Kerry's nation

Can Sen. John Kerry, derided by his critics as an arrogant press hog, do in 2004 what his fellow liberal Al Gore couldn't do?

Published August 10, 2001 10:21PM (EDT)

It's Monday, Aug. 6, and on the westbound lane of an interstate highway, the gangly body of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is wedged into the front passenger seat of a minivan.

It's 6:40 a.m. and Kerry, headed to western Massachusetts to spend the day meeting with constituents, tears through the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the New York Times. He remarks that the day before, both Times columnist Maureen Dowd and a Times editorial slammed former Vice President Al Gore. He doesn't sound joyful about it, but neither does he sound all that sympathetic about the man who ran one of the worst presidential campaigns in recent history.

In the middle of the sports section, Kerry asks a staffer if his scheduled visits will permit him to get home in time to watch the Boston Red Sox face off against the Texas Rangers. He had tickets to Friday's game, which was rained out.

No, he's told. He won't get back in time.

Kerry sighs. But the race for the American League pennant isn't the Boston vs. Texas matchup Kerry is asked about as he makes his way around the state. Whether it's supporters or politicos or editorialists from the Berkshire Eagle and the Springfield Union-News, everyone tries to get Kerry to step up to the plate and admit that he's going to run for president in 2004.

"You still haven't answered my question about the presidency," jokes Eagle editor David Scribner halfway through their meeting. "Oh, we won't tell anybody!"

Kerry shrugs off every pitch, insisting that his senatorial reelection contest in 2002 is foremost in his mind. The state GOP, though, has yet to field a decent candidate, and it seems pretty clear no Republican in the state could be half as daunting as was Kerry's last Republican challenger in '96, popular then-Gov. William Weld. Despite having been reelected governor in 1994 with 71 percent of the vote, Weld lost the Senate race to Kerry, 45 percent to 52 percent.

Kerry clearly is taking nothing for granted, but that doesn't mean he doesn't recognize what essentially right now is political kabuki theater. I cannot even hint that I want anything other than my Senate seat, lest they resent me for it. Not any of his potential rivals for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination -- Gore, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware -- will cop to anything but an intense interest in the 2002 elections.

But Kerry's presidential campaign seems pretty certain, even if he's playing coy, complying with political tradition. He's made small gestures to boost his profile, like renaming the Oceans and Fisheries subcommittee he chairs to Oceans, Fisheries and the Environment, exploiting a growing national interest -- and an area of potential vulnerability for the current administration. (When the Senate returns to session, Kerry has also vowed to filibuster any bill that allows drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.)

Thursday night, Kerry -- the author of a July 19 Senate letter to Bush in favor of full federal funding of stem cell research, signed by 59 Republican and Democratic senators -- blasted Bush's attempt at a middle-ground decision on the matter in starkly philosophical terms with a presidential garnish. "Leadership is making choices, and governing means laying out priorities," Kerry said. "Regrettably, tonight's announcement aims to create a political middle ground where there is no scientific one. Compassionate conservatism could have meant lifesaving treatments for those suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease; instead, it appears to be using words of compassion to mask efforts to keep a campaign promise to conservatives."

On a more pragmatic, back-scratching political level -- where Kerry has traditionally never excelled -- he spent Sunday in New Hampshire, where he appeared as the star attraction at fundraisers for a couple of local politicos. (He'll return to the Granite State to keynote the AFL-CIO convention Oct. 18.) And as if Kerry's Sunday nod toward the state with the first presidential primary weren't enough, Tuesday night, at the Beacon Hill townhouse he shares with his second wife, Teresa Heinz, he hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack. Kerry also helped Vilsack raise reelection funds in June in Iowa, which happens to host the first presidential caucus.

As political chits are being stacked on the side, Kerry's campaign coffers are being filled. He has raised $2.2 million this year, all without PAC contributions, which he has refused in all three of his Senate races.

And in this, Kerry seems to have an early lead over his potential rivals. Edwards, up for reelection in 2004, has $1.2 million in the bank, having raised $615,360 for his campaign committee in the first six months of this year. After holding 10 fundraisers, Lieberman's leadership political action committee -- Responsibility, Opportunity and Community PAC, or ROCPAC -- has raised $585,604 in its first three and a half months, with an additional $1.1 million left unspent from his 2000 Senate race. Biden, who is up for reelection in 2002, has raised $726,775 in the first six months of the year, with $1,466,330 cash on hand. Daschle, reelected in 1998, has $735,000 in his campaign committee coffers. Gephardt has $247,566 in his leadership PAC, and $501,823 on hand in his campaign committee, having raised $851,650 since January.

