First of two articles
In 1972, John F. Kerry, the war hero turned antiwar hero, found the house of his dreams in suburban Worcester. It came with a widow's balcony, a columned front porch and, perhaps most important, a congressional district whose aging incumbent looked vulnerable.
No sooner had John and Julia Kerry bought the house on Pleasant Road, though, than John found something better. The apartment in industrial Lowell had less curb appeal, but the congressional district was to die for: Its 10-term incumbent had just announced his surprise retirement, throwing the election wide open.
Never even moving to Worcester, the Kerrys headed straight for Lowell from their rental home in Waltham, in a district Kerry had eyed two years earlier. Arriving one day before the filing deadline, Kerry declared his candidacy in the 5th Congressional District.
"It was John Kerry at his most amusing," said his old friend George Butler, "desperately trying to do the most beneficial thing."
The 1972 election was to have anointed John Forbes Kerry, at 28, as JFK II, a latter-day version of his hero, John F. Kennedy, who went to Congress from Massachusetts at age 29 and the White House at 43. At least that's what those around him thought. But Kerry's maiden campaign ended in disaster, and his house-hopping -- "Kerrymandering," the pundits called it in a shorthand for arrogance and opportunism -- became almost as enduring an image of him in Massachusetts as did the erect, fatigues-clad soldier bearing witness in Washington a year earlier.
His upset loss that November seemed a crippling if not fatal setback to his once-preordained career. Despondent, he had to figure out how to make a living and a life outside politics as well as confront the causes of his failure. But rather than give up, he regrouped, drawing lessons from his defeat and reemerging a decade later largely as the politician he is today.
The cartoonishly impatient young man willed himself to exercise patience. The striving hero-worshiper dropped his middle initial and his pretensions to the JFK narrative. The pursuer of power learned to excel as a subordinate. The war protester banked his anger and directed it toward fighting crime and trying to make government work. In the process, the activist whose passion ignited audiences became a cerebral politician with a strikingly uneven speaking style.
Most of the lessons Kerry took from 1972 involved tempering ambition with deference and respectfulness. "The brashness of, 'Here I am; I'm the guy to do this' -- some people resented that and got an impression of carpetbaggerism, ambition, whatever," Kerry said in an interview. "I deserved it. I asked for it."
With discipline and doggedness, he resurrected his career, winning election as lieutenant governor in 1982 and finally arriving in Washington in January 1985 as a U.S. senator. This week, at 60, the onetime prodigy will accept his party's presidential nomination after demonstrating the same determination in overcoming a disastrous start to his campaign.
These articles look at Kerry's life in politics and the path that brought him here, from the 1972 House race and its aftermath to his three terms in the Senate.
Perhaps the hardest lesson for any politician is to learn to live without the voters' love. And while Kerry certainly learned that in defeat, he also learned it in victory. He has never known the affection that Massachusetts Democrats lavished on standard-bearers named Kennedy or O'Neill, just as many members of his party today are more focused on their dislike of President Bush than on their enthusiasm for John Kerry.
In 1984, it was Rep. James M. Shannon, a rising liberal star, who captured the hearts of the state's Democrats. He had the party endorsement for the Senate when Kerry challenged him in the primary and won. The lesson of 1984, as Shannon describes it, is one Kerry learned well in the political wilderness and that applies to every race he has run, including the current one: "Being beloved is not the attribute that's most important in winning elections."
'Nobody Knew John'
Kerry entered the 5th District race as a celebrity. On April 22, 1971, dressed in fatigues and wearing the decorations he had won in combat, Kerry had testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and famously asked: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?"
After his Senate testimony in Washington, he was featured on "60 Minutes," shared top billing with John Lennon at a peace rally in New York and was offered his own talk show by television executives who wanted to make him a voice for the '60s generation. (He turned the idea down as "too fluffy.") Even President Richard M. Nixon viewed Kerry as a force to be reckoned with, White House tapes revealed. "Let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader," Nixon counsel Charles W. Colson wrote after Kerry's Senate testimony, according to the Boston Globe.
"I figured he's got a national reputation, access to money, he's a great communicator. I didn't see any reason why this won't work," Dan Payne, a Boston advertising consultant, recalled thinking at the outset of the 1972 race, his first of several with Kerry. "We ignored people who paid their dues and were entitled to respect."
Kerry dispatched nine primary opponents to win the Democratic nomination with a liberal, antiwar platform, including national health insurance, a federal jobs program and rent control. "There is no Russian or Chinese navy in the Gulf of Tonkin," he declared in one speech. "The only foreign force actively involved in combat in the internal civil struggle of Vietnam is the United State of America -- supporting a corrupt military dictatorship to which it has attached all of this country's pride and prestige and honor."
