January 24, 2004
The Long War of John Kerry
Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, surprised observers by winning the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, and has surged in the polls in the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary next week. In this article from 2002, Joe Klein profiles Kerry.
On a rainy October morning, the day after Senator John Forbes Kerry, of Massachusetts, announced that he would reluctantly vote to give President George W. Bush the authority to use lethal force against Iraq, the Senator sat in his Capitol Hill office reminiscing about another war and another speech. The war was Vietnam. The speech was one he had delivered upon graduating from Yale, in 1966. Kerry was twenty-two at the time; he had already enlisted in the Navy. As one of Yale’s champion debaters and president of the Political Union, he had been selected to deliver the Class Oration, traditionally an Ivy-draped nostalgia piece. But the speech he gave, hastily rewritten at the last moment, was anything but traditional: it was a broad, passionate criticism of American foreign policy, including the war that he would soon be fighting.
I’d been trying to get a copy of this speech for several weeks, but Kerry’s staff had been unable to find one. There seemed a parallel—at least, a convenient journalistic analogy—to his statement the day before about Iraq: two questionable wars, both of which Kerry had decided to support, conditionally, even as he raised serious doubts about their propriety.
Kerry bristled at the analogy. He assumed that a familiar accusation was inherent in the comparison: that he was guilty of speaking boldly but acting politically. And it is true that from his earliest days in public life—a career that seems to have begun in prep school—even John Kerry’s closest friends have teased him about his overactive sense of destiny, his theatrical sense of gravitas, and his initials, which are the same as John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s. “I signed up for the Navy in 1965, the year before the Class Oration,” Kerry said now, with quiet vehemence. He repeated it, for emphasis: “I signed up for the Navy. There was very little thought of Vietnam. It seemed very far away. There was no connection between my decision to serve and the speech I made.”
But there was a connection, of sorts. Kerry had made the decision along with three close friends, classmates and fellow-members of Yale’s not so secret society, Skull and Bones: David Thorne, Richard Pershing, and Frederick Smith. All came from families with strong traditions of military and public service. Pershing was the grandson of General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War. (Richard Pershing was killed during the Tet offensive.) “Our decisions were all about our sense of duty,” Fred Smith, who went on to found Federal Express, recalls. “We were the Kennedy generation—you know, ‘Pay any price, bear any burden.’ That was the ethos.”
The week before John Kerry delivered the Class Oration, the fifteen Skull and Bones seniors went off on a final jaunt together to a fishing camp on an island in the St. Lawrence River. Fred Smith remembers spending the days idly, playing cards and drinking beer. David Thorne, however, says that there was a serious running discussion about Vietnam. “There were four of us going to war in a matter of months. That tends to concentrate the mind. This may have been the first time we really seriously began to question Vietnam. It was: ‘Hey, what the hell is going on over there? What the hell are we in for?’”
Kerry’s reaction to these discussions was intense and precipitate. He decided to rewrite the speech. His original address, which can still be found in the 1966 Yale yearbook, was “rather sophomoric,” he recalled. “I decided that I couldn’t give that speech. I couldn’t get up there and go through that claptrap. I remember there was no electricity in the cabin. I remember staying up with a candle writing my speech in the wee hours of the night, rewriting and rewriting. It reflected what I felt and what we were all thinking about. It got an incredible reception, a standing ovation.”
The Senator and I were sitting in wing chairs in his office, which is rather more elegant than those of his peers—the walls painted Chinese red with a dark lacquer glaze and covered with nineteenth-century nautical prints. There is a marble fireplace, a couch, a coffee table, the wing chairs: in sum, a room with a distinct sensibility, a reserved and private place. Kerry seemed weary. Our conversation was interrupted, from time to time, by phone calls from his supporters—most of whom seemed unhappy about his Iraq vote. At one point, he had to rush over to the Senate chamber to vote on another issue. When he returned, we began to talk about his time in Vietnam. He served as the captain of a small “swift boat,” ferrying troops up the rivers of the Mekong Delta. He was wounded three times in four months, and then sent home—the policy in Vietnam was three wounds and you’re out. He received a Bronze Star, for saving the life of a Special Forces lieutenant who had fallen overboard during a firefight, and a Silver Star. The latter, a medal awarded only for significant acts of courage, was the result of a three-boat counterattack Kerry had led against a Vietcong position on a riverbank. He had chased down, shot, and killed a man that day. The man had been carrying a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launcher. “You want to see what one of those can do to a boat?” he asked. “A couple of weeks after I left Vietnam, a swift boat captained by my close friend Don Droz—we called him Dinky—got hit with a B-40. He was killed. I still have the photo here somewhere.”
Kerry began to rummage around his desk and eventually pulled out a manila folder. “Here it is,” he said. The boat was mangled beyond recognition. “Oh my, look at this!” He held up a sheaf of yellowed, double-spaced, typewritten pages. It looked like an old college term paper, taken from a three-ring binder. “It’s the original copy of my Class Oration. What on earth is it doing here?”
He sat down again and studied the speech, transfixed. Then he began to read it aloud, curious, nostalgic, embarrassed by, and yet impressed with, his undergraduate eloquence. He read several pages. Worried looks passed between the two staff members who were in the room: Was he going to read the whole damn thing? “‘It is misleading to mention right and wrong in this issue, for to every thinking man, the semantics of this contest often find the United States right in its wrongness and wrong in its rightness,’” he read, swiftly, without oratorical flourish. “‘Neither am I arguing against the war itself. . . . I am criticizing the propensity—the ease—which the United States has for getting into this kind of situation—’”
He stopped and looked up, shaking his head, “Boy, was I a sophisticated nabob!” The two staff members exhaled. “You have to laugh at this now. . . . Do I even want this out?”
But he continued reading, unable to stop himself. He skipped several pages in the middle, then recited the entire peroration.
The Class Oration says a lot about John Kerry, who will soon announce his intention to run for President of the United States. It is a nuanced assessment of American foreign policy at a crossroads—delivered at a moment when the political leaders of the country should have been questioning basic assumptions but weren’t. Kerry did, however—a year before the antiwar movement began to gather strength and coherence. The speech was notable for its central thesis: “The United States must . . . bring itself to understand that the policy of intervention”—against Communism—“that was right for Western Europe does not and cannot find the same application to the rest of the world.”
Kerry went on:
In most emerging nations, the spectre of imperialist capitalism stirs as much fear and hatred as that of communism. To compound the problem, we continue to push forward our will only as we see it and in a fashion that only leads to more mistakes and deeper commitment. Where we should have instructed, it seems we did not; where we should have been patient, it seems we were not; where we should have stayed clear, it seems we would not. . . . Never in the last twenty years has the government of the United States been as isolated as it is today.
