Repackaging Senator Stud

How John Kerry can turn his athletic prowess into votes

Oct 12, 2004
Outside Magazine
John Kerry

John Kerry pedaling one of his high-end road bikes.

You'd think a presidential candidate who's into action sports would energize adventurous Americans to slip on their trail runners and sprint to the polls. After all, what could be more inspiring than a leader who windsurfs, bikes, and snowboards?

And yet Senator John Kerry's attempts to present himself as America's Dude in Chief aren't quite working, even though he clearly has the skills to fill this role. What's the problem? After consulting a scientifically assembled focus group—half a dozen twenty-something dudes and dudettes I know who ride, ski, board, surf, and slack in cheap rental apartments throughout the United States—it appears that Kerry is coming on too strong. "It's like if your dad shows up wanting to 'slam a few brews' with you and 'the guys,'" says one. "He thinks he's cool; you think he's a poseur."

But Kerry's problem isn't insurmountable: The gap between wannabe and winner can be bridged in the campaign's final weeks. With some brisk image retooling, 60-year-old Senator Hairspray can morph into a multisport stud, the type of master-class athlete we all aspire to be.

Move number one is, alas, to let one of his sports go. Kerry's most publicized activity, windsurfing, peaked when Miami Vice was still hot—and, like Don Johnson, it's been in decline ever since. Even worse for the lanky senator, windsurfing means wetsuits. Putting Kerry in a nut-hugging shortie is like squeezing him into a Mazda Miata with a bumper sticker that reads, "This Mid-Life Crisis Powered by Viagra." Meanwhile, his exposed chicken legs are rumored to have scared off all the haddock around Cape Cod. Bush operatives found the image of Kerry windsurfing so pathetic that they used it in a September attack ad depicting him chugging back and forth on a low-wind day, with a voiceover carping that he goes "whichever way the wind blows" on issues.

So what's a candidate to do? Give it up. This will undoubtably be tough for Kerry, who's a true devotee. Not only has he visited Oregon's Hood River Gorge, windsurfing's mecca; he's also raced in the grueling Martha's Vineyard Challenge and Cape Cod to Nantucket races.

But that can be worked out. Just saying no to windsurfing doesn't mean Kerry has to renounce the water altogether. In fact, he should hit the surf this fall. But when he does, we'd rather he be kitesurfing. Kerry experimented with this rising, photogenic sport last summer, and a shot of him catching air on a blustery day would make him look like a star. While he's at it, says my panel, he actually could score points with them by slammin' a brew—but it's got to be Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Kerry can also bounce his likeability if he plays up his cycling. At a time when Lance Armstrong has helped road riding become one of America's fastest-growing pursuits, we've seen very little of Kerry on his bike—except for an early-summer wipeout that was picked up by the press. When he does roll into view, he's coming on too fancy, brandishing an ultra-trendy LIVESTRONG bracelet and toting his $8,000 Serotta Ottrot with him on the campaign jet.

The result? He looks like a loser who's bought into a new sport with top-of-the-line equipment, only to be smoked by guys with cheaper but authentically worn-out gear. It's probably too late for Kerry to dump the Serotta for a proletarian ride (although we happen to have a vintage, rusting Schwinn we'd part with for only $2,000), so his best shot at legitimacy is to take a couple of strategic spins. A strong finish—or a flashy wreck—in a local criterium would build street cred. A Sunday ride with Lance would go a long way as a photo op. And, again, he must at all costs avoid being photographed in tight shorts.

Kerry's snowboarding skills are potentially valuable, too. Unfortunately, his presentation last winter was flawed. In March, he was photographed carving the slopes of Sun Valley, Idaho, wearing sunglasses and a spanking new jacket that one can only assume Theresa ordered from an upscale Euro catalog. Then, after a skiing Secret Service agent accidentally tripped him up, Kerry told a reporter, "I don't fall down. That son of a bitch ran into me." It could get more pathetic only if he tried to drop into a halfpipe and ran over a ten-year-old.

What we want in a president is someone who braves his way up a chairlift in a snowstorm to make soulful powder runs while everyone else is eating cereal. Someone who wears the jacket he's had since 1992, chili stains and all. One who hits a fresh stash, takes a monumental spill, and proclaims proudly that it was the best wipeout he's ever had. And who does it even when the cameras are nowhere to be found.

By all accounts, Candidate Kerry is a truly devoted athlete. That's something that can't be spun and something most of us would appreciate in the White House. But a little poser protection can't hurt—and would probably improve his ratings. The candidate should remember that nothing is forever. If the pang of loss over windsurfing becomes too great, he can take it up again when he's writing his memoirs.

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