Discipline and Ambition Overcame First Defeat
Kerry was an instant star at BC, but he didn't give up on politics. He hosted a talk show on Boston radio, ran an outpost of Ralph Nader's Public Interest Research Group and spoke and raised money for Democratic candidates.
BC encouraged students to work part time as prosecutors in local courts, and Kerry said he took every opportunity to try misdemeanors in Middlesex County, the state's largest, headquartered in Cambridge. John Kivlan, then a senior prosecutor assigned to show the new kid the ropes, saw none of the arrogance the Lowell Sun had chronicled. "I found him to be almost humble, very interested in listening and learning about prosecution," Kivlan recalled.
Kerry confessed that he often felt stranded in a political no man's land in these years. The Watergate scandal broke, Nixon resigned, the United States left Vietnam -- and the onetime antiwar champion, the would-be voice of the '60s generation, was studying torts and procedure and prosecuting petty thefts. "Once a hot political property, student John Kerry just watches," read the headline of a Boston Globe profile of Kerry in November 1974.
Middlesex County District Attorney John Droney, an old-school Irish politician with close ties to the Kennedys, hired Kerry straight out of law school in 1976 as a prosecutor, then stunned his office by promoting him to chief deputy within six months. Kerry said in an interview that the idea was Droney's alone. "Mr. Droney," as Kerry still calls his deceased patron, was suffering from the degenerative illness known as Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, and was having increasing difficulty talking and walking. He needed someone to serve as his public face and voice.
It was a moment of historic opportunity in law enforcement, and Kerry seized it. President Jimmy Carter and the new Law Enforcement Assistance Administration were poised to pump millions of dollars in grants to local prosecutors with visions for reforming law enforcement. When Kerry wrote a proposal for modernizing Middlesex County, Droney gave the go-ahead. "He had ceded most of the power of the office to me," Kerry recalled. "I was hiring everyone; I was making all the decisions. He wasn't there a lot. I was just telling him what I was doing."
Hiring away the state's leading law enforcement grant-writer, Kerry worked the LEAA like a gold mine. In two years, the office grew from 27 part-time to 90 full-time prosecutors. More than half of Kerry's new hires were women, and many were young idealists who turned to law as a force for changing government after Watergate. He created a priority-prosecution unit, deploying skilled lawyers to try the most significant criminals and repeat offenders as fast as the system permitted. He also started a victim assistance unit, a rape counseling unit and an organized crime unit.
The visibility of the office soared, with Kerry often touting its achievements on television and radio. While Kerry mostly managed the office, he also tried several cases, including a murder case against one Dana Monsen, who had stabbed a man to death for impregnating a friend's wife. Retired Superior Court judge Robert Barton, then Monsen's attorney, remembered calling his wife after Kerry's closing argument to say there was nothing left to say. Monsen, convicted of first-degree murder, remains in state prison.
"Other than losing the case," Barton recalled, "the only frustrating moments were whenever there'd be a recess, we'd look for John Kerry to get started again, he was always out in the hall giving interviews as the front man for John Droney."
Everyone's expectation was that Droney would retire and Kerry would inherit the job, and use it to launch his political career. But Droney decided to run again in 1978, and friends said Kerry was deeply disappointed. Kerry denies that today. He says that while some people urged him to run against Droney, he had learned to wait his turn and instead devoted himself to getting Droney reelected.
The ailing prosecutor was facing a challenge from Scott Harshbarger, a young reformer in the state attorney general's and public defenders' offices. Harshbarger recalled that Kerry met with him and effectively tried to scare him out of the race. "It wasn't, 'Look, Scott, this is politics, I'm with Droney,' " Harshbarger recalled. "It was, 'If you run we're going to crush you.' My candidacy was not welcome. I would never win. He had the reputation, the money, the supporters. It would be almost embarrassing for me. This pattern was emerging: Whatever he's involved in, watch out, because at some point, this incredibly talented, able guy's political ambition will take over."
Kerry and those he had hired campaigned day after day to reelect a man who could not even give an interview and defeat a man committed to the reforms they and Kerry had put in place.
"It was a strange situation," said one of Kerry's hires, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he didn't want his name attached to criticism of Kerry. "John did transform the office. He said all the right things about criminal justice, and I was inspired working for him. But you also knew John was doing it because he wanted to be president -- we talked openly about it -- and you knew Scott wanted the job because criminal justice was what he lived for."
There was no question that Kerry won the election for Droney, who eked out a 2 percent victory. But then he lost the war: Within a matter of weeks, Droney took back much of the power he had ceded.
Kerry and others say Droney never explained why. "He had the right to make his decision," Kerry said. "I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the opportunity he gave me. He gave me this huge chance to prove myself and do something serious."
His hopes upended, Kerry retreated in early 1979 to the politician's equivalent of Elba: a law practice.
© 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.