There is, nonetheless, something slightly off-putting about the speech. The portentous quality, the hijacking of Kennedyesque tics and switchbacks (“Where we should have instructed . . .”), the absence of irony, the absence of any sort of joy—all these rankle, and in a familiar way. This has been the knock against John Kerry for the past thirty years, ever since he captured the nation’s attention as the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group whose members staged a dramatic protest in Washington in April of 1971, camping out on the Mall and tossing their medals and combat ribbons onto the Capitol steps.
He seemed the world’s oldest twenty-seven-year-old that week, even though he was dressed in scruffy combat fatigues, his extravagant thatch of black hair gleaming, flopping over his ears and eyebrows—he looked a bit like the pre-hallucinogenic George Harrison. Kerry spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in much the same style as he’d spoken at Yale. His testimony was brilliant and succinct: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
He was an immediate celebrity. He was also an immediate target of the Nixon Administration. Years later, Chuck Colson—who was Nixon’s political enforcer—told me, “He was a thorn in our flesh. He was very articulate, a credible leader of the opposition. He forced us to create a counterfoil. We found a vet named John O’Neill and formed a group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. We had O’Neill meet the President, and we did everything we could do to boost his group.”
Kerry launched a national speaking tour; he spoke to the National Baptist Convention, was named an honorary member of the United Auto Workers, and spoke on campuses across the country. He was the subject of a “60 Minutes” profile. Morley Safer asked him if he wanted to be President of the United States. “No,” he said with a chuckle, after an instant’s surprise and calculation.
Serious as all this was—he was, for a moment, as Colson suggests, the most compelling leader of the antiwar movement—there was something uneasy, and perhaps even faintly risible, about it, too, particularly the ill-disguised Kennedy playacting. Even as Kerry delivered his Senate testimony, he distorted his natural speech to sound more like that earlier J.F.K.; for example, he occasionally “ahsked” questions. (Kerry had befriended Robert F. Kennedy’s speechwriter Adam Walinsky and consulted him about the speech, bouncing phrases and ideas off the old master.) This sort of thing had been a source of merriment for his classmates ever since prep school, where the joke was that his initials really stood for “Just For Kerry.” He had volunteered to work on Edward Kennedy’s 1962 Senate campaign, had dated Janet Auchincloss, who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s half sister, had hung out at Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss family’s estate in Newport, and had gone sailing with the President. A practical joke—one of many, apparently—was played on him in the 1966 Yale yearbook: he was listed as a member of the Young Republicans. After his 1971 antiwar début in Washington, his fellow-Yalie Garry Trudeau lampooned him in the “Doonesbury” comic strip.
The jokes have never really abated. William Bulger, a state senator from South Boston and the dean of that city’s clever politicians, nicknamed Kerry Live Shot, for his homing instinct when it came to television cameras. Indeed, Kerry’s every move—the fact that he tossed his combat ribbons, not his medals, onto the Capitol steps; the fact that he had corrective jaw surgery (to fix a clicking sound, which had been compounded by a hockey injury); the fact, most recently, that he married the wealthy widow Teresa Heinz, whose late husband, Senator H. John Heinz III, was an heir to the ketchup fortune—all these were assumed to be political and were subjected to ridicule. “We were pretty rough on him over the years,” Martin Nolan, a recently retired member of the Boston Globe’s mostly Irish and extremely raucous stable of political writers, says. “He was an empty suit, he was Live Shot, he never passed a mirror without saying hello.”
Indeed, John Kerry has always looked as if he had been requisitioned from central casting: preposterously dignified, profoundly vertical. He is six feet four inches tall, and his narrow frame, long face, and sloping shoulders make him seem even taller. His face is a collection of strong features that inaccurately suggest an Irish heritage, as does his name: his father’s family was mostly from Austria. He has a practically endless jaw, a prominent nose, and eyebrows that hang like a set of quotation marks beside grayish-blue eyes. And then there is the hair, which is so melodramatically profuse and puffy that it seems an encumbrance almost too weighty for his long, thin neck.
“He’s cursed to look like that,” says Bob Kerrey, the president of New School University, who served with Kerry in the Senate and is a fellow combat veteran of Vietnam. “His looks say something about him that is different from what he actually is. He’s very easy to hang out with. There isn’t an excessive use of the pronoun ‘I.’ There’s a genuine person there, a very approachable person, a very honorable person.” Other friends reflexively assume a defensive posture when describing him: He’s not the loner that he once was, he’s not as aloof, he’s more comfortable than he used to be, he’s grown as a person—although people have been saying these sorts of things about him, especially at election time, for the past twenty years.
Kerry’s aristocratic reserve, his utter inability to pose as a populist, is not a quality recently associated with successful candidates for President of the United States. His voice and manner are cultured, Brahmin; he seems the sort of person who might ask for a “splash” of coffee, as George H. W. Bush did, to his political embarrassment, at a truck stop during the 1988 campaign. That Kerry is a Massachusetts liberal does not recommend him highly, either: the last three such candidates were Ted Kennedy, Paul Tsongas, and Michael Dukakis, and the latter’s campaign has become shorthand for the disastrously effete, National Public Radio tendencies of the Democratic Party. Kerry has consistently voted for gun control, for abortion rights, and for environmental protection, and has opposed the death penalty; he has voted with Kennedy about ninety-six per cent of the time.
“But it’s important to look at that other four per cent,” David McKean, his chief of staff, says. Kerry does tend to be more fiscally conservative than Kennedy. He was one of the first Democrats to sign on to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget proposals of the eighties; he favors free trade; he voted for welfare reform; he has even, on occasion, delivered speeches that raised questions about such bedrock liberal dogma as affirmative action and guaranteed tenure for public-school teachers.
His great strength is his mastery of foreign affairs and military policy. His willingness to criticize the Bush Administration on these subjects has distinguished him from the other eminent Democrats who wandered the country during the recent election season, hoping to make a Presidential impression on the Party faithful. In fact, he often derided “a new conventional wisdom of consultants, pollsters, and strategists who argue . . . that Democrats should be the party of domestic issues only.”
Kerry’s criticism of the Bush foreign policy is meticulous and comprehensive. It begins with the Administration’s gratuitously ideological diplomatic actions in the year before the September 11th terrorist attacks. On Bush’s decision to simply walk away from the Kyoto global-warming treaty, for example, he told me, “One hundred and sixty nations spent ten years working to get to a certain place and the United States just stands up and dismisses it out of hand. The Administration doesn’t say we’re going to try to fix it, doesn’t say we respect your work, doesn’t say we’re going to try to find the common ground where we do have some differences. It just declares it dead. Now, what do we think those presidents of those countries, those prime ministers and those finance ministers, those environmental ministers are? Are they all dumb? Are we telling them they are absolutely incapable of making judgments about science, that the ten years of work that they’ve invested in conference after conference, many of which I attended, was absolutely for naught? That makes us friends in the world?”