Kerry swept the district's upscale suburbs, but not the mill towns, where unemployment was rising as jobs fled. There, locals tagged Kerry with their own slang for carpetbagger: "blow-in."
One Lowell Democrat, who now supports Kerry but who shared her first impressions in return for anonymity, remembered bridling at Kerry's JFK-initialed cufflinks and Kennedy pretensions. "The president had been dead only nine years, and along comes this new JFK," she said. "This was a faux Kennedy. We knew the real one."
Still, a late-September poll in the Boston Globe put Kerry almost 30 percentage points ahead of Republican Paul W. Cronin and a third-party candidate, Roger Durkin. Two weeks before Election Day, he led by 10 points. But then came a withering assault of daily front-page stories and editorials in the Lowell Sun.
Day by day, Clem Costello, then the Sun's eccentric, conservative, crusading editor, recast the impassioned idealist who had won the primary into a power-hungry elitist bent on using unsuspecting 5th District voters for his own ends. One front-page story revealed that Kerry received only three contributions from Lowell residents and the rest from New York glitterati including Otto Preminger, Leonard Bernstein, George Plimpton, Peter Yarrow and Peter Duchin.
Another detailed his house-hopping. An editorial cartoon caricatured Kerry in a plush armchair at the Yale Club in New York, his feet propped on a footstool, saying into a telephone as a butler passed by with martinis, "You say the Fifth in Massachusetts? I'll be right up."
Kerry's younger brother, Cam, said he could feel the election slipping away in the final week. "When the attacks came, there weren't validators. Nobody knew John," he said.
Cronin won by almost 9 points, aided by Durkin's surprise withdrawal four days before the election, a move Kerry still insists was orchestrated by the Nixon White House. The charge never was substantiated, but it was widely reported that Nixon did not go to sleep that night -- even after crushing Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) in a 49-state landslide -- until he was reassured that Kerry, that reminder of his nemesis Kennedy, had lost.
In defeat, Kerry declared himself undaunted in his opposition to the war. "If I had it to do over again, I'd be in Washington with the veterans tomorrow," he told supporters.
Friends describe the loss as beyond devastating for Kerry -- "like the end of the world," recalled David Thorne, Kerry's best friend, campaign manager and brother-in-law at the time. "He thought he was on a tremendous fast track in the way JFK had been. So much had gone right it felt inevitable. Then he lost."
Kerry went to New Hampshire to visit filmmaker George Butler, who then was beginning the book and movie "Pumping Iron" on Arnold Schwarzenegger, and spent most of the weekend in silence, assembling a model ship. "We climbed Mount Webster. I've got the photographs, and they're devastating," Butler said. He showed a reporter a black-and-white portrait of Kerry on the mountain, head hanging, shoulders curved, eyes downcast. "Everything in that picture says loneliness and devastation," Butler said.
The Alternative Plan
The next September, Boston College law professor Thomas Carey strode into his first-year torts class and was stunned to see, near the back of one row, "this tall young fellow I'd been mesmerized by a couple of years earlier testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And there he was, starting off as a regular grunt."
Kerry had chosen the long road back. "He sensed that he had caught a wave in the antiwar movement, but the wave and the movement had run its course, and he had to set about building a life and a platform of accomplishment," said Lanny Thorne, another former brother-in-law.
The law became Kerry's Plan B. The Yale graduate wanted to return there to law school but could not because his wife, Julia, was expecting a baby. His next choice was Harvard, then Boston University, but he applied too late. Boston College offered the opposite of Yale's theoretical approach -- it was famous as a training ground for politicians -- but BC had an opening, and Kerry took it.
"Okay, I don't know where he's on his way to," Cam Kerry remembered thinking of his humbled older brother, "but he's on his way somewhere."
Kerry was an instant star at BC, but he didn't give up on politics. He hosted a talk show on Boston radio, ran an outpost of Ralph Nader's Public Interest Research Group and spoke and raised money for Democratic candidates.
BC encouraged students to work part time as prosecutors in local courts, and Kerry said he took every opportunity to try misdemeanors in Middlesex County, the state's largest, headquartered in Cambridge. John Kivlan, then a senior prosecutor assigned to show the new kid the ropes, saw none of the arrogance the Lowell Sun had chronicled. "I found him to be almost humble, very interested in listening and learning about prosecution," Kivlan recalled.
Kerry confessed that he often felt stranded in a political no man's land in these years. The Watergate scandal broke, Nixon resigned, the United States left Vietnam -- and the onetime antiwar champion, the would-be voice of the '60s generation, was studying torts and procedure and prosecuting petty thefts. "Once a hot political property, student John Kerry just watches," read the headline of a Boston Globe profile of Kerry in November 1974.
