Second of two articles
In a chamber controlled by Republicans and ruled by seniority, John F. Kerry -- Democrat, freshman and junior senator to a legend named Kennedy -- had three good reasons to keep his head down. But three weren't enough.
Within weeks of arriving in Washington in 1985, Kerry stepped in front of his party leaders and President Ronald Reagan to try to negotiate an end to Nicaragua's bloody civil war. (He failed.) No less brashly, but with a much lower profile, he inserted himself into an intricate struggle to disentangle the United States from supporting corrupt Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. (Alongside many others, he succeeded.)
Bypassing the traditional role of lawmaker, he used his seat on the Foreign Relations Committee to direct ambitious -- critics said "grandstanding" -- investigations into what he saw as the dark side of U.S. foreign policy. Unnerving some Democratic leaders as well as the White House, he documented U.S. complicity with drug traffickers and ties between Democratic statesman Clark Clifford and money-launderers.
"I came to do a job, not join a club," Kerry told an interviewer in his first term.
But even as he brandished his independence, the outsider was seeking and winning the ultimate insider position, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, in which he would travel the country for two years, raising mega-millions for candidates. It's a bruising job with huge rewards -- national stature, connections to wealthy donors, the gratitude of colleagues -- all of which Kerry coveted.
"It's not a contradiction," Kerry said of challenging, then courting, his party establishment. "If you are going to get things done, you are going to have to be practical, but you also have to be principled."
In his 20 years in the Senate, Kerry has been both, alternately and simultaneously. Colleagues of both parties speak with admiration of his intelligence and appetite for examining issues outside the context of ideology. Far from the spotlight, on issues that have engaged him -- matters as complex and diverse as normalization of relations with Vietnam, overfishing the oceans and the fight against global AIDS -- they describe a tenacious and creative forger of bipartisan consensus.
In the spotlight, however, his performance is mixed. Dubbed "Live Shot" by the Boston media for his ardent courting of TV coverage, Kerry has delivered provocative speeches questioning Democratic articles of faith such as affirmative action and teacher tenure -- only to drop the subjects when the backlash came. He blamed the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress on "screw-ups" by President Bill Clinton, proclaiming himself "delighted by the shake-up," although fellow Democrats complained that Kerry had done little to steer his party away from disaster.
Unlike great lawmakers whose legacies are measured in landmark legislation, Kerry's Senate record is more a sum of its parts than a whole. He led a fight to put 100,000 additional local police on the nation's streets; he helped craft numerous environmental laws; he has been an authoritative voice on foreign policy and technology; he exposed the Bank of Credit and Commerce International as a money haven for international criminals, and was a major force in its demise. He retains one of the most liberal voting records but in the last decade has become increasingly bipartisan.
He emerges as a serious thinker but also as a politician focused from the beginning on reaching the top, scrambling at every stage for the next leg up. As a result, he has tacked from outside to inside his party establishment and back again -- responding to shifting political winds but also, according to longtime colleagues, to competing impulses that have shaped his public life since the antiwar movement.
"One of the major currents in John's life is his desire to be out front, confrontational and contrarian -- not to go along with conventional wisdom," said Boston political advertising consultant Dan Payne, who worked on several Kerry campaigns. "And right alongside it is a desire to please and to lead by sublimating differences."
For someone who came to public attention as an orator -- riveting the nation in 1971 with his testimony against the Vietnam War -- Kerry has had difficulty merging these strains into a narrative that projects him as a man in full. How he reconciles them -- if he reconciles them -- will shape him as a candidate and, if he wins, as president.
"What he has said and done so far has, in some respects, been in service of getting him to this point," said Brown University political scientist Darrell M. West, who has been watching Kerry for much of his Senate career. "Now he has the flexibility to figure out who the real John Kerry is as he's never had to."
Fertile Fields in Central America
In a chamber built on collegiality and coalitions, Kerry chose for his first years to work largely on his own, operating far outside the legislative process as an investigator of the Reagan administration's foreign policy. It was a role that allowed him to draw on his anger over Vietnam and his skills as a Massachusetts prosecutor.
An aide to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) remembered visiting Kerry in this period and expressing surprise, given his immersion in domestic issues as lieutenant governor, that he wasn't trying to shape national policy by mastering a legislative subject.
"That just isn't me," the aide recalled Kerry's response. "I've always been more drawn to the investigative power -- to figure out what's wrong and go after it."