Kerry extends this argument beyond the usual liberal critique: the unilateralist approach, he says, damages America’s ability to do the intelligence gathering and wage the unconventional warfare that are at the heart of an effective campaign against terrorists and rogue states. He is critical of both the Clinton and Bush Administrations for their uncertain, and too frequently unsubtle, use of American power. Although he voted against the Gulf War in 1991, he has supported military action against Iraq in the years since—indeed, he was a co-sponsor of the resolution that threatened force against Iraq in 1998, when Saddam Hussein sent the United Nations weapons inspectors home. But he is a critic of the Pentagon’s old-fashioned Cold War doctrine of overwhelming air power, its overcautious use of ground troops, and its skepticism about the efficacy of unconventional war-fighting assets, like the Special Forces. Early on, he criticized the Bush Administration for its tactics in Afghanistan, its slapdash and unsuccessful effort to trap the Al Qaeda leadership at Tora Bora—and particularly its decision not to use American troops to surround the mountain redoubt. “When given the opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda, the President turned not to the best military in the history of man,” he said in July, “but rather turned to Afghan warlords who only a week earlier were on the other side.”
Kerry’s foreign policy seems a muscular multilateralism: active, detailed engagement with the countries in the Middle East and elsewhere; less pompous rhetoric and more of the patient scut work—the diplomatic consultation, the building of direct relationships with local intelligence and police agencies—that will make an occasional use of force by America more palatable. There is an implication that much of the Bush Administration’s bombast has been for domestic political consumption, an attempt to sound tougher than Bill Clinton did. “The Administration mistakes tough rhetoric for tough policy,” Kerry told me. “They may gain short-term domestic advantage as a result, but they are damaging the long-term security of the country. This is a far more complicated world than the ideologues of the Administration care about or understand.”
Finally, Kerry broadens his practical critique of Bush’s foreign policy to add some vision. Specifically, he says that the President missed an opportunity, in the weeks after September 11th, to call the nation to a larger cause: energy independence. In October of 2001, Kerry proposed a concerted energy-conservation campaign, including higher fuel-efficiency standards in automobiles and a “Manhattan Project” to develop renewable sources of energy. “No American son or daughter should ever again be sent abroad to die for oil,” he often says on the stump, invariably to ovations from the Democratic faithful.
This is a complicated message, and—except for the one sound bite—a difficult one to deliver at a political rally. But Kerry’s knowledge and conviction, and the fact that his words sound different from the market-tested slogans that other Democrats were rehearsing this autumn, gave him a credibility that his competitors in the larval Presidential race were missing. For the first time in his career, he didn’t seem precocious. “I think he’s had a hell of a year,” James Carville, the political strategist, said. “Why? Because he’s actually saying something. People do notice that, you know. The other thing is, 9/11 made the Commander-in-Chief part of the Presidency important again, and that’s helped him, too, because of his military background. And, finally, he’s not conflicted about this. He’s not testing the waters. He’s immersed in the waters. He’s growing gills.”
In late September, Kerry went to Charleston, South Carolina—the site of the first Southern primary in 2004 and a newly crucial state in the Presidential process—to campaign for Phil Leventis, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Leventis served as a pilot during the Gulf War, and various veterans’ groups had gathered to announce their support for him. It was a perfect, cloudless Saturday. Kerry and Leventis stood in Marion Square, posed before a carefully arranged group of Vietnam combat veterans, most of whom wore blue knit shirts and boonie hats. Kerry gave a short but passionate speech about the service and sacrifice of the vets, about the Bush Administration’s attempt to stint on some promised benefits. But he was speaking into a void. There was no audience. There was a single television camera, standing like a scarecrow in an empty field.
The real business of the day was transacted afterward. Kerry mingled easily with the vets, who were mostly African-American; he cussed and joked and talked about places like Da Nang and Da Lat. A pink-faced overweight man approached. “I’m Jim Gunn,” he said to Kerry. “Do you remember me?”
Kerry nodded warily. Gunn was the leader of the Coalition of Retired Military Veterans and had attacked Senator John McCain during the 2000 Republican Presidential primary in South Carolina. Kerry had written a letter protesting the charges that another veterans’ group had made against McCain—essentially, that McCain was “anti-veteran”—and he had got the other Vietnam combat veterans in the Senate to sign it. Now Jim Gunn said to him, “I just want you to know, Senator, that you were right about McCain and I was wrong. Bush lied to my face, and I’ll never support him again.” Gunn proceeded to file a bill of particulars against the President on veterans’ issues. Then he sighed and said, “I wish there was a machine that could really say when someone is telling the truth, but you sound sincere when you talk about our issues. I represent seventeen thousand vets in South Carolina—I’m like their union boss—and if you run for President next time we’re with you.”
The scene was a striking reversal from the first time I’d seen Kerry campaign—in 1972, when he ran for Congress from a district that centered on the old mill towns, like Lawrence and Lowell, north of Boston. Crowds were easy in those days, especially crowds of young people; the Kerry campaign was a portable protest march. But the candidate didn’t spend much time trying to find common ground with older veterans, like Jim Gunn, who still favored the war, and their enmity was a factor in his eventual defeat. In fact, Kerry was a fairly awful candidate, if I remember correctly—stiff, pompous, delivering the functional equivalent of his Senate testimony to elderly Portuguese shoe workers worried about their jobs and looking for some human contact. “That sounds right,” Kerry told me recently. “If there’s a balance like this in politics”—he held his two hands evenly in front of him—“issues over here and personal politics over here, I came into this business heavily on the issues side. I wanted to end the war.” He raised his right hand and lowered his left. “I never had a mentor. I never worked beside a Tip O’Neill, I didn’t have a Honey Fitz,” he said, referring to the late Speaker of the House and to John Kennedy’s grandfather. “I just came from a different place. I had to learn by making mistakes.”
Kerry had won a tough Democratic primary that year and coasted, ten points ahead, into what seemed an easy election campaign against an unknown Republican named Paul Cronin. But he neglected to do his homework with the ancient, feudal Democratic Party organizations in the mill towns—that was considered the “old” politics—and the Lowell Sun launched a withering assault against him. “It was an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness,” he says now. “There was nothing we could do to reverse it.”
By all accounts, the loss was devastating. It was the first deviation from the career trajectory he had imagined for himself in prep school. “He came to my home in New Hampshire that weekend,” his friend George Butler, a documentary filmmaker who was then a freelance photographer, recalls. “He wouldn’t say a word to anyone. He sat there Friday night and built an entire model ship from scratch. On Saturday, he and I climbed a mountain together. He still wasn’t talking. At the top of the mountain, I took a picture of him—I must have taken five thousand pictures of him over the years, but that was one of the best. He was the most despondent-looking human being I had ever seen.”
