Ted gets Kerry-ed away.

Photo: Lou Dematteis, Kerry for President.

A mischievous grin spread across John Kerry’s face last week as he was introducing Ted Kennedy, his fellow Massachusetts senator, to an Iowa crowd. It caught my eye because I hadn’t seen Kerry smile for quite a while. “I’m now pleased to introduce,” he said, “the real leader of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party — Ted Kennedy.”

Without rancor, Kerry had popped the empty little balloon that had long been Howard Dean’s biggest applause line. And I thought to myself, He’s back.

As it turns out, Kerry had found his stride, and the results over the next few days were astonishing. Kerry was again inspiring, witty, bold, thoughtful, honest, and smart as hell. He again started connecting with all sorts of people at a gut level. (Kerry has carried the blue-collar vote, and the African-American vote, in every one of his races.) He was, in short, the guy I’d endorsed way back when he first announced his candidacy.

It had been a tough few months. Kerry went from crown prince to yesterday’s news as a result of some early missteps. The talking heads were openly dismissive. Fair-weather friends started jumping ship.

Then Kerry made some decisive staff changes. He looked into his soul and started talking bluntly about why he was running. And with a textbook-perfect campaign, he came from far behind to win Iowa.

As I write this, everything is still volatile. Dean has a lot of money and zealous supporters. John Edwards ran a very good campaign in Iowa and showed unexpected cleverness in his vote-trading deal with Dennis Kucinich. Joe Lieberman has a solid block of votes that Kerry needs in places like Connecticut and Florida. Al Sharpton has targeted a vital block of votes on Super Tuesday. And a lot of old Clinton hands are firming up around Wesley Clark.

Kerry on.

Photo: Kerry for President.

But that sort of volatility brings out Kerry’s strengths. Kerry is always at his best in the closing days of a campaign — and for the next several weeks, he is going to face the closing days of one campaign after another.

Kerry has been my friend for 35 years, and his wife Teresa a close friend for 15 years. I’ve campaigned for him. He’s organized huge Earth Day events for me. We’ve dined and drank late, and I’ve stayed at his home. I’ve had the chance to assess Kerry’s character over the years. What I’m trying to say is that I know this guy, and I trust him.

In 2004, the future of America very much depends upon defeating George W. Bush and electing someone with the capacity for greatness. When historians look back on this period, most of today’s political feeding frenzies will have long since been forgotten. A few big issues — truly presidential issues — will be remembered.

These will certainly include:

 

  • Did America lead the world into a super-efficient, renewable-energy era, ending the oil stranglehold and putting the brake on climate change?

     

  • Did America lead a successful effort to guarantee a healthy environment as a fundamental right for everyone?

     

  • Did America mount a strong campaign to stop the global epidemic of extinction — the most tragic collapse of biodiversity since the last time an asteroid hit the planet?

     

  • Did America elect a president whose judicial nominees preserved the Bill of Rights, respected the traditional separation of powers, and honored res judicata?

     

Any Democratic candidate will be better than George Bush on all these issues. But only Kerry can stand up and discuss each in depth without notes — with a nuanced understanding of science and economics and diplomacy and philosophy — and explain his decisions to the public in simple words that make sense.

 

No American public official has a stronger, more consistent record on strategic arms control, free speech, civil liberties, fair taxes, racial justice, strong schools, a sound Social Security system, and guaranteed health care than Kerry. And no one has been a stronger, more consistent champion of peace over the last three decades than this hero who was awarded three Purple Hearts. No one has a more legitimate claim to be the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

And no constituency has more cause to rally to Kerry than environmentalists. With a remarkable 96 percent career environmental voting record (John Muir couldn’t have topped that!), Kerry will be — by far — the strongest environmental president America has ever had.

Furthermore, Teresa Heinz Kerry — who is fluent in five languages and won the 2003 Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal for her leadership on the environment, human rights, health care, childhood education, women’s empowerment around the world, and the arts — will be a wonderful first lady.

I have to confess disappointment in the movement to which I’ve devoted most of my adult years. Environmentalists have not delivered the support that Kerry has earned. Kerry has always been there when we needed him. Today, he needs us.

Kerry — the only candidate who speaks of the environment in every single speech — won in Iowa without the endorsement of a single national environmental group. Yet we are his core constituency. This would be like Jesse Jackson winning without the full-throated support of Black churches, or Gene McCarthy unseating Lyndon Johnson without thousands of anti-war activists slogging through the snow of New Hampshire.

Kerry now has momentum. He was closing the gap with Dean in New Hampshire before the Iowa caucuses, and some polls now show him leaping ahead. But he still faces hard battles. A wave of financial support and busloads of volunteers in the other primary states could put him over the top.

You will never have a chance to support a stronger environmentalist than Kerry for president of the United States. So please, go to JohnKerry.com. Organize a MeetUp. Order some yard signs. Check out his blog. Sign up as a volunteer. Give the campaign some money.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to replace the worst environmental president in American history with the best. Seize it!

This piece reflects the opinion of its author and should not be taken to constitute an official endorsement by Grist Magazine, its staff, its board, their psychotherapists, or their aestheticians. We’re so neutral we’re pH-balanced. We make Switzerland look quarrelsome.