Kerry's office became a magnet for tips from critics of Reagan's Central America policy, and he pursued them into a netherworld of mercenaries, shady financiers, pilots and drug dealers with links to the network supplying the anti-communist Nicaraguan contra rebels. As in his youth, he ended up in direct confrontation with a Republican president. White House aides accused him of peddling wacky conspiracy theories, and some Democratic leaders warned him to back off. An aide recalled one Democratic senator telling Kerry: "People think you're out of your mind."
But the investigations have withstood scrutiny. Well before the White House admitted it, Kerry and three staff investigators accused a then-obscure White House aide named Oliver L. North of covertly coordinating military aid to the contras in defiance of a congressional ban. When the Iran-contra scandal broke, however, Senate Democrats did not appoint Kerry to a bipartisan investigative committee, a slight publicly attributed to his junior status but privately to his reputation for controversy and confrontation.
Kerry nonetheless continued his contra-drug probe as chairman of a Foreign Relations investigative subcommittee. In a 1988 report, the panel documented that covert networks supplying arms to the contras with the blessing of U.S. officials were also bringing narcotics to American cities at the height of the urban drug epidemic. (A decade later, a CIA inspector general's report concluded the same.) The subcommittee also documented Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's relationship with the Medellin cartel at a time that Noriega enjoyed U.S. support as a valued ally.
Kerry was unusually active in the probes, according to Jack Blum, a veteran congressional investigator who worked for him. "We had 300 pages of documents for one of our first hearings; we prepared a script of questions for him," Blum said. "He went through all 300 pages, and the next day, he's whacking away at witnesses off the documents on his own. He had phenomenal capacity to focus."
Kerry shifted his focus to international money laundering after learning that Noriega had spirited a fortune in drug proceeds out of Panama through the auspices of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which his investigators found to be a money haven for criminal enterprises worldwide.
In the process, they discovered that a Washington bank headed by Democratic elder statesman Clark Clifford was in fact a shell controlled by BCCI. Again, some in Kerry's own party were displeased. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Democratic fundraiser Pamela Harriman personally called to object. "What are you doing to my friend Clark Clifford?" staffers recalled fellow senators demanding of Kerry. The investigation continued.
BCCI collapsed under the weight of criminal prosecutions in 1991 and 1992. Fraud indictments against Clifford were set aside, because of his failing health.
Years before money laundering became a centerpiece of antiterrorist efforts, including the USA Patriot Act, Kerry crusaded for controls on global money laundering in the name of national security.
"He saw it as the dark side of globalization -- an infrastructure that parasitically latches onto the global financial system, carrying illegal drugs, arms trafficking, people smuggling and terrorism," said Jonathan Winer, a lawyer who learned the subject as an investigator for Kerry and went on to specialize in it for the Clinton State Department.
White House Trashes Kerry
Kerry's two early forays into foreign policy -- in Nicaragua and the Philippines -- showcased very different sides of his political character.
Flying to the front lines of Nicaragua's civil war in early 1985, Kerry was on the network news within hours of returning home, touting a proposal to "stop the killing" -- a ceasefire offer from Marxist leader Daniel Ortega, conditioned on the United States dropping support of the contra rebels. He appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" that weekend, saying his experiences as a Vietnam veteran compelled him to seek peace. On the Senate floor, he declared himself ready -- despite the Cold War backdrop -- to test the Marxist leader's good faith.
It all came to naught when Ortega, as if to validate the White House view of him as a puppet of the Politburo, flew to Moscow the next day to receive a $200 million loan from the Soviet Union. The White House trashed Kerry and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who had traveled with him, as dupes, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a Central America expert, asked, "Where did my colleagues think [Ortega] was going to go? Disney World? The man is a Marxist."
At almost the same time, Kerry began a very different mission to the Philippines to explore Marcos's alleged human rights violations.
As a member of the Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had official standing. He also had a personal connection, with roots in his aristocratic -- as opposed to activist -- past. Kerry's mother was descended from the Boston Brahmin Forbes family, which made a fortune in the China trade, and Kerry's cousin, William Cameron Forbes, had been governor-general of the Philippines when it was a U.S. protectorate.
"I had always been intrigued by his linkage, and it kind of sparked my own interest to know what was happening and the legacy of all his involvement," Kerry said. "And I found out to my chagrin that you had this abusive dictator and his wife who were leading it awry and abusing our money and principles."
Kerry got an audience with Marcos in Manila and pressed him to release political prisoners and to investigate the 1983 murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.
"Five hours we spoke together, and I grilled him," Kerry said. "And Imelda Marcos was so intrigued by me and my presence there that she invited me to breakfast. I will never forget this extraordinary -- surreal -- breakfast meeting as she talked to me about what they were doing and how important it was and gave me books with Marcoses in them and illustrations of God, and it was just amazing. Weird. All of which convinced me even more as I took a tour of the palace that this has to change."