Kerry has never been the most sociable fellow. He grew up lonely: his father was a foreign-service officer who was rarely home; his mother was a member of the aristocratic Forbes family—they made their fortune in the China trade—but she was one of eleven siblings and the fortune had been subdivided into insignificance by the time John Kerry’s generation came along. He was brought up among the wealthy, but his was a threadbare, erstwhile aristocracy. There were many houses, most of them other people’s houses: in Brittany (a Forbes family estate, where his mother had spent much of her youth); on Naushon Island, just off Cape Cod (another Forbes retreat); in Washington; in Groton, Massachusetts. He had been sent to boarding school in Switzerland, and hated it (he speaks fluent French and some Italian). He was then sent to boarding school in the United States, to St. Paul’s, in Concord, New Hampshire. He was one of a handful of Catholic students; they were sent to Mass on Sunday in a taxi.
In one of our conversations, I asked Kerry how he became interested in politics. His interest was a result, he replied, of seeing the impact of the war in Europe as a child. “My very first memory—I was three years old—is holding my mother’s hand and she was crying, and I didn’t know why, as we walked through the broken glass and rubble of her childhood house in France, which the Germans had used as a headquarters and then bombed and burned as they left. I remember a staircase going up into the sky, and I remember a chimney into the sky. Those were the two images—that was all that was left. I remember going to the beach at Normandy on a subsequent trip, in 1951, and seeing burned-out landing vehicles, and the bunkers, and playing in those bunkers. And then we lived in Berlin for a brief period of time, with the Communists right on the other side of the sector. The Cold War was very real to me, more so than for most people my age.”
There were constant policy discussions, and guests from the diplomatic community, at the dinner table; for Kerry, talking politics was the best way to communicate with his father. “John grew up in Europe, as I did,” David Thorne, his friend from Yale, says. “He grew up around a lot of fancy people, as I did. But I think he grew up very much alone, and it showed. He rubbed a lot of people in school the wrong way—but then it was rare to see someone so intent on a career in public service at such a young age.” Indeed, many of Kerry’s friends joke that he was acting as if he were President in high school.
These days, the Senator is quite conscious of that ever-earnest image. “Look, I was a very serious guy except for when I was a non-serious guy,” he said. “I knew how to have a lot of fun, sometimes too much. There were plenty of times when I was disengaged, frivolous, four sheets to the wind on a weekend.” (Kerry has admitted to smoking marijuana a few times, but, sadly, he claims to have been bothered by the smoke.)
“We did do some wild things together—flying planes, running with the bulls in Pamplona,” Thorne recalls. “He was very gutsy, always pushing—let’s do this, let’s do that.” Kerry’s physical daring—as a skier, a windsurfer, a motorcycle rider, a stunt pilot—remains a source of wonder among his friends. He was, apparently, something of a cowboy in Vietnam as well. His old crewmates remember that he played rock music over the boat’s loudspeaker system—the Doors, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix—before they went on patrol. “He starred in that Marlon Brando movie, ‘Apocalypse Now,’ long before they ever made it,” Gene Thorson, a former crewmate, says.
To release the tension after a trip up the river, Kerry would often instigate chicken races between the swift boats, cutting over each other’s wakes. He also organized water-balloon battles. Once, his three-boat squadron attacked an American supply ship at night with flares. “The brass was not too happy about that,” Kerry recalled. “But what were they going to do to us, send us to Vietnam?”
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt later joked that he wasn’t sure if he should give Kerry the Silver Star or court-martial him for his actions on February 28, 1969. Kerry had ignored standard operating procedure as his squadron ferried troops up the river that day. “He had talked to me about trying something different,” Mike Medeiros, a crew member from San Leandro, California, said. “He said he was tired of just going up the river and getting shot at. He asked me what I thought about turning to attack the enemy positions if we took fire and no one was hurt. I said it might not be a bad idea.”
If he turned his boats toward the shore, Kerry believed, he would transform a long, horizontal target into a narrower, vertical one. “It would concentrate both of our machine guns directly on the point of fire and surprise the hell out of them,” and it would keep the twenty soldiers each boat was carrying astern out of the line of fire, Kerry recalled. “When the firing began, I gave the order to turn and—phoom!—we just went in and beached and took them by complete surprise, and we routed them and we didn’t take a wound.”
As Kerry’s boat crashed ashore, a lone Vietcong stood up holding a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launcher. “When he first stood up, he froze, because he didn’t expect to see us staring him in the face, literally ten yards away.” The man was wounded by one of Kerry’s crewmates and began to run; Kerry leaped off the boat and chased him. “I didn’t want to let him get away. I didn’t want him to run away and turn around with an active B-40 and take us out. There but for the grace of God . . . The guy could have pulled the trigger and I wouldn’t be here today.”
It has been widely, and inaccurately, reported that Kerry filmed this and other actions with an 8-mm. movie camera. The films were in fact mostly travelogues and clowning-around shots on the boat. More than a few other vets recorded their adventures in Vietnam. “We did it for our families,” Kerry told me. “We wanted to have a record of where we’d been. We wanted them to know what it had been like if we got killed.”
As always, however, there was a sense that Kerry saw these home movies as part of a larger, more heroic film. “He was very much aware of the stage,” David Thorne says. “He knew that his actions in Vietnam might have some bearing on his future life. But none of us could anticipate the impact—the psychological trauma—the war would have on us. John’s been able to live with the demons of combat, but they are there and they’ve given his life shape and meaning in a way that he never anticipated.” Thorne went on, “In a way, it was harder coming back than being there. You know, we got home, and it was, ‘What the fuck was that all about?’ Vietnam Veterans Against the War was one big T-group. People like Jane Fonda wanted to make it into a political movement, but all we wanted to do was hug each other.”
The second reel of John Kerry’s Heroic Life Story, the twenty years from 1972 to 1992, turned out to be somewhat less heroic than the protagonist might have hoped. His celebrity evaporated with the congressional defeat in 1972. But the residue of the war remained—he had nightmares, at times so intense that he’d wake up screaming, leap out of bed, and slam into walls—and there was now a life to be constructed. Kerry didn’t abandon his political dream, but he revised it prosaically: he would pay his dues. He went to Boston College law school; he became an assistant district attorney in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office. He built a reputation as a successful prosecutor, raised money for other Democrats, and waited for his moment.