Middlesex County District Attorney John Droney, an old-school Irish politician with close ties to the Kennedys, hired Kerry straight out of law school in 1976 as a prosecutor, then stunned his office by promoting him to chief deputy within six months. Kerry said in an interview that the idea was Droney's alone. "Mr. Droney," as Kerry still calls his deceased patron, was suffering from the degenerative illness known as Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, and was having increasing difficulty talking and walking. He needed someone to serve as his public face and voice.
It was a moment of historic opportunity in law enforcement, and Kerry seized it. President Jimmy Carter and the new Law Enforcement Assistance Administration were poised to pump millions of dollars in grants to local prosecutors with visions for reforming law enforcement. When Kerry wrote a proposal for modernizing Middlesex County, Droney gave the go-ahead. "He had ceded most of the power of the office to me," Kerry recalled. "I was hiring everyone; I was making all the decisions. He wasn't there a lot. I was just telling him what I was doing."
Hiring away the state's leading law enforcement grant-writer, Kerry worked the LEAA like a gold mine. In two years, the office grew from 27 part-time to 90 full-time prosecutors. More than half of Kerry's new hires were women, and many were young idealists who turned to law as a force for changing government after Watergate. He created a priority-prosecution unit, deploying skilled lawyers to try the most significant criminals and repeat offenders as fast as the system permitted. He also started a victim assistance unit, a rape counseling unit and an organized crime unit.
The visibility of the office soared, with Kerry often touting its achievements on television and radio. While Kerry mostly managed the office, he also tried several cases, including a murder case against one Dana Monsen, who had stabbed a man to death for impregnating a friend's wife. Retired Superior Court judge Robert Barton, then Monsen's attorney, remembered calling his wife after Kerry's closing argument to say there was nothing left to say. Monsen, convicted of first-degree murder, remains in state prison.
"Other than losing the case," Barton recalled, "the only frustrating moments were whenever there'd be a recess, we'd look for John Kerry to get started again, he was always out in the hall giving interviews as the front man for John Droney."
Everyone's expectation was that Droney would retire and Kerry would inherit the job, and use it to launch his political career. But Droney decided to run again in 1978, and friends said Kerry was deeply disappointed. Kerry denies that today. He says that while some people urged him to run against Droney, he had learned to wait his turn and instead devoted himself to getting Droney reelected.
The ailing prosecutor was facing a challenge from Scott Harshbarger, a young reformer in the state attorney general's and public defenders' offices. Harshbarger recalled that Kerry met with him and effectively tried to scare him out of the race. "It wasn't, 'Look, Scott, this is politics, I'm with Droney,' " Harshbarger recalled. "It was, 'If you run we're going to crush you.' My candidacy was not welcome. I would never win. He had the reputation, the money, the supporters. It would be almost embarrassing for me. This pattern was emerging: Whatever he's involved in, watch out, because at some point, this incredibly talented, able guy's political ambition will take over."
Kerry and those he had hired campaigned day after day to reelect a man who could not even give an interview and defeat a man committed to the reforms they and Kerry had put in place.
"It was a strange situation," said one of Kerry's hires, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he didn't want his name attached to criticism of Kerry. "John did transform the office. He said all the right things about criminal justice, and I was inspired working for him. But you also knew John was doing it because he wanted to be president -- we talked openly about it -- and you knew Scott wanted the job because criminal justice was what he lived for."
There was no question that Kerry won the election for Droney, who eked out a 2 percent victory. But then he lost the war: Within a matter of weeks, Droney took back much of the power he had ceded.
Kerry and others say Droney never explained why. "He had the right to make his decision," Kerry said. "I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the opportunity he gave me. He gave me this huge chance to prove myself and do something serious."
His hopes upended, Kerry retreated in early 1979 to the politician's equivalent of Elba: a law practice.
'How Do You Ask? . . .'
Kerry & Sragow, the partnership he established with one of his star prosecutors, Roanne Sragow, later a girlfriend, was an instant success, drawing malpractice, personal injury and wrongful death clients to a tony State Street office. A decade had passed since the antiwar veteran had riveted the nation with his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The questions Kerry grappled with as a lawyer hardly seemed as grand. In one of its more lucrative periods, Kerry & Sragow was representing bald men who had suffered grotesquely unsuccessful hair implants. Lead plaintiff Charles DiPerri, then maitre d' at the exclusive Brookline Country Club, still remembers Kerry holding up color photographs of an oozing sore in DiPerri's scalp and demanding of the jury -- in an oddly familiar cadence -- "How do you ask a man to work with the public with his scalp in this horrendous condition?" DiPerri was awarded $90,000 in damages.