With the Reagan administration seeking increased military aid to Marcos, Kerry won lopsided bipartisan support -- 89 to 8 -- for a resolution warning that future aid would be conditioned on democratic reforms. The Democratic House and some in the Reagan administration already were pressing Marcos to reform, and later that year, Congress dramatically cut his aid. Marcos responded by calling a snap election.
Contrary to other accounts, Kerry in his own retelling forced the election single-handedly: "I came back and implemented a policy through the Foreign Relations Committee that would hold him accountable . . . which prompted him to retaliate by saying, 'Well I'll show this young whippersnapper who runs the Philippines -- I'll call an election,' believing he could put it all to bed."
Kerry traveled with Foreign Relations Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) in a U.S. delegation to monitor the fairness of the election, and a Republican leadership aide recalled that Lugar assigned a senior committee staffer to effectively "baby-sit" Kerry for fear he would "shoot off his mouth," in light of the Ortega episode. But the aide said Kerry was scrupulously diplomatic, deferring to Lugar, who praised Kerry's work in a 1988 book.
The group's documentation of fraud led the Reagan administration to cut off aid to Marcos, hastening the inauguration of Corazon Aquino, widow of the murdered opposition leader, as president. A turning point came when 30 government computer programmers took refuge in a cathedral and revealed that voting data had been tampered with.
"All of the lights kind of illuminated them in front of the altar," Kerry recalled. "It was just an incredible, sort of surreal scene of disclosure of the truth. . . . And that was the end of Marcos."
Building Party Credentials
Regarded as something of a loner in his caucus, Kerry was hardly an obvious choice to head the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 1988. "A searing, intense, focused person," was the way one senator remembered viewing him then. "He's never been a people person," said another.
But even as he embraced his outsider reputation, Kerry was working to build credentials as a valued Democratic soldier among fellow senators and major party donors. Although he had loudly spurned political action committee money in his own campaign -- using the pledge to define himself as a reformer -- he vowed to raise it aggressively for his fellow senators. And to showcase his money-raising prowess, he hosted a splashy DSCC fundraiser on Cape Cod, complete with a tour of the Kennedy compound.
Under Kerry, the DSCC broke previous fundraising records and Democrats added a seat to their majority. "He won the undying gratitude of his colleagues, a lot of IOUs," recalled former senator David Pryor (D-Ark.).
Meanwhile, Kerry's seriousness won appreciation in some important quarters. Former majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) remembered Kerry working behind the scenes with him for two months to break a deadlock with the administration of then-President George H.W. Bush over major amendments to the Clean Air Act to control acid rain, an issue Kerry had mastered as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) said he felt indebted to Kerry for becoming an early co-sponsor of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill -- forcing budget cuts on Congress to contain a ballooning federal debt -- despite a furious backlash from liberal Democrats in Massachusetts. "He risked his life for his country in Vietnam, and he risked his political life when he signed on to Gramm-Rudman-Hollings," Hollings said.
The independent-minded South Carolinian became a mentor to the much younger New Englander on the Commerce Committee, rewarding his hard work with increasing visibility. "If Hollings needed somebody on short notice to speak up for an amendment in markup, he'd turn to Kerry and know he'd master the subject, no matter how complicated, in a few hours," a longtime committee aide said. The two shared a passion for the oceans -- Kerry since early childhood, spending long stretches at the Forbes family's Naushon Island on the Cape -- and they collaborated extensively on coastal and ocean protection measures. "My right arm," Hollings called him.
If Kerry seemed removed and formal to many colleagues, Hollings saw him moving with ease as a politician, excelling even at insider games such as trading favors. Once, when a drought threatened cattle with starvation, Hollings was furious that the government would not provide military planes to fly surplus hay to South Carolina.
" 'You need planes? How many?' " Hollings recalled Kerry asking.
Hollings said he needed two. Kerry ducked into a phone booth in the Senate cloakroom and called his old Yale classmate and fellow Skull and Bones Society member, Fred Smith, who created Federal Express. He emerged minutes later. "You've got two planes," he said.
Risking Families' Anger
The transforming experience of Kerry's Senate career came when he accepted an assignment from the Democratic leadership that on its face promised no political gain. His staff and advisers recall urging him, to a person, not to chair the Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, charged with determining whether American prisoners of war remained alive in Vietnam.
Five administrations had tried and failed to find definitive answers, and Kerry was risking the wrath of anguished families who clung to hopes that loved ones were alive. Moreover, it would take months away from Kerry's ongoing work.
