Discipline and Ambition Overcame First Defeat
Kerry dispatched nine primary opponents to win the Democratic nomination with a liberal, antiwar platform, including national health insurance, a federal jobs program and rent control. "There is no Russian or Chinese navy in the Gulf of Tonkin," he declared in one speech. "The only foreign force actively involved in combat in the internal civil struggle of Vietnam is the United State of America -- supporting a corrupt military dictatorship to which it has attached all of this country's pride and prestige and honor."
Kerry swept the district's upscale suburbs, but not the mill towns, where unemployment was rising as jobs fled. There, locals tagged Kerry with their own slang for carpetbagger: "blow-in."
One Lowell Democrat, who now supports Kerry but who shared her first impressions in return for anonymity, remembered bridling at Kerry's JFK-initialed cufflinks and Kennedy pretensions. "The president had been dead only nine years, and along comes this new JFK," she said. "This was a faux Kennedy. We knew the real one."
Still, a late-September poll in the Boston Globe put Kerry almost 30 percentage points ahead of Republican Paul W. Cronin and a third-party candidate, Roger Durkin. Two weeks before Election Day, he led by 10 points. But then came a withering assault of daily front-page stories and editorials in the Lowell Sun.
Day by day, Clem Costello, then the Sun's eccentric, conservative, crusading editor, recast the impassioned idealist who had won the primary into a power-hungry elitist bent on using unsuspecting 5th District voters for his own ends. One front-page story revealed that Kerry received only three contributions from Lowell residents and the rest from New York glitterati including Otto Preminger, Leonard Bernstein, George Plimpton, Peter Yarrow and Peter Duchin.
Another detailed his house-hopping. An editorial cartoon caricatured Kerry in a plush armchair at the Yale Club in New York, his feet propped on a footstool, saying into a telephone as a butler passed by with martinis, "You say the Fifth in Massachusetts? I'll be right up."
Kerry's younger brother, Cam, said he could feel the election slipping away in the final week. "When the attacks came, there weren't validators. Nobody knew John," he said.
Cronin won by almost 9 points, aided by Durkin's surprise withdrawal four days before the election, a move Kerry still insists was orchestrated by the Nixon White House. The charge never was substantiated, but it was widely reported that Nixon did not go to sleep that night -- even after crushing Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) in a 49-state landslide -- until he was reassured that Kerry, that reminder of his nemesis Kennedy, had lost.
In defeat, Kerry declared himself undaunted in his opposition to the war. "If I had it to do over again, I'd be in Washington with the veterans tomorrow," he told supporters.
Friends describe the loss as beyond devastating for Kerry -- "like the end of the world," recalled David Thorne, Kerry's best friend, campaign manager and brother-in-law at the time. "He thought he was on a tremendous fast track in the way JFK had been. So much had gone right it felt inevitable. Then he lost."
Kerry went to New Hampshire to visit filmmaker George Butler, who then was beginning the book and movie "Pumping Iron" on Arnold Schwarzenegger, and spent most of the weekend in silence, assembling a model ship. "We climbed Mount Webster. I've got the photographs, and they're devastating," Butler said. He showed a reporter a black-and-white portrait of Kerry on the mountain, head hanging, shoulders curved, eyes downcast. "Everything in that picture says loneliness and devastation," Butler said.
The Alternative Plan
The next September, Boston College law professor Thomas Carey strode into his first-year torts class and was stunned to see, near the back of one row, "this tall young fellow I'd been mesmerized by a couple of years earlier testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And there he was, starting off as a regular grunt."
Kerry had chosen the long road back. "He sensed that he had caught a wave in the antiwar movement, but the wave and the movement had run its course, and he had to set about building a life and a platform of accomplishment," said Lanny Thorne, another former brother-in-law.
The law became Kerry's Plan B. The Yale graduate wanted to return there to law school but could not because his wife, Julia, was expecting a baby. His next choice was Harvard, then Boston University, but he applied too late. Boston College offered the opposite of Yale's theoretical approach -- it was famous as a training ground for politicians -- but BC had an opening, and Kerry took it.
"Okay, I don't know where he's on his way to," Cam Kerry remembered thinking of his humbled older brother, "but he's on his way somewhere."
© 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.