JOHN F. KERRY
The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best
By Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton
Public Affairs Reports. 448 pp. $14.95
Many newspapers might produce puff pieces about presidential candidates from their home towns. But having watched the presidential campaigns of Edward Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas first fizzle and then fail, the Boston Globe's political writers cover contenders from Massachusetts the way their colleagues on the sports page treat the Red Sox, with the cynical certitude that the home team always lets them down.
So when it came to covering Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential candidacy, the Globe was prepared to be honest, even harsh, about the homeboy. Moreover, many reporters consider Kerry "a show horse," not "a workhorse," as former editor Michael Janeway once told him. As the current editor, Martin Baron, writes in the preface to this expanded version of a seven-part series that appeared in the Globe a year ago, "The Boston Globe's relationship with John Kerry has been marked by rocky moments, and he has not infrequently conveyed, directly or through surrogates, a feeling that the newspaper was out to get him."
The conscientious research in this book reveals that reporters Michael Kranish and Brian C. Mooney and deputy Washington bureau chief Nina J. Easton were out to get the facts, not to "get" Kerry. But they don't give him the benefit of any doubts.
Poring over almost 40 years of his words and deeds, they review his service as skipper of a patrol boat in Vietnam, his leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and his years in the Senate, as well as such lesser-known episodes as his unsuccessful congressional candidacy in 1972 and his stint as a county prosecutor from 1976 through 1981. They explore whether Kerry deserved his first Purple Heart, exaggerated his success at reducing the backlog of cases at the county prosecutor's office and went into "full straddle mode" during the debates about the Gulf War of 1991 and the current conflict in Iraq. These are all valid questions, but they point up the fact that, while Kerry is only three years older than George W. Bush, his public record is several decades longer, dating back to his delivery of the prestigious class oration as a graduating senior at Yale in 1966.
For all the authors' skepticism, Kerry emerges as consistent in his contradictions -- driven to serve but also to succeed, physically courageous but also politically cautious. While he first appeared on the national stage as a self-described "angry young man," he is best understood as one of the last patricians with a sense of obligation, not entitlement. He and his three closest friends at Yale all served in Vietnam, and one of them, Richard Pershing, the grandson of the World War I general, was killed there.
So why does a man who was so brave in battle -- and has also been a daredevil athlete and aviator -- seem so cautious a politician? The authors very plausibly suggest that his experience as a student debater, county prosecutor and attorney in private practice all prepared Kerry to evaluate every aspect of an issue and to explore how he'd argue for each side. Although the authors give this attribute short shrift, Kerry can be a resolute risk-taker once he has made up his mind, as when he poured almost all his time and resources into winning the Iowa caucuses in January.
Unfortunately, the explanation of his decision-making process is one of this book's few efforts at exploring Kerry's character, rather than rehashing his record. Comprehensive as this book is, it suffers from its origins as a newspaper series and also from having been written by three people, each presumably with his or her own style and viewpoint. The best political biographies result from the engagement of one writer with one leader, such as Lou Cannon's works about Ronald Reagan, David Maraniss's study of Bill Clinton and Doris Kearns Goodwin's reflections on Lyndon Johnson. But "John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography" has the impersonal style of a cover story in a newsmagazine.
Thus, while their treatment of Kerry's service in Vietnam is vivid, the authors offer remarkably tepid portrayals of his years in two contrasting but colorful worlds: the antiwar protests of the early 1970s and the Massachusetts politics of the past 30 years. They say surprisingly little about Kerry's relationships with members of his own family, from his father, Richard, who influenced his views on foreign policy, to his brother, Cameron, who is among his closest confidants, and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who, should Kerry be elected, would likely be counted among the nation's most outspoken first ladies. They offer even less insight into his relationship with two stereotypical "Massachusetts liberals" whom the Bush campaign will probably try to hang around his head: Sen. Kennedy, who has been his senior colleague for 19 years, and former governor Dukakis, whom Kerry served as lieutenant governor for two years.
While noting that Kerry has difficulty "revealing himself," this book does little to reveal his personality or philosophy -- what he's like behind closed doors and what commitments would drive his decision-making in the Oval Office. If this dry, detailed biography was written by the "reporters who know him best," as its cover claims, readers will be left wondering whether anyone outside of a close circle of family, friends and fellow veterans really knows Kerry at all.