Should Kerry Have Gone to Florida?

Brendan Minter thinks so:

Maybe national emergencies shouldn’t be political events, but they are. So after Hurricane Charley ripped through Florida this past weekend, President Bush understood the political imperative: Get down there. With thousands left homeless and a million people without electricity, the president needed to walk amid the wreckage and stand with the people most affected. For those questioning his political motives in responding so quickly, Mr. Bush said simply: “If I didn’t come, they would’ve said we should have been here more rapidly.”

If 90% of success in life is just showing up, in politics often it’s the whole ball of wax. This is a lesson that John Kerry could stand to learn. It isn’t enough to be “right”; you must also be right there. Mastering and internalizing this lesson would go a lot further in showing that Mr. Kerry can lead in a crisis than boasting about his four months in Vietnam ever could. It would also reveal his more human, compassionate side. This is something Bill Clinton practiced shamelessly and Al Gore never learned. Mr. Kerry should have gone to Punta Gorda and felt their pain.

Minter is talking about political theater, and it’s quite possible that the Kerry campaign misjudged this one, as the first President Bush did after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Pragmatically, I think Bush 41 and Kerry did the right thing. The last thing that’s needed when people are trying to restore order after a hurricane is the disruption of a presidential entourage–let alone one of a presidential wannabe. It seems the thing a president should do is to stay out of the way and make sure the relief funds get sent, FEMA is activated, and so forth.

Apparently, though, people actually want symbolism over substance during times of crisis. Bill Clinton was certainly a master of that art. The current president, while not quite that adept, is much better at it than was his father. His appearance at Ground Zero a few days after the 9/11 attacks built an enormous reservoir of good will. Politics is clearly more than doing the rational thing.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Want political theatre?
    How about Kerry doing the only thing he really could do to help…donating a few million to help the Charity orgs in Florida in the harder hit areas?

    Not that he’d ever DO it, mind.

    The president DID go, is helping and all he gets in response from idiots like Kerry is that it’s all politically motivated.

    So perhaps you’re right; it IS all symbolism, given it’s all Kerry’s come up with.

  2. denise says:

    The Bush 41 admin also did a terrible job of getting FEMA down to Florida with the help people needed.

    Contrast that with FEMA under Clinton after OK City and the LA Northridge earthquake.

    What’s worse is you typically have much better warnings of hurricanes than most natural (or man-made) disasters. To not have FEMA ready to move to a hurricane site is inexcusable.

  3. Paul says:

    Kerry did the right thing…

    As someone who would have blasted him had he gone to Florida, it only seems fair to say he was right to stay the hell out the way.

  4. Attila Girl says:

    It would have been smarter to go.

  5. carpeicthus says:

    My understanding is that Kerry didn’t go because it’s the political tradition that challengers don’t do that. The president has a legitimate, non-political role there, even if it is a political showcase. The challenger does not. That’s all. Had Kerry shown up the Right would have thrown a hissy-fit and you’d be wondering if it would cost him the election.