Kerry was growing restless. "I found that within minutes of the client coming in, you pretty much knew what course the case was going to take. You knew what the case was going to be worth. You knew how much work it was going to be," Kerry said. ". . . I felt ready to take a stab at public life because I felt that's where I'd feel more gratification."
In truth, he had never left. Shortly after leaving Droney's office, Kerry became a commentator on a weekly local television program featuring two liberals (Kerry and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), two conservatives and a moderator expounding on issues ranging from Ronald Reagan's anti-communism to a tax revolt in Massachusetts. Pollsters later found that the show markedly raised Kerry's name recognition.
Kerry kept looking for his opening. A friend remembers a long meeting at David Thorne's house, with John and Cam Kerry and others weighing whether Kerry should run against Droney in 1982. They decided his next race should be statewide, but in 1980 he almost ran for Congress, ultimately backing off in favor of Barney Frank, then a state legislator and an icon to the same liberal base Kerry would have relied on.
"I was smart enough then, having learned enough then to understand it would've been one of those clashes without a purpose," Kerry said. In withdrawing, he secured Frank's promise of support in a future statewide run, according to a friend at the meeting. "He was subordinating his own ambition," Frank recalled. "I felt enormously grateful."
Statewide opportunity knocked in 1982, in a lieutenant governor's race that hardly looked promising: In the Democratic primary, the party favored Evelyn Murphy, a former environmental commissioner who would have been the first woman elected statewide. But at the state convention, Kerry received enough votes to get on the ballot -- and then steered delegates to state Sen. Lois Pines to ensure that she, too, would make it, thereby splitting the women's vote. Two Italian Americans also made the cut, helping to divide another key constituency.
The lieutenant governor had virtually no official duties, so Kerry had a diffuse message about law enforcement, "competency, experience and vision." Somewhat incongruously, he also championed the nuclear freeze -- a way of connecting with his old grass-roots constituency without mentioning his antiwar or war years. "His feeling was, 'Let's not bring this back up. This was not a plus for me,' " Payne recalled. "He wanted to show he'd grown," said Chris Greeley, a longtime friend. Gone, too, were the JFK references. "It became clear it rubbed people the wrong way," Cam Kerry said.
Kerry campaigned indefatigably, driven by the Massachusetts rule, "Two and you're through," meaning two losses finish a politician. Greeley said the candidate went wherever he could find an audience. "He played to the whistle," Greeley said. "Choose your cliche: It's the seventh game, back against the wall, there's no tomorrow. Bottom line: This was it."
Kerry mostly made his own luck -- the television-enhanced visibility, the favorable ballot, the relentless campaigning -- but nothing quite compared to winning national television coverage, two weeks before the primary, for securing the release from prison of a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Sragow had done the bulk of the work to free George A. Reissfelder, imprisoned for 16 years. But Kerry made key assists, and when Reissfelder went free on Aug. 30, 1982, the two lawyers were on CNN, nightly news programs and the "Today" show, and the Boston Globe ran a prominent photograph of them celebrating with their client.
Kerry defeated Murphy by 3 percentage points, and in November the ticket of Michael S. Dukakis and Kerry was easily elected.
Cam Kerry said some Dukakis loyalists "looked at John sideways," expecting he would try to upstage the governor. But the new lieutenant governor, senior aides to both men and Dukakis himself recalled, was loyal, respectful, a tireless team player.
Dukakis created a visible role for Kerry as chief of state-federal relations, and Kerry emerged as a forceful critic of President Ronald Reagan's budget cuts, defense buildup and environmental policies. As with Droney, Kerry was rising to prominence on borrowed power, but again he proved resourceful and creative in using it, perhaps most of all in his approach to the emerging national issue of acid rain.
Sulfur dioxide emissions from Midwest power plants were traveling to the Northeast, poisoning lakes and fish. Kerry quickly saw it as a major political challenge pitting region against region, coal miners against environmentalists, power companies against ratepayers.
His most important work came behind the scenes, on a working group of state environmental officials. Ned Helme, the group's adviser from the National Governors Association, said Kerry attended every meeting; no other elected official went to even one. Helme said he was struck by Kerry's mastery of the substance -- reading and digesting scientific reports, traveling to meet with governors, testing the political and economic dynamics to find a solution that all states could sign. The plan that emerged from the working group ultimately was incorporated into the Clean Air Act.
In 20 years at the NGA, Helme said, he had known only one other elected official to attend staff-level working groups to resolve an issue: a former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Indeed, Kerry's appetite for substance and detail is often likened to Clinton's. "You have to learn, you have to be serious," Kerry said. "I believe you have to be real, and people know it if you're not. I was trying to get this done."
