"Faster," John Kerry told the driver. "Faster, faster."
The senator was late for a political event in Springfield, Mass., moving along the turnpike at 55 mph.
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"I said, 'We're going to be late, John. That's the way it's going to be,' " recalled Jonathan Winer, the aide behind the wheel. "John reached his long leg over and said, 'No. That's the way it's going to be,' and he stepped on my foot and pushed the accelerator to 75. And then he said, 'There.' "
Kerry was in a hurry, as he often is. Whether on the road to Springfield in his early Senate days or in the race for the White House at this late stage of the campaign, Kerry is a man, associates say, who lives for the sprint. The holes in his shoes, friends tease, are testimony, as is the long board with which he snowboards, to maximize the rush. Even his mother used to joke that her son was born in a hurry; she barely made it to the hospital in time.
The Democratic presidential nominee may have been born to run, but it remains to be seen if he can win. As Election Day approaches in this close contest, Kerry's reputation as a good closer will be put to the ultimate test. Just as he did in his tight Senate race in Massachusetts against then-Gov. William Weld in 1996, Kerry gained momentum in the debates. Polls show the candidates very close.
Speed has always been central to Kerry's character. It has worked in his favor, such as during the Democratic primaries, when he came from behind. But his urgent manner has also slowed him down. In high school, some scorned Kerry as a striver. He was seen by some in the military as a medal digger, in the antiwar movement as an opportunist and in the Senate as a dilettante.
He has been restless all his life. "If he's comfortable, he's uncomfortable," said Chris Gregory, who has worked in all of Kerry's campaigns. "He'll argue with you, not because he thinks he's right, but because he wants more tension. Politically, he likes to go right to the edge."
This is the edge, the finish line not only for the 2004 campaign, but for a man whose life has essentially been one long race. The question left to be answered on Nov. 2 is whether he has timed it right.
Restless at Root
"He had aspirations," said Kerry's aunt, Angela Winthrop. "We used to pull his leg -- 'Oh, Johnny, you want to be president of the United States!' He'd say, 'Yes, I do.' "
Kerry's 92-year-old aunt smiled over a cup of Earl Grey, sitting with her son, Frederic, in a dim corner of the banquet hall at Groton House. The paint in the Winthrop mansion is peeling and the rugs are thin, but the family's Civil War-era swords and portraits of ancestral generals have endured. Kerry spent weekends and school vacations at the 700-acre farm north of Boston, a home base in an itinerant childhood. It was places such as this, some friends and family say, that encouraged his ambition.
"They called his father a diplomat, but he could never get proper pay," said Winthrop, whose sister, Rosemary, was Kerry's mother. "Things were difficult for Rosie."
When a Kerry baby was born, Angela Winthrop sent over her Scottish nanny. Kerry wore Frederic's hand-me-downs. Another aunt paid for Kerry's school. As Frederic had put it earlier: "We didn't think John had a pot to pee in."
But at the Kerry-Winthrop Thanksgiving touch football game, John plowed over Frederic. And when Kerry drove the Winthrop hay wagon, "he was so wild, my father had to tell him to slow down." Among his Protestant, Republican and rich peers, Kerry, the Catholic Democrat raised on his father's government wage, had something to prove, his friends said.
But Kerry's brother, Cam, said the pressure came from within: "His hard-wiring was to be a striver, competitive."