In 1970, Kerry had married David Thorne’s twin sister, Julia; they had two daughters, born in 1973 and 1976. According to friends, Julia was not a typical political wife. “There were times at dinner parties when John would be very pompous, unable to control his impulse to make a speech,” one acquaintance said. “It was all slightly laughable, and Julia was one of those who laughed. She’d say things like, ‘What the fuck did you just say?’”
Kerry is understandably loath to talk about the details of the marriage; his reticence is compounded by the fact that Julia was suffering from severe depression. She eventually wrote a book about the illness, called “You Are Not Alone.” It began:
February 1980, five months after my thirty-sixth birthday, my mind ravaged by corroding voices, my body defeated by bone-rattling panics, I sat on the edge of my bed minutes from taking my life. . . . I could no longer pretend I was of use to my husband or my children. . . . I knew that, once I was gone, my family and friends would be relieved of the burden of my incompetency.
They separated in 1982, after Kerry decided to run for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Julia’s mental condition was precarious, but Kerry chose to push ahead with the race. “When I get focussed and set out to do something, I’m pretty good at staying focussed,” Kerry told me. “You don’t want to let yourself down, you know what I’m saying? One loss is enough. You don’t have to screw up everything else.” He went on to say that there were days during the campaign when he and Julia would have wrenching morning discussions about their children and their future living arrangements, “and then, in the afternoon, I’d have to put on a smiling face and say, ‘Hi, I’m John Kerry, I’d like you to vote for me,’ and I’d feel empty inside doing it. It was not an easy process.”
David Thorne calls the separation “an extended psychodrama.” There were, apparently, several attempts to reconcile, but the divorce became final in 1988. Julia is now living in Montana.
John Kerry’s first two statewide election campaigns, for lieutenant governor, in 1982, and, two years later, for United States senator, were successful, but not exactly triumphant. He was a more personable campaigner than he’d been in 1972; he worked hard, debated well, raised money relentlessly (and he had to spend more time raising it than most, because he refused to take contributions from political-action committees), but he was accepted only grudgingly by the state’s Democratic Party establishment. “He was yesterday’s hero, and he was frustrated by the fact that, every time he ran, the liberals would find some other darling,” a close associate says. “In 1982, it was a woman, Evelyn Murphy, whom Michael Dukakis wanted as his running mate. In 1984, it was Jim Shannon.”
Shannon was the sort of candidate the Boston Globe loved: blue-collar background, a member of Congress, charming, a Tip O’Neill protégé. The primary contest was brutal. “He was not a very likable guy,” Shannon recalls of Kerry. “But he knew how to run a statewide campaign and I didn’t. There were no real differences between us on the issues.”
Kerry was so distressed by the newspaper coverage that he invited the Globe’s editor, Michael Janeway, to breakfast after the election. “He wanted to know why we were so rough on him,” Janeway recalled. “I reminded him about Sam Rayburn’s classic political categories. I said, ‘John, there are workhorses and show horses, and I guess our staff considers you a show horse.’”
Ted Kennedy, who has now served as a United States senator from Massachusetts for forty years, is both a workhorse and a show horse. He dominates the Senate’s domestic-policy agenda, but he has also come to be considered, in his old age, something of a card. He is a devilish tease—and, according to Senate colleagues, John Kerry has been a perfect pigeon. “Their relationship is good, far better than it was with Kerry’s predecessor, Paul Tsongas,” a former Kennedy aide said. “In fact, Kerry has been very skillful when it comes to playing Teddy. But Teddy sure knows how to torture John.”
A few weeks ago, I asked Kennedy about his junior colleague. He launched a series of respectful encomiums, but couldn’t resist a tiny jab. I mentioned that he and Kerry had very different styles, even though both were New England aristocrats. Kennedy’s style was more emotional, I suggested—at which point the Senator interrupted me, saying, “John comes from a great Massachusetts tradition as well: Leverett Saltonstall, Henry Cabot Lodge . . . ”
“Senator, you’re naming only Republicans,” I noted (and rather stuffy Brahmin Republicans at that).
Kennedy smiled slightly and replied, “Yes, but they made their mark. They were winners.”
When John Kerry arrived in the Senate, in 1985, his first challenge was to figure out how to coexist with Kennedy. There were two possible strategies. One was to settle back and take a seat on the Appropriations Committee, a sure ticket to perpetuity in the Senate. The job of appropriators is to decide how to spend federal money; as politicians, they tend to be as blowsy and lugubrious as the bills that stumble out of their committee. Obviously, this was not the sort of career John Kerry had intended for himself, and so he chose the Foreign Relations Committee, which, by the mid-eighties, was not nearly as glamorous as it had been during the Vietnam era. The public was no longer very interested in foreign policy; and for a politician it held little practical allure—no taxing, no spending, no hardware to buy, no regulations to set. “But it was about war and peace,” Kerry said. “We were entering an illegal war in Latin America. One of the lessons of Vietnam was about lying, about people who hide the truth from the American people, and there was a real parallel in Latin America.”
Kerry started a series of investigations into the Reagan Administration’s involvement with the Nicaraguan Contras, a guerrilla group opposed to the left-wing Sandinista government. His subcommittee on narcotics and terrorism revealed that Oliver North, a junior Marine officer assigned to the White House, was in charge of funnelling arms to the Contras; and suggested that some of the C.I.A. operatives who supplied the Contras were flying narcotics back to the United States (a fact that the C.I.A. finally acknowledged almost a decade later); and then that Panama’s dictator Manuel Noriega had been involved with the arms-running, the drug-running, and the C.I.A. From there, Kerry began to investigate Noriega’s money-laundering operation, which was run through the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, in the Cayman Islands. The B.C.C.I. trail led to its partner, First American Bank, in Washington, D.C., which was represented by Clark Clifford, who had served every Democratic President from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter. “John wasn’t a very popular guy when he called Clark Clifford to testify,” David McKean, the committee’s chief investigator at the time, said. “Most of the other members of the committee were uncomfortable with it. I remember that one senator cornered Kerry in the elevator and said, ‘What are you doing to my old friend Clark Clifford?’ But those hearings were the first real look at how terrorists, drug dealers, and international criminals conducted their business.”
Indeed, Kerry was soon about as popular in Washington’s political community as he’d been in Massachusetts. “He was a very driven, very relentless guy, and that could be off-putting to his colleagues,” Timothy E. Wirth, who was a senator from Colorado at the time and later became Kerry’s friend, recalls. “He was an outsider. In fact, you never saw him around much, with good reason—he was up in Boston with his girls. My sense is that Julia wasn’t always reliable during those years, and John took a lot of responsibility for raising the kids. He would rush up there for every school play and soccer match. You had the sense that he was a very lonely guy. He was being hacked to death by the Globe, and others, and he never had anyone to share it with.”
