How Kerry wins

John Kerry's former media advisor recalls how the Democrat has already faced every smear the Bush campaign will try against him -- and has prevailed.

By Dan Payne
Published April 13, 2004 9:32PM (EDT)

Traitor. Two-faced. Aloof. Elitist. Sixties radical. Tax-and-spend liberal. Spoiled aristocrat. These are the familiar charges leveled against Sen. John Kerry. But they weren't invented by the Bush campaign. They're the same charges he has had to endure as long as he has run for office in Massachusetts. And in every race but one, his first, he took on his critics and won.

While President Bush and the country were enduring an awful week of hearings about 9/11 intelligence failures, and of widespread death and chaos in Iraq, Kerry did not join the fray. Instead he delivered a curiously timed economics speech. In not capitalizing on the disasters rocking the Bush administration, Kerry was, I hope, invoking the rule that in politics one should never commit homicide on an opponent who is committing suicide. Moreover, no one should have expected the Vietnam veteran to make political hay over the death of American soldiers. Even as the bloody violence in Iraq led critics, chief among them Kerry's Senate seat mate Ted Kennedy, to declare Iraq was becoming Bush's Vietnam, Bush campaign strategists were trying to use Vietnam against Kerry, rehashing old allegations that the decorated veteran's opposition to the war in which he heroically served was somehow unpatriotic, or worse.

But Kerry has endured bad weeks before, and the Vietnam smear campaign in particular isn't likely to work. Such strategies have been tried, and have failed, in virtually every race Kerry has ever run for public office. It's worth comparing Kerry with his fellow Massachussetts Democrat Michael Dukakis to understand why Kerry is more likely to prevail. For Kerry, unlike Dukakis, Massachusetts was a crucible that readied him for the national battle ahead. Dukakis' toughest fights were primaries. Kerry has had to run in both difficult primaries and general elections. In every case, he seems to need to feel the shape and impact of the attacks before he acts, which frustrates supporters who panic in the heat of battle and expect Kerry to act precipitously. But as soon as Kerry judges that the charges he's facing are similar to those he has faced before, he and those who have been with him know what to do, almost by instinct -- even if they disappoint the Beltway by not responding in the next e-mail.

Kerry's election is by no means certain, but he will not lose because he was thrown off balance by what will be hurled at him in the months ahead.

My journey with John Kerry began in 1972 in the basement of a suburban Boston house he was living in. I had been the press secretary for Robert Drinan, the first Catholic priest elected to Congress in 1970. I had dropped in to do some volunteer work in anticipation of Kerry's run for Congress. Kerry had frozen the nation's attention, and mine, when he testified before the Senate against a war in which he had heroically served. He had nearly derailed Drinan at a preliminary caucus staged by liberal activists to unite behind a single candidate to defeat a pro-Vietnam War incumbent. Though he and I were about the same age, Kerry seemed older. He was serious, well-read and well-traveled, knew important people, and had big things he wanted to do. In 1972, inspired by Drinan's success and poised to capitalize on his national fame, Kerry decided to run for Congress. He briefly flirted with a central Massachusetts district occupied by an old New Deal hawk. But when an incumbent Republican quit Congress to join the Nixon administration, Kerry made his move. He and his wife Julia moved to Lowell, Mass., in the 5th District. A down-on-its-luck aging mill city on the border of New Hampshire, Lowell was a slow melting pot of second-generation Irish, French and Italian blue-collar workers. Proudly xenophobic, they had a name for newcomers: "blow-ins." John Kerry was a celebrity, an outsider, a blow-in with no roots in their world.

Yet another blow-in, I joined the campaign in its earliest days in 1972, working on message, training staff, and briefing Hill Holliday, a brassy young Boston advertising agency that taught me about high-impact, memorable advertising. The campaign was led by Kerry's brother-in-law David Thorne, his brother Cameron, and Tom Vallely, an ex-Marine whose father was a state judge.

During the primary, a half-dozen small-bore local politicians were pitted against Kerry's national reputation, strong organization and financial advantages. John Marttila and Tom Kiley, fresh from directing Drinan's successful congressional campaign, advised the campaign, as they do today. Back then, they taught Kerry workers to identify antiwar voters in the more liberal parts of the district and quietly "pull" them on primary day. The campaign used an alienation theme urged by enfant terrible Patrick Caddell, the pollster who was also guiding the disastrous George McGovern campaign for president. Accordingly, Kerry's message was: "He's not a politician. He listens." Enough 5th District voters got the message, as Kerry won the seven-way primary easily with about one-third of the vote. Nevertheless, as one Kerry staffer recalled, "The overwhelming majority of Democrat voters did not support John."

