Discipline and Ambition Overcame First Defeat
'How Do You Ask? . . .'
Kerry & Sragow, the partnership he established with one of his star prosecutors, Roanne Sragow, later a girlfriend, was an instant success, drawing malpractice, personal injury and wrongful death clients to a tony State Street office. A decade had passed since the antiwar veteran had riveted the nation with his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The questions Kerry grappled with as a lawyer hardly seemed as grand. In one of its more lucrative periods, Kerry & Sragow was representing bald men who had suffered grotesquely unsuccessful hair implants. Lead plaintiff Charles DiPerri, then maitre d' at the exclusive Brookline Country Club, still remembers Kerry holding up color photographs of an oozing sore in DiPerri's scalp and demanding of the jury -- in an oddly familiar cadence -- "How do you ask a man to work with the public with his scalp in this horrendous condition?" DiPerri was awarded $90,000 in damages.
Kerry was growing restless. "I found that within minutes of the client coming in, you pretty much knew what course the case was going to take. You knew what the case was going to be worth. You knew how much work it was going to be," Kerry said. ". . . I felt ready to take a stab at public life because I felt that's where I'd feel more gratification."
In truth, he had never left. Shortly after leaving Droney's office, Kerry became a commentator on a weekly local television program featuring two liberals (Kerry and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), two conservatives and a moderator expounding on issues ranging from Ronald Reagan's anti-communism to a tax revolt in Massachusetts. Pollsters later found that the show markedly raised Kerry's name recognition.
Kerry kept looking for his opening. A friend remembers a long meeting at David Thorne's house, with John and Cam Kerry and others weighing whether Kerry should run against Droney in 1982. They decided his next race should be statewide, but in 1980 he almost ran for Congress, ultimately backing off in favor of Barney Frank, then a state legislator and an icon to the same liberal base Kerry would have relied on.
"I was smart enough then, having learned enough then to understand it would've been one of those clashes without a purpose," Kerry said. In withdrawing, he secured Frank's promise of support in a future statewide run, according to a friend at the meeting. "He was subordinating his own ambition," Frank recalled. "I felt enormously grateful."
Statewide opportunity knocked in 1982, in a lieutenant governor's race that hardly looked promising: In the Democratic primary, the party favored Evelyn Murphy, a former environmental commissioner who would have been the first woman elected statewide. But at the state convention, Kerry received enough votes to get on the ballot -- and then steered delegates to state Sen. Lois Pines to ensure that she, too, would make it, thereby splitting the women's vote. Two Italian Americans also made the cut, helping to divide another key constituency.
The lieutenant governor had virtually no official duties, so Kerry had a diffuse message about law enforcement, "competency, experience and vision." Somewhat incongruously, he also championed the nuclear freeze -- a way of connecting with his old grass-roots constituency without mentioning his antiwar or war years. "His feeling was, 'Let's not bring this back up. This was not a plus for me,' " Payne recalled. "He wanted to show he'd grown," said Chris Greeley, a longtime friend. Gone, too, were the JFK references. "It became clear it rubbed people the wrong way," Cam Kerry said.
Kerry campaigned indefatigably, driven by the Massachusetts rule, "Two and you're through," meaning two losses finish a politician. Greeley said the candidate went wherever he could find an audience. "He played to the whistle," Greeley said. "Choose your cliche: It's the seventh game, back against the wall, there's no tomorrow. Bottom line: This was it."
Kerry mostly made his own luck -- the television-enhanced visibility, the favorable ballot, the relentless campaigning -- but nothing quite compared to winning national television coverage, two weeks before the primary, for securing the release from prison of a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Sragow had done the bulk of the work to free George A. Reissfelder, imprisoned for 16 years. But Kerry made key assists, and when Reissfelder went free on Aug. 30, 1982, the two lawyers were on CNN, nightly news programs and the "Today" show, and the Boston Globe ran a prominent photograph of them celebrating with their client.
Kerry defeated Murphy by 3 percentage points, and in November the ticket of Michael S. Dukakis and Kerry was easily elected.
Cam Kerry said some Dukakis loyalists "looked at John sideways," expecting he would try to upstage the governor. But the new lieutenant governor, senior aides to both men and Dukakis himself recalled, was loyal, respectful, a tireless team player.
Dukakis created a visible role for Kerry as chief of state-federal relations, and Kerry emerged as a forceful critic of President Ronald Reagan's budget cuts, defense buildup and environmental policies. As with Droney, Kerry was rising to prominence on borrowed power, but again he proved resourceful and creative in using it, perhaps most of all in his approach to the emerging national issue of acid rain.
Sulfur dioxide emissions from Midwest power plants were traveling to the Northeast, poisoning lakes and fish. Kerry quickly saw it as a major political challenge pitting region against region, coal miners against environmentalists, power companies against ratepayers.
His most important work came behind the scenes, on a working group of state environmental officials. Ned Helme, the group's adviser from the National Governors Association, said Kerry attended every meeting; no other elected official went to even one. Helme said he was struck by Kerry's mastery of the substance -- reading and digesting scientific reports, traveling to meet with governors, testing the political and economic dynamics to find a solution that all states could sign. The plan that emerged from the working group ultimately was incorporated into the Clean Air Act.
© 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.