Kerry was easily reëlected to the Senate in 1990, but his political career was in remission. His Presidential ambitions seemed vestigial; he wasn’t even mentioned as a possible candidate in 1992. At times, Kerry’s name appeared more often in the gossip columns than on the editorial pages; rumors about his romantic life were frequent, and occasionally disdainful.
But the third reel of John Kerry’s Heroic Life Story was about to begin; and it started where the first had ended, in Vietnam.
"When he ran for lieutenant governor in 1982, John didn’t want to have anything to do with Vietnam,” Cameron Kerry, the Senator’s younger brother, who managed the campaign, says. “He didn’t even want us to show a picture of him in uniform in the campaign ads.”
Vietnam was inescapable, of course. In 1984, Jim Shannon had deployed a group of anti-Kerry veterans; their attacks were effective and discomfiting. The Kerry campaign found no effective response until after the final debate, and then the antidote arrived by accident. Shannon brought up Vietnam and, in effect, called Kerry a hypocrite because he’d fought in a war he didn’t believe in.
The next day, Kerry headquarters was deluged with calls from infuriated veterans: Shannon hadn’t fought in Vietnam; they hadn’t been so lucky—and they hadn’t “chosen” to go to war, either. In their final debate, Kerry asked for an apology, and Shannon said, “That dog won’t hunt.”
An emotional rally of Vietnam veterans had already been held at the State House, and now a flying squad, which called itself the Doghunters, was organized to confront Shannon. It has been a fixture in every Kerry campaign since. “After the 1984 election, the Doghunters had a black-tie dinner at my house, and the only thing we didn’t drink was the Aqua Velva,” John Marttila, a political consultant who has worked on every Kerry campaign, says. “They’ve had regular dinners ever since. When you see John with those guys, you realize what bullshit the stuffy, aloof caricature of him is. I think he may be at his best, his most comfortable, with other Vietnam veterans.”
Over time, that proved to be true in the Senate as well. In 1991, the Majority Leader, George Mitchell, of Maine, asked Kerry to chair a committee to investigate the possibility that American prisoners of war were still being held in Vietnam. The Rambo films were in vogue then; various paramilitary charlatans were raising money from the families of those missing in action to go on “rescue” missions in Vietnam; Newsweek had published, on its cover, a photograph of three Americans allegedly held in a Vietnamese prison camp (the picture was soon found to have been doctored).
“Nobody wanted to be on that damn committee,” Bob Kerrey said. “It was an absolute loser. Everyone knew that the P.O.W. stories were fabrications, but no one wanted to offend the vet community.” George Mitchell and John Kerry began twisting arms. Kerrey, John McCain, Chuck Robb, and Hank Brown—all the other Vietnam combat vets then in the Senate—agreed to serve on the committee, as did Daniel Inouye and Bob Dole, who were Second World War veterans. (Al Gore was the only Vietnam-era vet who refused.)
“I wasn’t very close to John before that,” John McCain recalls. “I thought he was standoffish and pedantic. Actually, no—I was the standoffish one, because I didn’t agree with what he’d done, the protest where they threw away their medals.” In fact, McCain had campaigned against Kerry during the general election of 1984. “But I gained a great deal of respect, and affection, for John during those P.O.W.-M.I.A. hearings. He was a lot more mature, a lot more patient than I was.” Kerry was especially helpful when some of the more extreme P.O.W.-movement types testified before the committee. “I’d see the way some of these guys were exploiting the families of those missing in action, and I’d begin to get angry,” McCain went on, “and John would sense it and put his hand on my arm to calm me down before I’d lose”—McCain paused and smiled—“my effectiveness.”
Kerry and McCain went to Vietnam together; they visited the cell where McCain had been held as a prisoner of war. “Just to stand there alone in this tiny cell with McCain, just to look at this guy who was now a United States senator, and my friend, in the very place where he’d been tortured, and kept for so many years, not knowing if he might live,” Kerry began a sentence one day, sitting in his Capitol office—and then he seemed unable to finish the thought, unwilling to break through his public reserve. “We found this common ground in this far-off place.”
After more than a year of research and eight trips to Vietnam, Kerry managed to cajole a unanimous vote from his committee—including two Republicans, Bob Smith, of New Hampshire, and Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, who had been banging the P.O.W. drum the loudest—in favor of a report saying it was very unlikely that any Americans had been left behind in Vietnam. It was the sort of labor-intensive, quietly useful work that other senators notice and respect. The committee’s unanimity made it possible for Bill Clinton to normalize relations with Vietnam, in 1995. In a practical way, Kerry had at last brought an end to the war that had dominated so much of his adult life.
There was a personal consequence as well. The time Kerry spent with McCain—and, to a lesser extent, with Bob Kerrey and Chuck Robb—completed the transformation that the Doghunters had begun. He was no longer a political loner; he was, finally, part of a distinct, bipartisan, and emotionally intense group: the Vietnam combat veterans in the United States Senate. (Max Cleland, of Georgia, and Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska joined the group in 1996; Kerrey and Robb departed in 2000.) They took common positions on veterans’ issues, and sometimes on questions of war and peace, but they were most passionately united when one or another of them was attacked.
Remarkably, most have had aspects of their service called into question over the past decade—evidence that Vietnam remains the primary political battlefield of the baby-boom generation. Kerry’s service was questioned during his 1996 Senate race against Governor William Weld; a column in the Boston Globe asserted that his actions had been imprudent and excessive in the battle for which he received the Silver Star. Earlier, in 1984, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kerry had tossed away his combat ribbons, not his medals, at the 1971 protest in Washington. Kerry had never implied otherwise (indeed, the protesters that day had tossed all sorts of things—dog tags, photographs, discharge papers, insignia), but he had complicated the story with an excess of honesty, recalling that he’d also tossed several medals that had been given him by veterans who were unable to make the trip. The journalistic shorthand became: Kerry tossed someone else’s medals.
The Doghunters came to Kerry’s defense in both cases, and the stories had little impact. Others in the Senate caucus didn’t get off so easily. There were the attacks on McCain by pro-Bush veterans in 2000, which helped scuttle his Presidential campaign in South Carolina. And then, in the spring of 2001, Bob Kerrey was accused of participating in a massacre of Vietnamese women and children. “John called and asked me to go to New York to help Bob get through it,” Tom Vallely, a veteran and longtime Kerry friend who advised the P.O.W.-M.I.A. committee, said. “I stayed there for several weeks, helping Bob with the press strategy, doing whatever I could.”
Kerry, Cleland, and Hagel defended Kerrey in a Washington Post op-ed column; they were joined by McCain to defend Kerrey on ABC’s Sunday-morning political program “This Week.” “I just thought people were piling on after the fact, making judgments they had no knowledge about, that they had no right to make,” Kerry told me later. “And I felt very much concerned about Bob personally, because he’s a friend and I love him dearly.”
