"Could you tell the American people from the bottom of your heart that you are or are not going to run for president in 2008?" a student asked John Kerry September 19, after the Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate had just spent forty minutes lambasting what he dubbed "the Katrina administration" for incompetence.
"Are you willing to take a year off from school and work every minute of every day?" Kerry asked. The student nodded.
"I'll consider it," Kerry said. Then he qualified that statement; "Right now I'm really focused on 2006," he said - on recovering "the five seats illegally redistricted by Tom DeLay."
To get a seat at Kerry's 4 p.m. speech that day, students began gathering outside the Salomon Center before noon, and Kerry supporters received advance copies of the text of the speech by e-mail. By 3:30, not only was the 600-seat main auditorium packed, but so was the 300-seat hall where the event was being simulcast. Outside, hundreds of would-be listeners hope-fully stood in a line that wound around the College Green.
The occasion for Kerry's visit was the third annual Licht Lecture, sponsored by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, and Kerry approached the lectern to thunderous applause and the flashing of cell-phone cameras. His topic was the failure of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina and the "enormous gap" it has exposed "between Americans' daily expectations and government's daily performance" - exposing shortfalls in health care, wetlands protection, energy policy, and disaster preparedness. "If twelve year-old Boy Scouts can be challenged to be prepared," Kerry said, "Americans have a right to expect the same from their fifty-nine year-old President of the United States."
Kerry drove home Katrina's lessons relentlessly and sometimes humorously. "Katrina is a symbol of all that this administration does and doesn't do," Kerry said. "Brownie [ex-FEMA director Michael Brown] is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam-dunk intelligence; what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad; what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy; what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning; what Tom DeLay is to ethics; and what George Bush is to 'Mission Accomplished' and 'Wanted Dead or Alive.'" The crowd roared.
Kerry compared Katrina's potential impact as a wake-up call to Sputnik's 1957 warning that the Soviets had outstripped U.S. technology. He challenged students "to turn this moment from a frenzied expression of guilt into a national reversal of direction."
Answering questions after his speech, Kerry, whose daughter Alexandra graduated from Brown in '02, urged students to become involved - whether serving in food banks, shelters, as tutors, or ideally as political organizers. The environmental, civil rights, anti-war, and nuclear freeze movements all got their energy from students, he said. "I'm convinced that the single most effective - and fastest - way to get change is to organize in an election."