THE CONTENDERS : John F. Kerry
John Kerry: Hunter, Dreamer, Realist
Complexity Infuses Senator's Ambition
By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2003; Page A01
John Kerry eats dove. Even better, he shoots them. From behind the stalks of a Southern cornfield, he'll watch them flutter and dart, and fire.
"You clean them. Let them hang. It takes three or four birds to have a meal," said the Massachusetts senator. "You might eat it at a picnic, cold roasted. I love dove."
Dove, quail, duck, deer. Kerry described how to hunt and gut them, talking as he sliced through a steak at midnight after campaigning all day in Iowa for the Democratic presidential nomination. Carve out the heart, he said over dinner, pull out the entrails and cut up the meat. Bad table manners, perhaps, or good politics. After Sept. 11, 2001, some Democrats argue, they can't take the White House if they sound like doves. That is not a problem for the dove hunter. Kerry, 59, is the only combat veteran in the field. He stands 6-foot-4. He rides a Harley, plays ice hockey, snowboards, windsurfs, kitesurfs, and has such thick, aggressive hair he uses a brush with metal teeth.
"That's our slogan," quipped his ad man, Jim Margolis. "John Kerry: He's no weenie."
"He doesn't need a consultant to tell him how to dress like an alpha male," said his friend Ivan Schlager. "He is a damn alpha male."
It is more complex than that, though. With Kerry it often is. Yes, his message is the hard-line "stronger, safer, more secure America." But there's another part of his message, and it borders on the sentimental. "We have to get back to dreaming again," he told Democratic activists in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Echoing Robert F. Kennedy, he often closes with the line, "I'm running for president of the United States because I really believe it is time for this country to ask again, 'Why not?' "
In a series beginning today, The Washington Post will examine all nine Democratic presidential candidates: their campaign messages, the roots of their ambition, their ability to connect with voters. On all three counts, Kerry is nuanced and often misconstrued. What makes him compelling as a person makes him vulnerable to opponents who say he lacks clarity as a candidate.
Kerry's complexity has been an issue since his national debut in 1971. He became famous for a war within himself: He had fought in Vietnam and came, reluctantly, to believe the war was wrong. As spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" The senators were awed by the young man's poise and by his Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. He was a hero. Complexity worked the first time around.
It is much tougher now, as he presents himself as both a dreamer and a realist, an old liberal and a new Democrat, for the war in Iraq and yet troubled by it. While other White House hopefuls lined up for or against Iraq, Kerry voted for the war and then criticized the president for failing at diplomacy.
"It's the natural reluctance of a soldier to put young Americans in harm's way," said fellow Vietnam veteran and former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.).
But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of Kerry's competitors, accused him of being "ambivalent" when the country needed leadership. Republican strategist Richard Galen said, "People who were disappointed by the Gore campaign sniff another Gore coming because he doesn't have any clear message."
Kerry always has enjoyed breaking down issues, arguing all sides for sport, like a game of mental racquetball. While his Yale roommates played cards, he'd be refining a debate-team speech. He still debates his staff for fun, often playing devil's advocate against himself. Sitting on his office balcony at the Senate, he scribbles speeches on yellow pads. Occasionally, he'll even write poems, like the one he reluctantly read to a reporter: "I had a talk with a deer today/ we met upon the road some way . . . between his frequent snorts/He asked me if I sought his pelt/cause if I did he said he felt/quite out of sorts!"
He has been testing his writing talent on the campaign trail. Some lines have worked, such as: "Never before has so much had to be done in America and so little asked of Americans." Others have not, like his call for a "regime change" at home during the Iraq war. "It showed a political tin ear," said Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University. More likely, it showed a man stumbling on his love for a turn of phrase.
"The most important thing with message is staying on it -- which I didn't do," said former senator and presidential candidate Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), when asked about Kerry. "I liked to ramble around. Have a little fun."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company