“Love” is not a word often tossed around by United States senators, particularly with regard to other United States senators. But Bob Kerrey uses it as well: “The feeling we all have is the closest guys get to love.”
Finding his place among comrades was John Kerry’s first step in from the political cold. There were two others, frequently cited by friends: his victory over William Weld in the 1996 Massachusetts Senate race and his improbable second marriage, to Teresa Heinz.
The notion that John Kerry married Teresa Heinz for political reasons—specifically, to use her money to run for President—is put to rest within nanoseconds of meeting her: this is a flagrantly impolitic human being. The marriage is bursting with strong emotions and ill-concealed conflicts, and much too complicated for the facile armchair psychologizing that goes on during a Presidential campaign. It is not the sort of relationship that an ambitious politician, in his right mind, would want; it is likely to be a distraction for the press corps, an easy way to obscure the campaign’s “message.” One can only conclude, it must be love.
Heinz will not be censored. “John went on too long,” she said the day I met her, after watching her husband deliver his Iraq speech in the Senate Chamber on c-span. “But that’s what happens when he starts thinking about history.”
We were sitting in the study of Mrs. Heinz’s Georgetown home—the walls were painted in the same darkened, glossy Chinese red as Kerry’s Senate office, but they were covered with priceless art, in particular Dutch still-lifes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We were not alone. Chris Black, formerly of the Boston Globe and CNN, sat with us—she was hired to help Mrs. Heinz with the press after a Washington Post story, widely regarded in the political community as disastrous, described the quirky quality of the marriage. The story emphasized Mrs. Heinz’s enduring devotion to her first husband, John Heinz, who died in a plane crash in 1991. There are pictures of Heinz throughout the house, and Kerry’s staff refer to her as “Mrs. Heinz.” And so I began by asking a slightly wicked question: “How did you meet your husband?”
“You mean John—John Kerry,” she said. We spent the next several hours talking, much of the time taken up by Heinz’s long monologues about her past—she grew up in Mozambique, the daughter of a Portuguese doctor—and her work as an environmentalist and as a social-policy expert, which is quite impressive (among other things, Massachusetts recently adopted a means-tested prescription-drug plan for senior citizens that was developed by the Heinz family foundation).
But Heinz’s descriptions of the courtship with Kerry, which began when they were both delegates to the 1992 Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, were cautious and dispassionate. She seemed to be trying out a new, more politic story line; she had clearly been rehearsed, but she was unrehearsable. She went to Mass with Kerry in Rio, she recalled, and heard him singing in Portuguese. “I found that interesting,” she said. (He explained that he knew some Italian and had been faking it.) They were joined for dinner by Senators Frank Lautenberg and Larry Pressler, neither of whom is known as a barrel of laughs, but the meal somehow turned out to be riotous fun. They spent the evening, she said, mocking the inanities of public life.
Months later, in Washington, there was another dinner, and Kerry offered to drive her home. They stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; he showed her the names of his friends on the granite wall. When he dropped her off in Georgetown, he didn’t accompany her to the door, which irked her. (Kerry claims that he was double-parked, with a bus coming up behind him.) “I thought he was interesting, but . . . a specimen who’d been out in the woods a long time,” she said, in her softly accented English. “He was like having a pet wolf who comes in and you say, ‘Yeh, cute.’” She made a face and pulled away. “I need to teach him a couple of things. I think many people who get married late in life and who haven’t been married have adjustment problems.” (Several times, Heinz noted that Kerry “had never been married,” an odd elision, which one friend attributed to her Catholicism: “She is not comfortable with the fact that he was married and divorced.”)
Heinz’s eccentricities and her awkward candor are indeed an easy target, but they are also misleading, according to friends, who are vehement in their support of the marriage. “She is incredibly loving and involved in his life,” says former Senator Tim Wirth, who, with his wife, Wren, has been among Heinz’s closest friends. “She won’t let him get away with the things he used to keep to himself. She forces him to talk, to express emotions. This has been terrific for him.”
Heinz is five years older than Kerry, and there is a motherly quality to her descriptions of him: “John has an elegant mind. His thinking is not brutish. He really likes to take his time, talk things through, to deliberate.” In fact, his interests in the world are “insatiable,” she said. “We see a beautiful sunset and he says, ‘I really want to know how to paint that.’ He’s learning the classical guitar, he’s learning windsurfing, he’s learning sky-whatever-it-is, and I say, ‘You got married, remember. What else do you want to learn?’”
I asked her once more about their courtship. “I think what happens when you’re older and you’ve had a relationship like the one I’d had”—she was referring to her twenty-five years with John Heinz—“your measurements aren’t quite the same. You find the things that are comfortable, like old shoes. Talking about a lot of issues, that was comfortable. It was nice to do that again. There were other things that were familiar, like languages, like having lived in Europe. . . . And then you get to the point where you like somebody so much that when you’re not with him you miss him. We were careful. I certainly was careful. It’s not like you’re eighteen and it’s ahhh.” Mrs. Heinz paused, and changed the subject slightly. “And then, of course, we got married, and we had that wonderful Senate race. That was our wedding present.”
The 1996 Senate campaign between John Kerry and William Weld was the rarest of events in latter-day American politics: a civil, closely contested, intelligent, and wildly entertaining brawl. “Both candidates were incredibly popular,” the Kerry consultant John Marttila said. “Both had sixty-per-cent favorable ratings, and negatives in the twenties. And they maintained their popularity throughout the race.”
Both were Brahmins, but Weld, with a shock of strawberry hair and irony to burn, seemed an honorary Hibernian—once again, Kerry was faced with an opponent bound to be favored by the reportorial romantics at the Boston Globe. “We were both comers,” recalls Weld, who had just been reëlected governor, with seventy-one per cent of the vote. “We were both at the height of our powers. If I’d won that race, I was going to turn straight around and run for President in 2000. I think he was, too—although I guess he eventually decided that Gore had too big a head start.”
The campaign began with a remarkable agreement to limit campaign spending, negotiated face to face by the two candidates in Kerry’s Beacon Hill mansion. They also agreed to a series of eight debates, some of which would be Lincoln-Douglas style, with the two candidates questioning each other directly, without a mediator. Weld figured that his issues—crime, welfare reform, and tax cutting—and his charm would see him through, but mostly his charm. “John isn’t really a cold person, but he does seem aloof,” Weld said recently. “The truth is that he’s courtly to the point of gentility. We were pummelling him through August, but his campaign turned on a dime when Bob Shrum was hired as his consultant. It went from flaccid to sharp in a week.”
