Discipline and Ambition Overcame First Defeat
In 20 years at the NGA, Helme said, he had known only one other elected official to attend staff-level working groups to resolve an issue: a former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Indeed, Kerry's appetite for substance and detail is often likened to Clinton's. "You have to learn, you have to be serious," Kerry said. "I believe you have to be real, and people know it if you're not. I was trying to get this done."
In January 1984, the mission took Kerry to Germany, where he was observing acid rain devastation in the Black Forest. One night in his hotel, he was awakened by a staff aide calling with news that would lead him out of the wilderness for good: Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D), who like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was presumed to be senator for life, had just announced he had cancer and would not seek reelection.
'Big, Left and Outside'
Early in the 1984 campaign, pollsters uncovered a surprising fact: Most Massachusetts voters no longer knew Kerry had served in Vietnam. It was a revelation about fleeting fame generally, but also about Kerry's difficulty establishing himself -- after a decade in public life -- as someone voters felt they knew and understood. His Senate campaign slogan reintroduced him not as an antiwar hero, but as a veteran who knew the costs of war: "Once you've fought in a war, you never stop fighting for peace."
For most of the campaign, the focus was elsewhere, however. Kerry and Rep. Shannon had virtually identical positions on every issue from freezing nuclear weapons to civil rights and Reagan's budget cuts, but when Shannon won the party endorsement, Kerry seized his outsider status as a strength. "We're big, left and outside," was the message, as Kerry strategist Ron Rosenblith put it. The idea was to make Shannon look little, left and inside.
As a member of Congress, Shannon had a huge fundraising advantage with political action committees. Kerry early on announced that he would spurn PAC money -- "I don't believe our government should be up for the highest bidder" -- a stand he has used as a defining one ever since, although at the time he had little to lose.
Then members of Kerry's staff went looking to prove that Shannon had used his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee to help special interests. In the fine print of a tax bill, they found a tax break for a Massachusetts insurance company that had donated to Shannon's campaign. They delivered documentation to local reporters, and the resulting articles embarrassed Shannon into returning more than $50,000 in PAC funds and forgoing much more.
Even so, polls showed the two in a dead heat for the Democratic Senate nomination in the final weeks, with Shannon gaining. Then one week before the election, a Shannon misstep returned Kerry's Vietnam story to center stage. In a televised debate, with Kerry battering him for voting for and then against the MX intercontinental ballistic missile system, Shannon accused Kerry of flip-flopping on Vietnam: "If you felt that strongly about the war, you would not have gone."
Within minutes, according to Kerry adviser John Marttila, Vietnam War veterans were calling Kerry's campaign in outrage. "The vets went nuts. One of them called in tears," Marttila said. "They were all saying the same thing: It's not the responsibility of 18- to 19-year-old guys to question U.S. policy."
Fueled by his fellow veterans' rage, Kerry struck early and angrily in the next debate: "You impugn the service of veterans in that war by saying they are somehow dopes or wrong for going." Shannon tried to brush Kerry's Vietnam card off the table: "John, you know that dog won't hunt. I don't owe anybody an apology."
In doing so, Shannon made Vietnam the defining story of the primary election. Taking their name from Shannon's seemingly offhand remark, the Doghunters became the tellers of the story. All Vietnam War veterans, some had known Kerry in battle; some, such as Chris Gregory, had known him through Vietnam Veterans Against the War and appreciated his commitment to veterans as lieutenant governor.
Gregory became the head Doghunter, dispatching veterans to trail television crews and get themselves on local news programs. "We went to Shannon headquarters and tried to give Shannon a copy of the Pentagon Papers," Gregory said. "The cameras got them closing the door on us."
In the end, Gregory said, the Doghunters were less about war or peace than about Kerry. "Here's this guy from this sheltered life, he grew up without close friends. He's formal, he's private. But these relationships are different," Gregory said. "He couldn't believe the vets did this. Anything genuine -- he can't believe. It was a very powerful thing."
Kerry now says Vietnam probably was not decisive in the race. Barney Frank delivered on his promise from 1980 and helped defeat Shannon in Boston, as did Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who turned out his South Boston machine despite pressure from Kennedy and others. But Shannon loyalists say there is no question that it turned the tide, and when Kerry won the general election that November against Republican Ray Shamie, Vietnam was at the heart of the story he told about himself:
"Not long ago, I visited the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington," he said in his victory speech. "It is not a long walk from that rather remarkable black slab of marble with the names of 57,000 men on it to the gleaming white marble of the Capitol. But I can tell you, it's been a long journey to try to bring home to our leaders and some of the people in this country the meaning of those 57,000 names. Tonight, we shortened the distance between the Capitol and that memorial."
For Kerry, who in 1972 had found the distance from Vietnam to the Capitol unbridgeable, the gap had disappeared.
Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
© 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.