John Kerry: Hunter, Dreamer, Realist
He tried another song, picking the opening notes of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."
Another staffer cleared his throat.
"Oh, you'll like this," Kerry said, ignoring him, playing the theme song from "Love Story."
His press secretary interrupted, "Senator, the car's waiting. . . ."
Just one more song. A Beatles tune from 1965. He strummed the guitar and belted: "Yesterday. . . ."
'This Guy's Not Personable?'
Kerry's face appeared at the door to the Iowa Scott County Democrats dinner.
Mike Boland, 60, an activist, whispered, "I heard he's aloof."
Kerry stepped into the crowd, planting his big hands on workingmen's shoulders, quizzing students about their majors, telling a woman about the time his daughter's pet frog jumped on his nose. He waved, hugged, guffawed and sat knee to knee with a grandmother. Boland said: "This guy's not personable? What a phony issue."
Yet it has been an issue, especially with journalists, all the way back to yellowing newspaper clips of 1971, which describe Kerry in such terms as "slick," "too pretty," "ambitious," "opportunistic."
John Norris, Kerry's state director in Iowa, said he isn't worried: "The East Coast press uses the word 'aloof.' It's been an asset, because Iowans come with low expectations."
Kerry appreciates the irony. "I'll say thank you to every journalist who wrote [expletive] articles about me," he joked. Then he added, "I plead guilty to being a little brash when I first got into politics. I wish they had a delete button on LexisNexis."
There is something about him, "the Kerry effect," that provokes a visceral response. He is too towering, too confident and too rich (his wife's fortune exceeds half a billion dollars) for people to walk away indifferent. As one Kerry friend said, "People see him and say, 'Geez, I'm short, bald, stupid and poor.' " They feel either swept away or swept aside. When he smiles, one on one, people literally squint and blink; when he doesn't, light carves shadows in his face and his deep-set eyes sink into the dark. At a house party in Florence, S.C., the women giggled, charmed by the way he pronounced "y'all," and said he looked like GI Joe. The men anointed him the next JFK.
But even in Massachusetts, polls have put his job approval rating ahead of his personal popularity rating. His friend Dan Barbiero said it comes down to Kerry's complexity: "There's still a lot of idealism in John. It's corny and people tend to be cynical, and coming from this big, patrician-looking man you wouldn't expect it. You look at him and say, 'He's putting this on.' "
It's been a hard rap to overcome in part because Kerry is reserved. He inherited it from his mother, along with her devotion to public service. "She taught us you stiff-upper-lip it," said his sister, Diana Kerry. "John is a man of the people. Of the little people, actually. He needs to project who he really is by simplifying."
And who is he, really?
A close associate hints: There's a secret compartment in Kerry's briefcase. He carries the black attaché everywhere. Asked about it on several occasions, Kerry brushed it aside. Finally, trapped in an interview, he exhaled and clicked open his case.
"Who told you?" he demanded as he reached inside. "My friends don't know about this."
The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.
"My good luck hat," Kerry said, happy to see it. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."
Kerry put on the hat, pulling the brim over his forehead. His blue button-down shirt and tie clashed with the camouflage. He pointed his finger and raised his thumb, creating an imaginary gun. He looked silly, yet suddenly his campaign message was clear: Citizen-soldier. Linking patriotism to public service. It wasn't complex after all; it was Kerry.
He smiled and aimed his finger: "Pow."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company