man who edited "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," writes:
John Kerry could have presented to the American people his full biography, but instead he chose to edit who he was. Why?

My guess is that Mr. Kerry and his campaign believed that certain things could not be mentioned. Foremost among these was Mr. Kerry's opposition to the war in Vietnam, which was largely erased from the candidate's life. That was a mistake. People think in narratives - in beginnings, middles and ends. The danger when you edit something too severely is that it no longer makes sense; worse still, it leaves people with the disquieting impression that something is being hidden.

But Kerry chose not to tell the coherent story because he figured people didn't want to hear it, and we can't know how things would have turned out if he done otherwise. Much as I like coherent stories -- and I love Errol Morris's brilliantly edited movies -- I think the antiwar leader version of Kerry would have been a disaster. Even voters who disagreed with the decision to go to war in Iraq still knew they needed someone to lead us to a stable conclusion of that war. Kerry's Vietnam era message was to give up, admit it was all a mistake, and just don't let one more American die for that mistake. Is that the attitude he would take in Iraq? Kerry made a decision not to stir up that worry in the minds of the voters. In making that choice, which was not obviously the wrong one, he walked into the problem Morris describes.

By the way, Morris used his filmmaking skills to make some commercials for the Kerry campaign, but his work was rejected -- with good reason, as I discuss here ("Bottom line for me: I love Errol Morris, but art and politics are a bad mix.")

UPDATE: Edited to correct some garbled syntax.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader writes:
Kerry failed because of his inability to tell his own story? No--Kerry failed because he *has* no story. Kerry's opposition to Vietnam was erased in this campaign? *Everything* we heard about John Kerry in this election, good and bad, had to do with Vietnam. What I (and many, many other voters) wanted to know was, what has he done *since* Vietnam? 20 years in the Senate and, as far as I could tell, the answer was, not a damn thing.

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