JOHN KERRY : A Political Life
Shifting Within Party To Gain His Footing
By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page A01
Second of two articles
In a chamber controlled by Republicans and ruled by seniority, John F. Kerry -- Democrat, freshman and junior senator to a legend named Kennedy -- had three good reasons to keep his head down. But three weren't enough.
Within weeks of arriving in Washington in 1985, Kerry stepped in front of his party leaders and President Ronald Reagan to try to negotiate an end to Nicaragua's bloody civil war. (He failed.) No less brashly, but with a much lower profile, he inserted himself into an intricate struggle to disentangle the United States from supporting corrupt Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. (Alongside many others, he succeeded.)
Bypassing the traditional role of lawmaker, he used his seat on the Foreign Relations Committee to direct ambitious -- critics said "grandstanding" -- investigations into what he saw as the dark side of U.S. foreign policy. Unnerving some Democratic leaders as well as the White House, he documented U.S. complicity with drug traffickers and ties between Democratic statesman Clark Clifford and money-launderers.
"I came to do a job, not join a club," Kerry told an interviewer in his first term.
But even as he brandished his independence, the outsider was seeking and winning the ultimate insider position, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, in which he would travel the country for two years, raising mega-millions for candidates. It's a bruising job with huge rewards -- national stature, connections to wealthy donors, the gratitude of colleagues -- all of which Kerry coveted.
"It's not a contradiction," Kerry said of challenging, then courting, his party establishment. "If you are going to get things done, you are going to have to be practical, but you also have to be principled."
In his 20 years in the Senate, Kerry has been both, alternately and simultaneously. Colleagues of both parties speak with admiration of his intelligence and appetite for examining issues outside the context of ideology. Far from the spotlight, on issues that have engaged him -- matters as complex and diverse as normalization of relations with Vietnam, overfishing the oceans and the fight against global AIDS -- they describe a tenacious and creative forger of bipartisan consensus.
In the spotlight, however, his performance is mixed. Dubbed "Live Shot" by the Boston media for his ardent courting of TV coverage, Kerry has delivered provocative speeches questioning Democratic articles of faith such as affirmative action and teacher tenure -- only to drop the subjects when the backlash came. He blamed the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress on "screw-ups" by President Bill Clinton, proclaiming himself "delighted by the shake-up," although fellow Democrats complained that Kerry had done little to steer his party away from disaster.
Unlike great lawmakers whose legacies are measured in landmark legislation, Kerry's Senate record is more a sum of its parts than a whole. He led a fight to put 100,000 additional local police on the nation's streets; he helped craft numerous environmental laws; he has been an authoritative voice on foreign policy and technology; he exposed the Bank of Credit and Commerce International as a money haven for international criminals, and was a major force in its demise. He retains one of the most liberal voting records but in the last decade has become increasingly bipartisan.
He emerges as a serious thinker but also as a politician focused from the beginning on reaching the top, scrambling at every stage for the next leg up. As a result, he has tacked from outside to inside his party establishment and back again -- responding to shifting political winds but also, according to longtime colleagues, to competing impulses that have shaped his public life since the antiwar movement.
"One of the major currents in John's life is his desire to be out front, confrontational and contrarian -- not to go along with conventional wisdom," said Boston political advertising consultant Dan Payne, who worked on several Kerry campaigns. "And right alongside it is a desire to please and to lead by sublimating differences."
For someone who came to public attention as an orator -- riveting the nation in 1971 with his testimony against the Vietnam War -- Kerry has had difficulty merging these strains into a narrative that projects him as a man in full. How he reconciles them -- if he reconciles them -- will shape him as a candidate and, if he wins, as president.
"What he has said and done so far has, in some respects, been in service of getting him to this point," said Brown University political scientist Darrell M. West, who has been watching Kerry for much of his Senate career. "Now he has the flexibility to figure out who the real John Kerry is as he's never had to."
Fertile Fields in Central America
In a chamber built on collegiality and coalitions, Kerry chose for his first years to work largely on his own, operating far outside the legislative process as an investigator of the Reagan administration's foreign policy. It was a role that allowed him to draw on his anger over Vietnam and his skills as a Massachusetts prosecutor.
An aide to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) remembered visiting Kerry in this period and expressing surprise, given his immersion in domestic issues as lieutenant governor, that he wasn't trying to shape national policy by mastering a legislative subject.
"That just isn't me," the aide recalled Kerry's response. "I've always been more drawn to the investigative power -- to figure out what's wrong and go after it."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company