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Column: As a non-candidate, Kerry's the real deal

By Kathleen Parker

Washington Post Writers Group

Finally, someone isn’t running for president.

To the relief of Democrats — and the dismay of columnists — John Kerry has decided that he won’t be seeking the presidency after all. His window has closed, time isn’t on his side, and nearly every cliche in America was exhausted by his previous run.

Kerry is dropping out — before he dropped in — and he’ll try to find better ways to serve his country than making bad jokes, modeling spandex and insulting the military.

OK, OK, halt, truce, peace. It’s over. Give the man a hand.

The truth is Kerry has never been better than he was Wednesday announcing his intention not to run in 2008. Speaking to his colleagues in the U.S. Senate, he was dignified, resolute and, more to the point, he was real.

The John Kerry we all know and can’t help poking — windsurfer, cyclist, spanking new camo-man dripping price tags and T.S. Eliot — was no longer the awkward boy stepping out of mumsie’s limo.

He was a real guy, the sort who could probably get through a beer in a working-class pub without looking proud of himself. No longer a contender, Kerry seems to have been liberated from himself.

Defeat becomes him.

The same thing happened to another almost-president, Al Gore. The former vice president was never more appealing than during his painful concession speech in 2000 to George Bush.

Mr. Stiff, who hired feminist author Naomi Wolf to butch up his Alpha Maleness with earth tones, was suddenly manly — confident, humble, wise and gracious.

Few speeches in recent memory have been more eloquent, uplifting or affirming of all that is good about America.

Here’s an excerpt to jar the memory:

” ‘As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe, as my father once said, that no matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out. …

“Now the political struggle is over and we turn again to the unending struggle for the common good of all Americans and for those multitudes around the world who look to us for leadership in the cause of freedom.”

You couldn’t help but think in that moment: Where has this guy been?

And where was the John Kerry we saw Wednesday when he was running in 2004?

Both Kerry and Gore, the presidential candidates, were listening to their political advisers and pollsters instead of their own hearts. Trying to be what they thought people wanted them to be, rather than who they are. Only when they traded ambition for passion did they become fully themselves, and in the process, far more electable.

Gore turned his energies to the environment and his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” making him the most visible and effective spokesman in the debate over global warming. Likewise, Kerry returned to his political roots and, voice cracking with emotion, promised “to change a policy in Iraq that threatens all that I have cared about and fought for since I came home from Vietnam.”

Whether one agrees with Kerry’s position on Iraq (if you don’t like this one, maybe wait a few weeks) — or whether one believes that he ever cared about anything more than his own political future — his focus has clearly shifted to something larger than himself.

In similar ways, Gore and Kerry are tragic figures. Both seemed destined to become president and both believed in that destiny. Which is to say, they bought their own myths; they may have wanted it too much.

Want has a scent. It reeks of rapaciousness and oozes from the pores of the overly ambitious. Others likely to make a run in 2008 are similarly malodorous, and you know who they are.

Far more appealing are those who don’t lust so much for the presidency. One has to want the office to win, obviously. Duty alone isn’t enough to sustain a candidate in today’s pitiless political environment.

Obviously, too, some level of grandiosity is required for survival — and probably for effectiveness. A candidate has to keep believing he’s worthy because plenty of people will press the other view.

But wanting for the sake of winning — of fulfilling some need to be great — will usually be revealed for what it is and do a politician in.

One way or another.

* * *

Kathleen Parker’s e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

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