Kerry seeks that winning sensation

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When the Boston Red Sox clinched the World Series on Wednesday night, John Kerry rushed out of his hotel room in Toledo, Ohio to high-five his secret service detail. This was unfeigned joy: his home-town team may have delivered him the election.

The Red Sox's romp to their first title since 1918 has allowed Kerry to finish the campaign posing as a regular fan. Although money can buy publicity that good, it would take a lot of money.

Sixty million American adults are avid sports fans. Many of them, according to a pollster's maxim, only follow the presidential election when the World Series is over.

Some of them, who get all their news from sports channels, previously knew Kerry only as the big-haired guy who back in February had stood in a North Dakota bar cheering the New England Patriots to Superbowl victory. (If God is backing George W. Bush, then why are Massachussets sports teams suddenly hot?) Most avid fans are men, who tend to want persuading that Kerry is macho enough to fight a war. Thanks to the Sox and Patriots, he now looks macho.

This is ironic. It's true that Kerry is macho. However, it's doubtful that he cares much about either team. He is not by nature a spectator, and he prefers difficult individual sports to team games. Kerry is what psychologists call a “high sensation-seeker”. This reveals something about the sort of president he would be.

Raised in an Anglophile school ethos, the young Kerry was made to play team sports like soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse. He was good at them. But when free to choose, he has preferred sensation-seeking. On one college holiday, he was caught by Monte Carlo gendarmes retracing the route of the Monaco grand prix, driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Like many sensation-seekers, Kerry also became a pilot, and once in Israel performed a loop in an Air Force jet at 12,000 feet.

Keith Johnsgard, a clinical psychologist and author of Conquering Depression and Anxiety through Exercise, conducted a 10-year study of high-sensation seekers, of whom he himself is one. He explains that these people find it harder to feel pleasure because of their variant of dopamine receptor gene. To get their kicks, says Johnsgard, they do “things that involve real difficult interactions with nature, or speed”.

In about 2000, when Kerry was in his late fifties, he became one of the first few dozen people in New England to adopt the new terrifying sport of kitesurfing. This is a variant of windsurfing that involves a big kite.

When the wind catches your kite, you fly. While in the air, you can do dances. Then you might crash into something hard. Rick Iossi, director of the Florida Kitesurfing Association, has counted 24 deaths worldwide since the sport began in the late 1990s.

Sports also reveal Kerry to be an over-achiever, even by the standards of presidential candidates. He says he ran the Boston marathon in the 1970s, when nobody ran marathons.

Last year he finished 37th out of more than 3,000 riders in the pan-Massachussets bicycle race, covering the 110 miles in six-and-a-half hours, a freakish result for a man his age busy campaigning for president. And his surfing mentor, Nevin Sayre, describes Kerry windsurfing around Martha's Vineyard for eight hours before leaving the island at 4.30 the next morning to appear on Meet the Press. Kerry would presumably not spend 42 per cent of the first seven months of his presidency on holiday.

Nor is he the type to sit in the stands watching other people play. As he put it in a speech at prep school: “Resolved: that the growth of spectator sports in the western world in the last half century is an indication of the decline of western civilisation.”

The result is that when Kerry talks about baseball or American football, he flounders. He once named his favourite Red Sox player as Eddie Yost, who never actually played for the Sox. He called the Green Bay Packer football stadium Lambert Field instead of Lambeau Field. High-sensation seekers make bad sports fans.

I asked Johnsgard how they might do as presidents. He compared Kerry in the war room to a jet pilot, or to a doctor in an emergency room: with lots of information reaching him at high speed, he would be at his best. High-sensation seekers thrive under stress. “He would function in an excellent way,” predicted Johnsgard.

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