Close Kerry-McCain Kinship Has Dissolved Since 2004

In 1992, Kerry gave McCain a pilot's helmet that he received on a trip to Vietnam.
In 1992, Kerry gave McCain a pilot's helmet that he received on a trip to Vietnam. (Associated Press)
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By Chris Cillizza staff writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Those who know them say they once shared a genuine affection for each other, born in large part from their shared experiences serving in the Vietnam War and their work together in the early 1990s on a Senate committee investigating the fate of prisoners of war and of those missing in action during the conflict.

"This was not a light, collegial Senate friendship," said a friend of Sen. John F. Kerry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Kerry and his relationship with Sen. John McCain. Kerry and McCain "went through the wringer together. . . . They talked openly about having healed the old wounds and the old divisions about Vietnam."

Four years ago, Kerry considered offering the Republican the opportunity to be his vice presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket. But since then, their relationship has gradually deteriorated, and on Sunday, it reached a new low. Appearing on a news show, the senator from Massachusetts lambasted the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for what he called a lack of judgment about the war in Iraq.

McCain "has proven that he has been wrong about every judgment he's made about the war," Kerry said, adding: "Wrong about the Iraqis paying for the reconstruction, wrong about whether or not the oil would pay for it, wrong about Sunni and Shia violence through the years, wrong about the willingness of the Iraqis to stand up for themselves."

Kerry insists that the senator from Arizona is "my friend and will always be my friend" but says that the person he considered for vice president in 2004 was a "very different John McCain." Kerry cites McCain's policy shifts on tax cuts, the treatment of detainees and the regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions, among others.

McCain, through his aides, let it be known that he has no interest in talking about his relationship with Kerry. But Mark Salter, McCain's longtime chief of staff, rejected the idea of any tension between the two men. "If Senator Kerry is saying there was some kind of falling-out," he said, "he's inventing an excuse to justify the difference in their behavior to each other."

At one time the relationship was unusual for two senators from opposing parties. When Kerry faced an extremely tough reelection race in 1996 against Republican Gov. William F. Weld, McCain opted not to campaign against his Democratic friend. Four years later, when McCain was running for president, Kerry returned the favor by organizing Senate combat veterans to defend McCain from criticism of his record.

In 2004, many Democratic insiders thought a Kerry-McCain ticket would be a slam-dunk winner. And yet even as Kerry, a decorated Navy combat veteran, and McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, seemed on the verge of making that happen, a rupture occurred and set the stage for everything that followed. But exactly what happened remains a matter of debate.

From the Kerry perspective, McCain had expressed genuine interest in the vice presidential nomination and then pulled away without warning, and while doing so leaked the story to the media to "put McCain in the best possible light," a Kerry friend recounted.

From the McCain perspective, Kerry was overly optimistic about the possibility of McCain joining him on the Democratic ticket. "Kerry convinced himself that he could convince McCain to be on the ticket," said one GOP strategist familiar with the discussions. "When that didn't happen, he took it really personally."

Kerry insists that the miscommunication about his conversations with McCain was the fault of staff members and not the two senators.

"I thought it was unfortunate that some people in his staff saw fit to leak someone's point of view which did not accurately reflect our personal conversations," Kerry said. "We never got to a serious point. We moved on."

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