JOHN KERRY : A Political Life
Discipline and Ambition Overcame First Defeat
By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page A01
BOSTON -- In 1972, John F. Kerry, the war hero turned antiwar hero, found the house of his dreams in suburban Worcester. It came with a widow's balcony, a columned front porch and, perhaps most important, a congressional district whose aging incumbent looked vulnerable.
No sooner had John and Julia Kerry bought the house on Pleasant Road, though, than John found something better. The apartment in industrial Lowell had less curb appeal, but the congressional district was to die for: Its 10-term incumbent had just announced his surprise retirement, throwing the election wide open.
Never even moving to Worcester, the Kerrys headed straight for Lowell from their rental home in Waltham, in a district Kerry had eyed two years earlier. Arriving one day before the filing deadline, Kerry declared his candidacy in the 5th Congressional District.
"It was John Kerry at his most amusing," said his old friend George Butler, "desperately trying to do the most beneficial thing."
The 1972 election was to have anointed John Forbes Kerry, at 28, as JFK II, a latter-day version of his hero, John F. Kennedy, who went to Congress from Massachusetts at age 29 and the White House at 43. At least that's what those around him thought. But Kerry's maiden campaign ended in disaster, and his house-hopping -- "Kerrymandering," the pundits called it in a shorthand for arrogance and opportunism -- became almost as enduring an image of him in Massachusetts as did the erect, fatigues-clad soldier bearing witness in Washington a year earlier.
His upset loss that November seemed a crippling if not fatal setback to his once-preordained career. Despondent, he had to figure out how to make a living and a life outside politics as well as confront the causes of his failure. But rather than give up, he regrouped, drawing lessons from his defeat and reemerging a decade later largely as the politician he is today.
The cartoonishly impatient young man willed himself to exercise patience. The striving hero-worshiper dropped his middle initial and his pretensions to the JFK narrative. The pursuer of power learned to excel as a subordinate. The war protester banked his anger and directed it toward fighting crime and trying to make government work. In the process, the activist whose passion ignited audiences became a cerebral politician with a strikingly uneven speaking style.
Most of the lessons Kerry took from 1972 involved tempering ambition with deference and respectfulness. "The brashness of, 'Here I am; I'm the guy to do this' -- some people resented that and got an impression of carpetbaggerism, ambition, whatever," Kerry said in an interview. "I deserved it. I asked for it."
With discipline and doggedness, he resurrected his career, winning election as lieutenant governor in 1982 and finally arriving in Washington in January 1985 as a U.S. senator. This week, at 60, the onetime prodigy will accept his party's presidential nomination after demonstrating the same determination in overcoming a disastrous start to his campaign.
These articles look at Kerry's life in politics and the path that brought him here, from the 1972 House race and its aftermath to his three terms in the Senate.
Perhaps the hardest lesson for any politician is to learn to live without the voters' love. And while Kerry certainly learned that in defeat, he also learned it in victory. He has never known the affection that Massachusetts Democrats lavished on standard-bearers named Kennedy or O'Neill, just as many members of his party today are more focused on their dislike of President Bush than on their enthusiasm for John Kerry.
In 1984, it was Rep. James M. Shannon, a rising liberal star, who captured the hearts of the state's Democrats. He had the party endorsement for the Senate when Kerry challenged him in the primary and won. The lesson of 1984, as Shannon describes it, is one Kerry learned well in the political wilderness and that applies to every race he has run, including the current one: "Being beloved is not the attribute that's most important in winning elections."
'Nobody Knew John'
Kerry entered the 5th District race as a celebrity. On April 22, 1971, dressed in fatigues and wearing the decorations he had won in combat, Kerry had testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and famously asked: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?"
After his Senate testimony in Washington, he was featured on "60 Minutes," shared top billing with John Lennon at a peace rally in New York and was offered his own talk show by television executives who wanted to make him a voice for the '60s generation. (He turned the idea down as "too fluffy.") Even President Richard M. Nixon viewed Kerry as a force to be reckoned with, White House tapes revealed. "Let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader," Nixon counsel Charles W. Colson wrote after Kerry's Senate testimony, according to the Boston Globe.
"I figured he's got a national reputation, access to money, he's a great communicator. I didn't see any reason why this won't work," Dan Payne, a Boston advertising consultant, recalled thinking at the outset of the 1972 race, his first of several with Kerry. "We ignored people who paid their dues and were entitled to respect."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Again seeking national office, John F. Kerry, center, a candidate for the Senate in 1984, listens to endorsements offered by Vietnam War veterans at the Statehouse in Boston.