John Kerry: Hunter, Dreamer, Realist
Two things happened to the boy. He biked around, saw the rubble of Hitler's bunker, sneaked into bleak East Berlin (until his father found out and grounded him), and was awakened to the impact politics had on people's lives. Second, he kept on challenging himself -- bigger adventures, greater dares.
"When you travel alone at age 12," he said, "you gain confidence and self-reliance."
Often on his own, he tested his survival skills. He biked through France, took the ferry from Norway to England, camped alone in Sherwood Forest. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, explained: "It's like, he's landed a jet: 'I can control. I know how to do it. I'm safe.' " He took risks to feel safe? Kerry likes to quote the French writer Andre Gide: "Don't try to understand me too quickly."
By the time Kerry arrived in New Hampshire at St. Paul's boarding school -- his seventh school by eighth grade; his family moved around -- his need for challenges and his interest in public affairs expressed itself in politics. A Catholic Democrat in a predominantly Republican Protestant school, he represented John F. Kennedy in a debate during the 1960 campaign.
Lloyd MacDonald, the class president, stood in for Richard M. Nixon: "John was very ambitious. As far as John was concerned, he expected to be president of the United States. I wanted to be president, too, but I never would have admitted it. It was at odds with prevailing notions of what was cool."
Kerry volunteered for Edward M. Kennedy's 1962 Senate race. He broadcast from a loudspeaker on his Volkswagen Beetle, "Kennedy for Senate." Then he added, "And Kerry for dogcatcher!" At Yale, classmates teased him about his initials, "JFK." The F was for Forbes, his mother's old-line New England family.
"John was from a prominent family, but he wasn't wealthy" compared to his peers, said his friend George Butler. Kerry loaded trucks in a grocery warehouse and sold encyclopedias door to door. "He was a little bit of an outsider because he had to work during college summers. It gives you tremendous drive to make up for it."
After Yale, Kerry volunteered for the Navy. He returned from Vietnam with his faith in the government shaken. He felt betrayed; his friends had died in the war. In 1972, he ran for Congress as a "peace candidate," campaigning so relentlessly that once when an aide came to pick him up, he found Kerry asleep in the shower. Kerry lost, but he won as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982 and as senator in 1984. The same avenging anger that animated him after Vietnam shaped his work on the Hill. Rather than focusing on legislative matters, he went after government corruption. In 2000, he considered running for president and was a finalist as a running mate for Al Gore. It wasn't his time, but there was no question of his ultimate goal.
Now, he's competing in the extreme sport of politics, running for president. "He thrives on stress and pressure," said former senator Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.). "I said, 'The Republicans have 250 million dollars, it's going to be relentless.' He smiled and said, 'Bring it on.' " He's reflexively competitive, the first into freezing water, the skier with the fastest time. Excelling was the Kerry family ethic, starting with his father, who taught young John to sail while wearing blinders so he'd learn to navigate in the fog. It wasn't enough that John's pet parakeet could say, "Hello." He taught it to squawk in Italian and French.
His adventures, he said, are not reckless. "The things I do are completely in control, up to my ability," Kerry said firmly. "They're not big adrenaline rushes. More like meditations. Doing things correct is relaxing, rewarding. Fun, fun, fun. If you're doing aerobatics, it's very simple fun."
"It must be part chemical," said his wife. "Look at him. He's a total string bean. I mean, he's wired, bzzzzzz. In Portuguese you say fulminante, it means you're revved up. Why did he have to take up kitesurfing now? Not just windsurfing. It's so dangerous. And the guitar lessons! Why does he have to learn guitar at this time of his life? He challenges himself."
On a recent afternoon in his Senate office, Kerry was challenging himself with a piece of Spanish classical guitar music. "It's very hard," he said, mid-strum. "I broke one of my nails."
His hand raced up and down the neck of his guitar, his fingers working the frets.
"We've got to go, John," his chief of staff said.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company