But to watch Kerry now is to watch a man who appears to be sounding out to himself his own reasons for running, as if to build the kind of self-conviction that, say, Gore never seemed to really have. As President Bush begins a month-long "working vacation" at his Texas ranch, Kerry thinks about themes, tests out rhetoric and practices arguments that sound far better suited to a national campaign than the more parochial one he faces next fall.

This year is not the first time Kerry's name has been seriously mentioned as a prospective nominee. No, that stretches back to 1971 when, on "60 Minutes," Morely Safer asked Kerry, then 27 and leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, about whether he would want to be president. (Kerry's answer was no.) He's clearly been thinking about it more credibly for quite some time. Just a year ago, his ambitions were mentioned by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who, while commenting on the weak performances of Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in the Democratic race, rhetorically asked: "You know the guy with the biggest regrets that he didn't run?"

McCain, a friend of Kerry's, answered himself: "His initials are J.K."

Kerry had briefly flirted with the prospect of challenging Gore for the nomination, but in early 1999 opted out. One year later, Kerry made Gore's short list of potential vice presidential picks, but in the end he came in third, behind Lieberman and Edwards. Kerry, according to sources close to him, never thought Gore was going to pick him. Many of Kerry's supporters -- those who thought Lieberman was too timid as the vice-presidential nominee, too easy on Dick Cheney in the vice presidential debate and too hesitant to step into the attack dog role -- naturally think Gore made the wrong pick. Whether or not you buy that, quite unlike Lieberman, Kerry says that whether or not Gore is running will not be a factor when he makes his decision about 2004.

"Thank you for that extraordinarily generous introduction," Kerry said at one of the New Hampshire fundraisers. "I was tempted to go: 'I accept the nomination!' But I won't." The crowd laughed knowingly.

On the stump, Kerry talks about engaging "a common journey right now" that includes "very significant choices about our country." It sounds a lot more like a Kerry for president speech than a Kerry for Senate speech. "We have to organize around a vision about our country and about our citizenry," he says.

In an interview, Kerry reflects on the speeches he's been giving recently, during stops that have included Georgia, Colorado, Washington, Iowa and Texas. "As I go out and have spoken in the last weeks, last months, I've talked about choices," he says.

"Choices" as exemplified by the Bush tax cut. To a few dozen dairy farmers in Adams, Mass., Kerry talks about the Northeast Dairy Compact in the context of Bush's "irresponsible tax cut so big ... this past month we borrowed to pay for the tax cut." The debate has been "reduced to stupid little phrases, like 'It's not the government's money, it's the people's money!'" Kerry sneers. "Well, that sounds great, folks, but there are some things that only the government can do."

He paints himself as the fiscal conservative, spinning Bush as the radical. Kerry drives into the larger point, saying the $1.35 trillion Bush tax cut deprives the Senate of "opportunities to provide you with a decent price support program." He talks up his support of both the "tough vote" for the 1993 Clinton deficit reduction program as well as "the first thing" he supported as a new senator in 1985, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act. But beneath Kerry's talk of "choices" lies a pretty liberal philosophy and a voting record on most things that matches up well with the state's senior senator, Ted Kennedy. Though Kerry has carved out a somewhat unpredictable niche by leaning right on free trade and the deficit, he knows that he, the former lieutenant governor for Gov. Michael Dukakis, will be slammed as just another Massachusetts liberal should the time come. He hopes to avoid that, and the themes he has been sounding -- or at least the ones he's been discussing recently, among certain audiences -- have made a fan out of at least one influential conservative Democrat.

"I've been going to Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners in Georgia since the 1950s, so I've seen a lot of speeches," says Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., easily the Senate Democrat most supportive of the Bush agenda. "Kerry's was by far the best speech I have ever heard given at a function like that. He talked about citizen-soldiers and he talked about the flag raisers at Iwo Jima. It was a very good, touching speech."

Back in the 1971 "60 Minutes" profile of Kerry, Safer referred to Kerry's "manner, his credentials, a veteran whose articulate call to reason rather than anarchy seemed to bridge the call between the Abbie Hoffmans of the world and Mr. Agnew's so-called 'Silent Majority.'" Will Kerry be able to bridge the gap between the red and the blue states? Miller has criticized his fellow Democrats (including Al Gore) for not "getting it." I ask Miller: Does Kerry get it?