In January 1984, the mission took Kerry to Germany, where he was observing acid rain devastation in the Black Forest. One night in his hotel, he was awakened by a staff aide calling with news that would lead him out of the wilderness for good: Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D), who like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was presumed to be senator for life, had just announced he had cancer and would not seek reelection.
'Big, Left and Outside'
Early in the 1984 campaign, pollsters uncovered a surprising fact: Most Massachusetts voters no longer knew Kerry had served in Vietnam. It was a revelation about fleeting fame generally, but also about Kerry's difficulty establishing himself -- after a decade in public life -- as someone voters felt they knew and understood. His Senate campaign slogan reintroduced him not as an antiwar hero, but as a veteran who knew the costs of war: "Once you've fought in a war, you never stop fighting for peace."
For most of the campaign, the focus was elsewhere, however. Kerry and Rep. Shannon had virtually identical positions on every issue from freezing nuclear weapons to civil rights and Reagan's budget cuts, but when Shannon won the party endorsement, Kerry seized his outsider status as a strength. "We're big, left and outside," was the message, as Kerry strategist Ron Rosenblith put it. The idea was to make Shannon look little, left and inside.
As a member of Congress, Shannon had a huge fundraising advantage with political action committees. Kerry early on announced that he would spurn PAC money -- "I don't believe our government should be up for the highest bidder" -- a stand he has used as a defining one ever since, although at the time he had little to lose.
Then members of Kerry's staff went looking to prove that Shannon had used his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee to help special interests. In the fine print of a tax bill, they found a tax break for a Massachusetts insurance company that had donated to Shannon's campaign. They delivered documentation to local reporters, and the resulting articles embarrassed Shannon into returning more than $50,000 in PAC funds and forgoing much more.
Even so, polls showed the two in a dead heat for the Democratic Senate nomination in the final weeks, with Shannon gaining. Then one week before the election, a Shannon misstep returned Kerry's Vietnam story to center stage. In a televised debate, with Kerry battering him for voting for and then against the MX intercontinental ballistic missile system, Shannon accused Kerry of flip-flopping on Vietnam: "If you felt that strongly about the war, you would not have gone."
Within minutes, according to Kerry adviser John Marttila, Vietnam War veterans were calling Kerry's campaign in outrage. "The vets went nuts. One of them called in tears," Marttila said. "They were all saying the same thing: It's not the responsibility of 18- to 19-year-old guys to question U.S. policy."
Fueled by his fellow veterans' rage, Kerry struck early and angrily in the next debate: "You impugn the service of veterans in that war by saying they are somehow dopes or wrong for going." Shannon tried to brush Kerry's Vietnam card off the table: "John, you know that dog won't hunt. I don't owe anybody an apology."
In doing so, Shannon made Vietnam the defining story of the primary election. Taking their name from Shannon's seemingly offhand remark, the Doghunters became the tellers of the story. All Vietnam War veterans, some had known Kerry in battle; some, such as Chris Gregory, had known him through Vietnam Veterans Against the War and appreciated his commitment to veterans as lieutenant governor.
Gregory became the head Doghunter, dispatching veterans to trail television crews and get themselves on local news programs. "We went to Shannon headquarters and tried to give Shannon a copy of the Pentagon Papers," Gregory said. "The cameras got them closing the door on us."
In the end, Gregory said, the Doghunters were less about war or peace than about Kerry. "Here's this guy from this sheltered life, he grew up without close friends. He's formal, he's private. But these relationships are different," Gregory said. "He couldn't believe the vets did this. Anything genuine -- he can't believe. It was a very powerful thing."
Kerry now says Vietnam probably was not decisive in the race. Barney Frank delivered on his promise from 1980 and helped defeat Shannon in Boston, as did Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who turned out his South Boston machine despite pressure from Kennedy and others. But Shannon loyalists say there is no question that it turned the tide, and when Kerry won the general election that November against Republican Ray Shamie, Vietnam was at the heart of the story he told about himself:
"Not long ago, I visited the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington," he said in his victory speech. "It is not a long walk from that rather remarkable black slab of marble with the names of 57,000 men on it to the gleaming white marble of the Capitol. But I can tell you, it's been a long journey to try to bring home to our leaders and some of the people in this country the meaning of those 57,000 names. Tonight, we shortened the distance between the Capitol and that memorial."
For Kerry, who in 1972 had found the distance from Vietnam to the Capitol unbridgeable, the gap had disappeared.
NEXT: In the Senate, a mixed record.
Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.