"He made everyone vote, and we all voted no," recalled then-press secretary Larry Carpman. "And he said, 'I really appreciate the discussion, and I hear you. I just feel I have to do this.' " Later Kerry explained, "I thought as a Vietnam veteran that I had an obligation to my fellow Vietnam veterans and to all veterans to get the answers."
The committee had six Republican and six Democratic members. Kerry's co-chairman, then-Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), was an outspoken believer of dark conspiracy theories that U.S. servicemen remained alive in prisons in Laos and the government knew it.
"I would have bet my house at any point that [Kerry] could've never gotten all 12 members to agree on any conclusion," said Mark Salter, chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "He has great courtroom skills, a way of developing a line of argument that, while it might not have satisfied people, it kept them moving forward."
Kerry and Smith traveled to Vietnam and searched prisons and catacombs but found no Americans. They went to Moscow to inspect records purporting to show the fate of hundreds of missing men. Families mobbed the hearings, some berating McCain, a former POW, as a Manchurian candidate for dismissing conspiracy theories. McCain said at those times Kerry put a hand on his arm and calmed him.
"He has a capacity for patience -- certainly he showed almost inexhaustible patience, far more patience than I have," McCain said. "It's a vital ingredient in getting to result. I acquired profound appreciation for his excellent work on a terribly difficult, emotional issue. That's what causes people to be friends."
Kerry himself oversaw the final rewrite of the 1,223-page report, negotiating words and phrases for more than a week, ultimately arriving at the unanimous conclusion that "there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." The last objections came from a staffer for then-Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.). "It was 1 a.m. and people were leaving, but John didn't leave. He was sitting there, reasoning with him," recalled Frances Zwenig, the panel's chief of staff.
Kerry and McCain spent the next two years pressing for normalization of relations with the communist country they had fought. With Kerry on one side and McCain on the other, President Clinton formally recognized the communist government of Vietnam in 1995.
Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), who served on the panel, said it marked a turning point in perceptions of Kerry in the Senate. "Until that point, many people had never seen him lead," Daschle said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a Kerry champion, invokes Kerry's long Vietnam journey when asked what he learned from observing him for 30 years. "I knew him when he had fought in the war, when he fought against the war, and then I saw him fight for reconciliation," Kennedy said. "There was no political plus there. That was inner determination and his willingness to complete the job he started."
Reconciliation with Vietnam also marked a turning part for Kerry personally. "This changes Kerry's political style," said Thomas J. Vallely, his friend since the antiwar movement who directs the Vietnam program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "He's no longer a 24-year-old Swift boat commander throwing his ribbons away to protest the war. He's a consensus builder who works with people who were against him, and that's what ends the war."
No Longer Cash Poor
The larger transformation for Kerry that year was his marriage to Teresa Heinz, widow of the late senator H. John Heinz III (R-Pa.) and heiress to a food products fortune worth at least $500 million. Divorced since 1988 from Julia Thorne -- and frequently sighted with celebrity dates -- Kerry had been cash-poor for years, bunking at times with friends, family, staffers and a lobbyist-friend as he shuttled between Washington and Boston, where he spent weekends with daughters Alex and Vanessa.
Now with his wife's five homes and vast wealth -- which would figure significantly in his 1996 reelection and his presidential campaign -- Kerry assumed a princely lifestyle and a more formidable political presence in Massachusetts and nationally.
The marriage coincided with the end of Kerry's life as an investigator, as the Democrats lost their Senate majority in 1994 and as Kerry lost his subcommittee. With a Democratic president, far from trying to expose the dark side of U.S. foreign policy, Kerry became a partner in shaping policy as a member of the Senate leadership, recruited by Daschle, the Democrats' new leader and Kerry admirer. Kerry, who voted in 1991 against authorizing the Persian Gulf War, now helped draft resolutions for the use of U.S. force for humanitarian missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Kerry moved to make a mark on domestic issues such as education, health and the problems of cities, well aware, according to several aides, that he needed those credentials to run for president. But without a seat on relevant committees, he left only modest imprints; a Kerry aide on these issues at one point counted 25 counterparts working the same subject matter on Kennedy's committee and office staffs.
With Teresa Heinz Kerry's assent, their Georgetown home became a salon of sorts, a scene of working dinners for senators of both parties and idea people. "It's such an exciting time to convene great minds and great people to think, 'How are we going to govern ourselves on this little planet in a way that we're all healthier?' " said Teresa Heinz Kerry, who said she often poses the question as head of her late husband's philanthropies.