"I'm not sure," Miller says, allowing that he and Kerry differ on some issues, including the Bush tax cut. The American people will want to see if "he's talking about issues that affect their daily lives" rather than issues of "political correctness or some far-out social issue," Miller says.

"He's a man of great substance and great character, but the cold hard fact is one speech does not make a candidacy in Georgia," Miller says. "But it was certainly an auspicious beginning."

Kerry hopes so. "I've got a pretty fundamental sense of why I'm in this business," he says to this reporter, again sounding out one of his themes. "I know what brought me here in the first place. And I'm very frustrated."

Here he begins, again, to test a theme, one I later hear him give from the top of a picnic table at a meeting of Springfield Democrats. "Because so much has been written about the 'Greatest Generation,' I think it's time that we ask the question: What's going to be said about the virtue of our generation? Nobody seems to be nurturing that very much."

Of his fellow boomer, Bush, he says: "I can't tell you what this administration is offering us that suggests that we have a larger sense of what we'd have as a legacy with respect to this time we have in government to make a difference."

Kerry, who first jumped to national prominence during the Vietnam War, combines a "Greatest Generation" profile with a hippie credibility his peers must envy. He enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from Yale in 1966, served six months in country, was awarded a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. Then he came back and marched against the very war in which he had served so valiantly, helping to form Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" Kerry famously asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., thanked Kerry, then 27, for testifying before the committee, saying, "As the witness knows, I have a very high personal regard for him and hope, before his life ends, he will be a colleague of ours in this body."

A few days before I was to travel with Kerry in Massachusetts, I found an ancient copy of "The New Soldier" -- which Kerry and Vietnam Veterans Against the War put together in 1971 to record their week in Washington protesting the war. I handed it to him upon squeezing into his minivan, and he began leafing through it.

"There's Robert Muller," Kerry says, pointing at scrapbook photos in the back of the book showing a high-school era Muller pole vaulting before he went abroad and lost the use of his legs. "Gold Star Mothers," he says, pointing to a photo of an older woman wrapped in a flag, clutching the medals that are all that's left of her son. "There's Rusty Sachs," Kerry says. "Look at his face." Sachs is throwing one of his medals back on the steps of Congress; he's fighting back tears.

The moment has political ramifications, and not just because some -- like McCain -- found the spectacle of veterans tossing their medals distasteful and inappropriate. In 1984, the Wall Street Journal revealed that -- despite a speech Kerry gave in which he angrily claimed that "This administration forced us to return our medals ... These leaders denied us the integrity those symbols supposedly gave our lives" -- Kerry had actually kept his medals. The medals he threw that day belonged to others, it turned out. It was an example, the media alleged, of Kerry the phony.

From Kerry's perspective, of course, it was all pretty complicated and he never really understood what the brouhaha was all about. The medals were, after all, a highly personal matter. He'd ultimately decided to throw his also-important ribbons, and the medals he tossed were on behalf of some disabled vets. He never claimed to have thrown his own medals, and certainly the more important matter was that he had enlisted and fought bravely in the war, and had then come back to protest the atrocities he had participated in. And, it should be noted, in the "60 Minutes" interview with Kerry, which ran a mere four weeks after the 1971 demonstration on the Mall, Kerry refers to the "the emotion in the faces of those men who threw their medals back ... if you watch their faces, there was agony in them as they threw those things back," and so on, continuously referring to the medal-throwers in the third person, never including himself.

A couple pages after the photo of Sachs and others throwing their medals back are two different close-ups of the piles the vets left in their wake. "Look at that," Kerry says. "You see? A big deal was made about whether I threw back my medals or ribbons or whatever, but look. People threw everything. Ribbons. Discharge papers. Photographs. Certificates ..."

Indeed, that's what the photos show. In one photo, a veteran is throwing his cane. Kerry swallows. Slightly shakes his head.

He moves on to other photos in the book. In one of the last shots, a sapling stands on the Mall where the veterans all congregated that week in April. The text next to the photo says "The quadrangle on the Mall is vacant. Not one act of violence has been committed. They came in peace. The war in Indochina continues."

"We planted that tree," Kerry says. "But it's not there anymore. We went there recently to look for it and they added a wing of a museum or something." With weariness, Kerry hands the book back to me. We're off to the next stop.

"Look at that!" Kerry says roughly every five minutes to his 24-year-old daughter Vanessa, who has come with him today, as we drive through another gorgeous vista. "God's country," he says. He turns around and makes sure everyone in the car has seen the Berkshires' lush green rolling hills, as if we could miss them. We pass a cattle-crossing sign.

"Cattle crossing," Kerry says in his Yalie, Brahmin patrician way. "Swallows swooping."