Kerry’s aides insist that it was more than Shrum. They say that Kerry was distracted in Washington, that he didn’t really focus on the campaign until the Senate recessed. “It wasn’t a lack of focus,” Kerry says. “It was a strategy. I figured people wouldn’t really be paying attention until the fall debates.”
The last four debates were fabulous political theatre—two very smart men having at each other. “John’s at his best under pressure, when he’s being seriously challenged,” Paul Nace, an old Navy friend, says. “He gets really cool, very calm. He really is a warrior—he just loves it. I took one look at him as he was walking into Faneuil Hall for one of the last debates and I thought, Bill Weld has no idea what’s about to hit him.”
Weld—who calls the debates a “bloody draw”—says that Kerry successfully attached him to the national Republican Party. (Weld had said some embarrassingly positive things about Newt Gingrich two years earlier.) “The turning point came when he asked me if I’d vote to keep Jesse Helms as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That was a killer.”
I asked Weld how he responded. “I ducked it, of course,” he said, with a smile. “I mean, I hated Jesse Helms. But what could I do?”
Kerry won the election by eight percentage points. “John has always been underestimated politically,” Marttila says. “But that race had the quality and intensity of a Presidential campaign, and he won. I don’t see how they can underestimate him anymore, but they probably will.”
John Kerry will not be the only Democrat running for President in 2004, of course, and the race will turn, more than any campaign in recent memory, on events outside the control of the politicians—war in the Middle East, a terrorist event at home, a sluggish economy (or the opposite: a Bush boom). Any attempt to handicap an outcome would be foolish in the extreme.
But it is possible to sense a mood. There is a frustration with the mechanical, poll-driven, consultant-managed politics of recent years. The mood is particularly easy to discern in New Hampshire, a state that John McCain took by storm in 2000. “People have had it,” Rick Katzenberg, a Democratic activist from the town of Amherst, said a few weeks before Election Day. “They’ve just been overwhelmed this year. They’re sick of all the telemarketing—the phone calls to get out to vote, the opinion surveys, the push polls. I don’t even trust polling results anymore, because people are so quick to hang up. The television ads have no impact, except to get people angrier. It’s a very tough atmosphere.”
John Kerry understands the mood, and he particularly understands what his friend McCain accomplished in 2000. He is also aware that McCain supporters—the Republicans and Independents who can cross over and participate in the Democratic primary—will be a significant voting bloc in 2004, when the Democrats are likely to be the only party in town. He also knows that he could not ever, not even remotely, pass for John McCain. He doesn’t have McCain’s outlaw sensibility, for one thing, or his Borscht Belt comic timing. But the McCain campaign is the model Kerry thinks about most seriously: “People are jaded, people are cynical—there’s been a breach of faith. You have to reëstablish a way to connect with people. John McCain did that.” We were riding back to Boston after a long day on the stump in mid-October. “He succeeded in building some trust in New Hampshire,” Kerry went on. “I think it was built partly on his manner, his approach, and partly on who he was, the story of his life.” Kerry stopped and sighed. “Whether I can do that, I don’t know. I’m not cocky enough to say that, absolutely, I can do what he did. But I know it’s worth trying.”
Kerry is a much smoother candidate than he was thirty years ago, when I first watched him work. There are times when he can even rouse an audience, get them to stand and cheer; more often, however, the reaction is attentive silence. His audiences, almost entirely Democratic activists at this point, follow his foreign-policy formulations closely, but sometimes they grow impatient with him. One Sunday in Nashua, New Hampshire, a woman named Marilyn Peterman actually interrupted Kerry in mid-disquisition on Iraq. “You’re letting Bush hijack the debate!” she yelled. “What about the economy? What about the war on terrorism?”
Peterman was angry, she later told me, about Kerry’s Iraq vote—and about the Democrats’ general lameness. She was disappointed by Kerry’s explanations; he didn’t come close to reflecting her anger. “I’m trying to keep an open mind,” she said. “I was going to support him, especially when he was speaking out against Bush last summer, but now I’m not so sure.”
Kerry, when given the chance, pleads consistency on Iraq. He has been making the same argument since 1998: that there needs to be an aggressive multilateral effort to remove Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. He believes that pressure from the Democrats—and, of course, from Secretary of State Colin Powell—convinced President Bush to work through the United Nations; and that Bush has been, essentially, on the right path since his speech to the United Nations on September 12th. If so, it has been a substantive victory and a political loss: if Bush proceeds to act prudently for the next two difficult years, he will deserve to be reëlected.
It takes passion to defeat a sitting President. Ronald Reagan had it in 1980; Bill Clinton in 1992. The Democrats have been notable for their lack of passion in recent elections. They have become the party of tactics, of risk-averse appeals to targeted, reliable constituencies, like the elderly. Their crimped, boring pessimism is a long, sad distance from John Kennedy’s vigor and idealism—and I asked Kerry, as we rode back from New Hampshire that night, if there was anything from the Kennedy experience that could be resurrected profitably now. He reacted defensively, fearing a trap. He had spent years working to bury the invidious J.F.K. comparisons; in recent elections, he had even excised the “F.” from his bumper stickers. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” he said, curtly, of Kennedy, “and I think anyone who tried to mimic it, reinvent it, reach it, or touch it would be making a mistake.”
Several weeks later, after the Democrats’ election losses, Kerry revised and amended his remarks on the phone. “I guess I was responding to the Camelot thing, the romanticism,” he said. “But there are other aspects of the Kennedy era that are applicable. I think that asking people to be part of something larger than themselves, asking the country to do something better and more important—those are aspects of the Kennedy legacy that are applicable now.”
Inspirational politics seems an oxymoron after thirty years of public scandal and cynicism. But any Democrat who hopes to have a chance in 2004 must find a way to rebuild the Party intellectually, and to reach new constituencies, particularly the young people who have been boycotting elections in droves. This will require a new political style and vocabulary. It will certainly require a break from the past as dramatic as John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign was. It is quite possible that Kerry’s thoughtful manner and complicated answers will be wrong for the moment. But it is also possible that his calm maturity will seem Presidential, particularly if he somehow manages to combine it with a touch of McCain, the exhilaration of candid, inconvenient positions on the issues of the day—and, no small irony, he will need a touch of Kennedy as well. Indeed, John Kerry may have to become the politician he once dreamed of being. He may have to do all those old Kennedy things: sound the trumpet, pick up the fallen standard, and see if an army is lurking about, waiting to respond.
“I’ve reached the point where I’m just going to do what I’m going to do, and to hell with whatever the conventional wisdom is,” Kerry told me last summer, as we cruised in his speedboat off Naushon Island. It seemed the sort of thing politicians always say at the beginning of a campaign, but then he added, “I mean, if I screw up, what are they going to do to me—send me to Vietnam?”