The lifestyle nurtured Kerry's budding bipartisanship. At one dinner, the Kerrys hosted the South African ambassador, AIDS experts, foundation leaders and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to communicate U.S. concern about South African President Thabo Mbeki's claim that HIV did not cause AIDS. Kerry worked for 18 months with Frist, who later became Senate Republican leader, crafting legislation that dramatically increased U.S. aid to fight global AIDS, the biggest expansion until President Bush's recent initiative.
With the Senate now in Republican hands, Kerry also partnered with Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to pass national fisheries protection legislation, Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) on coastal zone protection, Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) on school accountability, Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) on early childhood development and small business, and McCain on tobacco, climate change, fuel economy and more.
"He is obviously motivated by a desire to restore some kind of bipartisanship that is almost totally absent from the way we do business up here now," McCain said.
Now high up in the Democratic establishment, Kerry began seeking national attention for speeches in which he styled himself again as an outsider -- this time pushing from the inside out -- criticizing his own party as well as Republicans as captives of old doctrines.
His first venture on this path had come in 1992, in a speech criticizing affirmative action as stoking white resentment of blacks. He dropped the subject amid a fierce backlash from African Americans accusing him of pandering to conservative whites.
In 1996, Kerry won his toughest reelection against then-Gov. William H. Weld (R) in the nation's most closely watched Senate race. Remarkably popular for a Massachusetts Republican, Weld was a fiscal conservative and civil libertarian whose self-mocking charm was expected to play well against Kerry's dead-seriousness. Yet a series of eight debates televised statewide left the dead-serious guy in the lead.
"In terms of effectiveness as a debater, he's as good as it gets," Weld said. "Like the Minnesota Vikings defense in the old days, he'll bend but he'll never break."
Weld attributed his loss to Kerry's success nationalizing the election as Clinton carried Massachusetts by 33 percentage points over Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole. Kerry, who won by 7 percent, had used each debate to hammer the moderate Weld, over his protests, as a Republican in the mold of the increasingly unpopular House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
But many of Kerry's supporters insist that voters connected with something in Kerry that he never put into words.
"The inner person named Kerry is revealed only in moments of conflict and great stress," said Chris Gregory, a Vietnam veteran and friend since the antiwar movement who has worked in all of Kerry's campaigns. "Every time he gets elected, it's the same deal. His campaigns are wars. He goes straight at the other guy, and the voters have to ask who's more disciplined, who's more durable, who's more honest, who's more intelligent, who's more faithful, who's the better man? None of those things does he personify, but in comparison to someone else, it's Kerry."
Soon after his reelection, Kerry began preparing a challenge to then-Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000. His plan was to run as an outsider, portraying Gore as a captive of interest groups.
Laying the foundation, he took on a premier Democratic interest group in 1998 -- teachers unions -- in a speech calling for "an end to tenure as we know it." (He said nothing about tenure in this year's primaries.)
In the end, Kerry sat out the 2000 race, watching former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) run from the outside and get crushed in his bid for the Democratic nomination. Kerry drew his own lessons from the outcome.
"Bradley had a surge early on, and it looked like he could break through, and John was attracted to the energy and the outsiderness and the press buzz," said Jim Jordan, then a Kerry staffer and the first manager of his 2004 campaign. "And he saw how Gore gradually ground Bradley down into dust with sheer mass. As attracted as John always is to outsider-movement-energy politics, he saw the value in heft."
Kerry declared his candidacy for president in 2002, and -- as a war veteran with extensive foreign policy experience -- was immediately deemed the front-runner in a country transformed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Kerry said he made his decision two weeks after the 2002 congressional elections, in which Republicans gained ground by attacking Democrats as soft on national security. "I just said this can't go on this way. And we started to take off, and we were doing great until something called the War in Iraq."
Having won the battle for the Democratic nomination, Kerry now faces the war -- the one for the White House but also the one in Iraq. To those who have known him throughout his political career, it seems fitting that Kerry's presidential candidacy rests in part on whether he can resolve a tension -- in this case, between his opposition to the course of the war in Iraq and his own vote to authorize it, followed by his vote against $87 billion to supply the troops.
To Adam Walinsky, who met and became close to Kerry in the antiwar movement, this is the candidate's defining moment. How he explains his vote for the war is less important, in Walinsky's view, than how Kerry weaves the many strands of his life and career into a narrative that allows voters to understand him.
"All those questions will be in front of him: the movement politician versus the centrist, the person who leads with his gut versus the person who leads with calculation, the man in full bloom or the man restrained by caution," Walinsky said. "And therefore he will discover many things about himself in this race because he will be called upon to declare himself in a way he never has had to before."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.