Vanessa rolls her eyes, embarrassed a bit by her dad waxing poetic. "He's such a cheeseball," she says lovingly. "I mean, it comes out that way. But he's really sentimental. He really means it."

There is something about the Kerry style that has made him an easy target for critics, ones a bit harsher than his daughter. "Aloof and pompous," says a senior Democratic Senate staffer. Similar criticisms come fast from Democrats, especially those allied with any of Kerry's possible rivals. He's arrogant, a show pony, a media hog, hyper-ambitious.

"Show me one of these people who isn't ambitious," McCain says, defending Kerry, and paraphrases a famous line from the late Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz. "Unless you're under indictment or detoxification every senator automatically consider himself a candidate for president of the United States."

McCain says Kerry could be a good candidate. "John is tenacious, which is an attribute that I admire, obviously. He's willing to work hard. One thing we all know -- those who have observed and those who have been in a presidential campaign -- is it's a lot of work. And a number of people who decide to run find out how hard it is and have a tendency to kind of pull back and relax. John Kerry will not do that. He will go out like a bulldog."

Moreover, McCain says, Kerry is one of the smartest people in the Senate. "You may accuse him of a lot of things, but not knowing the issues is not one of them." Though, McCain allows, "sometimes he has a tendency to over-explain the issues."

And he can seem too ambitious, off-putting to even would-be supporters.

As soon as Kerry became a public figure, even Garry Trudeau, a liberal, someone who one normally might think would be a supporter, was knocking him in his cartoon.

"If you care about this country at all, you better go listen to that John Kerry fella," a stranger lectures Mike Doonesbury and B.D. in the Oct. 21, 1971, comic strip. "He speaks with a rare eloquence and astonishing conviction. If you see no one else this year, you must see John Kerry!"

"Who was that?" B.D. asks as the stranger leaves.

Responds Mike: "John Kerry."

In the Oct. 22, 1971, comic strip, Kerry is shown giving an impassioned speech at the end of which he is revealed to be thinking, "You're really clicking tonight, you gorgeous preppie."

Jim Jones, a longtime Kerry staffer who's worked as both his policy and communications director, says that the sneers that come Kerry's way are usually over his style rather than his substance. "He may have his flaws, but he wears them," Jones says. "What you see is what you get, he has no hidden agendas. And he's a very complicated person."

That "gorgeous preppie" -- or what passes for gorgeous in politics, at any rate -- has harsh words for his younger self, for the "brash" way he conducted himself when he was with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, for his fairly shameless district-shopping back in 1972 when he ran, and lost, a race for Congress. But those close to Kerry think that he's gotten something of a bum rap. It isn't something that has much affected what voters think of him, or what his national profile will be should he run, but among elites -- particularly those in the media -- there is a dismissal of Kerry that his supporters argue isn't fair.

Sure, he can be demanding and headstrong and longwinded, they say. But welcome to the U.S. Senate. During the '96 campaign, Kerry was slammed for crashing at the ritzy manse of a lobbyist. But that was during his divorce, say his supporters. He sure seems to love Hollywood, and his time between his two marriages (he separated from his first wife, Julia Thorne, in 1982; they divorced in 1988) seemed to be filled with lots of young women. He was single, counter friends, and much of that was overblown. (A 1997 Boston Herald gossip column had Kerry walking "with an unidentified woman" into a 7-Eleven for "some after-dinner snacks." Says daughter Vanessa: "That was me.")

Even Kerry's 1995 marriage to heiress Heinz, widow of former Sen. John Heinz, R-Penn., was cast in a cynical light, though Kerry says he hasn't spent one dollar of her money on any political activities. Other than that, Kerry himself won't touch the subject of media snarkiness, lest he be seen as whining. Though he did briefly brush by the matter in his Georgia speech, bemoaning "the cynicism of a press that wants to make entertainment out of news."

The larger point of the speech, though -- and what made Miller such a fan of Kerry -- was Kerry's talk of duty, both as a soldier and as a Democrat. "There is a difference worth fighting for between the parties," Kerry told the Atlanta audience. "It is a difference that has a profound impact on the lives of our fellow Americans -- and it's time we got back to being Democrats who stand up as citizen soldiers -- in good times and in bad -- and fight for a national politics that lifts up our nation.

"We Democrats believe this nation is more than gleaming buildings and the gated communities with their swimming pools and finely manicured lawns," Kerry said. "We do not see America as a finished product; a city established upon the hill. We see an America still in the process of becoming; a dream not yet fulfilled; a promise not yet kept."

Despite this lofty rhetoric, Kerry is now known in the Senate less as a high-profile legislator and more as someone who offers well-considered amendments here and there. Toiling in the shadow of Mount Teddy Kennedy hasn't been easy, as one has to cede a large chunk of American domestic policy to the Senate chairman of the Health Education Labor & Pensions Committee.

"His strengths have been more investigative, rhetorical and intellectual than legislative," allows a Kerry advisor, "which worries me not at all, because if that mattered we'd be in Year 5 of the Dole administration."

Kerry's highest-profile victories have been fairly solo, executive actions: helming the controversial Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, using Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee powers to investigate Gen. Manuel Noriega, uncovering the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) scandal, unearthing Lt. Col. Oliver North's private aid network to the Contras which eventually led to the Iran-Contra affair. Kerry sees this as part of his record of holding the system accountable, but these boat-rocking investigations -- especially the BCCI scandal, in which he went after D.C. icon Clark Clifford -- did nothing to endear him to the Washington establishment. Clifford, a former secretary of defense and key Democratic advisor to four presidents -- eventually faced charges of fraud, conspiracy and taking bribes in the BCCI affair, the biggest banking scandal in history. Indictments against him were ultimately put on hold because of his failing health.

"He was the first one to say about Clark Clifford that the emperor had no clothes," says a former senior-level Kerry staffer. "And that was a lonely place to be. One time a highly respected senator got on the elevator and said to Kerry, 'What are you doing to my friend Clark Clifford?' John didn't say anything. After the other senator got off, John turned to me and said, 'I get that all the time on the Senate floor.' He did the right thing. I remember, we had a discussion once about what happens being in the Senate, how you sort of get neutered. The institution doesn't reward the people who push and stick out their necks. This was a good example."

"Kerry's got courage," McCain says. "He's got courage. He'll do what he thinks is right."

The feeling is mutual. Impressed as Kerry was by McCain's campaign and seemingly less than dazzled by Gore's, Kerry says he's trying to marry what he saw as McCain's "no bullshit" appeal with a testimonial to the accomplishments of the Clinton administration -- something Gore was never really able to sell.

"Why I like John McCain so much and why I admired his foray last time is because he, I thought, talked common sense, and that's what I think people want, is for us to not bullshit them," Kerry says in an interview. "The American people are smarter than a lot of politicians want to give them credit for. And more courageous, more prepared to deal with some tough choices if somebody would present them to them. I don't have all the answers, but I'm willing to embrace the discussion."

It's not as if John McCain isn't a politician, of course, with his own unique brand of bullshit packaged in earthy, ironic, wink-and-a-smile "straight-talk" wrapping. American politicians can't tell the truth; the American people won't let them. So what needs to be offered is a limited version of no-bullshit, as when Kerry, in his van, peruses the Democratic Policy Committee talking points slamming the Bush Social Security Commission for claiming that Social Security will run out of money around 2012. The Democratic talking points paint a rosier picture than Kerry believes is accurate -- the government will continue to make payments by amassing debt, but the Republicans are right, the money will run out. Kerry calls the talking points "disingenuous," but he has yet to formulate an official policy on Social Security Reform, and already he's ruled out the relatively minor reform measure of raising the retirement age.

It's Monday evening and Kerry, his daughter and his staff are making their way back to Boston on the Mass Pike. Kerry is placing calls to a radio station, to supporters and staffers with vague allusions to "political" decisions that have to be run by his two longtime strategists, Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and David McKean, his administrative assistant. The Red Sox-Rangers game is on the radio. Reception is spotty.

"Can we get it better? Isn't it on another station?" Kerry asks demandingly of the driver. Another staffer says that we shouldn't bother; Red Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg hit a line drive right smack dab into a triple play in the fourth inning and the Sox are down 7-6.

The radio is dimmed. Kerry returns to phone calls. In the seventh inning, though, Hatteberg -- the game's goat, the one Sox fans are booing -- steps up and wails the ball. Grand slam. Sox win 10-7. Things can turn around quickly in the world of baseball; one inning's goat is another inning's superstar.

"I don't want to get highfalutin about it," Kerry says in an interview when I ask him about how 2002 seems quite like a practice run for 2004, how the preparations for Kerry for President are being made not just among staffers and fundraiser but in his head and speeches. "I want to be careful about it. I'm not 'picking themes,' I'm just trying to talk about things that make sense. And obviously I'll see how and what matters to people. Or how they respond to some of those things as I think about what I may or may not end up doing."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------