One who surely did not was Clement "Clemmie" Costello, publisher of the Lowell Sun.

Likened to the Manchester Union-Leader's irascible conservative William Loeb, just spitting distance away, Costello launched a full-scale war against Kerry on the pages of his newspaper. Day after day the Sun carried negative stories that started on the front page, jumped to the back of the front section, and filled the entire back page with stinging sarcasm. To wit: "Between appearances on the Dick Cavett show, Kerry found time to appear with antiwar extremist Jane Fonda at a Vietnam Veterans Against the War rally in Valley Forge." A photo of Jane Fonda ran, with a cutline that read "Fonda speaks with Kerry," along with photos of Kerry being arrested at antiwar rallies. Anti-Kerry editorials and cartoons were so frequent they no longer shocked us.

Other full-page articles highlighted celebrities who had contributed to Kerry's campaign, including conductor Leonard Bernstein, filmmaker Otto Preminger and author Kurt Vonnegut. Much space was given to disgruntled Vietnam veterans who did not like Kerry or his book, "The New Soldier." Republican Paul Cronin and Independent Roger Durkin ran full-page newspaper ads attacking Kerry along similar lines. One displayed the cover of "The New Soldier" with scruffy Vietnam veterans flying an American flag upside down, making the internationally recognized sign of distress seem unpatriotic.

The irony was that John Kerry's military service, which had propelled him onto the national stage, was being used to thwart his political career. Those of us working on his campaign were unsure of how to handle attacks on Kerry's patriotism. We did not realize he could be painted as a traitor. He was a war hero, for chrissakes.

With no local leaders to vouch for him, his poll numbers tumbled. A comfortable 26-point lead dwindled to 10 points with two weeks to go. Durkin, the Independent, was third with 13 percent. Suddenly he quit the race and threw his support to Cronin, the Republican. The Lowell Sun and the other large daily paper in Lawrence trumpeted the move as a major rejection of Kerry's candidacy. It was. Cronin beat Kerry by nearly nine points. The lights had seemingly been snapped off on a once bright political future. In hindsight, we had allowed the Sun's attacks to stick. "We were kids, we didn't know what we were doing," Kerry told the Globe. "We got our asses handed to us."

We now know that President Nixon and his chief hatchet man, Charles Colson, knew what they were doing and probably helped sabotage Kerry's campaign. Colson almost certainly spoon-fed negative stories to the Lowell Sun and engineered Durkin's dropping out of the race. Colson, who went to jail over Watergate, told Time magazine's Joe Klein that Kerry "was a thorn in our flesh. He was very articulate, a credible leader of the opposition." Colson admitted creating a rival veterans group to attack Kerry. John Kerry's courage, in war and peace, had been turned against him.

In 1982, the political bug bit Kerry again. After his unsuccessful run for Congress, Kerry had told friends he was finished with electoral politics. He completed law school, took a job as a prosecutor, put a major mobster behind bars, and quickly rose to second in command in the state's largest district attorney's office. He left the D.A.'s office to enter private law practice, but found he was still drawn to politics. He decided to run for lieutenant governor.

Mike Dukakis was making his comeback against a tough Irish conservative Democrat and former professional football player, Ed King, who had ousted him four years earlier. It was a nasty grudge match; as a consultant to Dukakis, I had nicknamed it "The Rematch." The Kerry forces printed two sets of campaign buttons, "King/Kerry," and "Dukakis/Kerry." Neither gubernatorial campaign was thrilled. In the race for lieutenant governor, the Democrat to beat was Evelyn Murphy, Dukakis' environment chief during his first term. Kerry's chances lay in the independent suburbs ringing Boston.

Accordingly he and his handlers decided on a daring ploy, to run as a candidate who supported a nuclear weapons freeze, tapping a hot national issue that had nothing to do with the lieutenant governor's job and everything to do with winning suburban liberals. A knowledgeable environmentalist, Kerry campaigned on reducing acid rain. He used his record of convicting mobsters and street criminals as an ex-prosecutor to court mayors and law enforcement officials in bigger cities.

Just before the primary, he got big play in the news when he and his law partner, Roanne Sragow, sprang George Reissfelder from jail, a man who had spent 15 years of a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. If Massachusetts had had the death penalty, Reissfelder would have been executed.

Vietnam was not part of that campaign. "John didn't want to have anything to do with Vietnam," Cameron Kerry, John's younger brother, told the Boston Globe. "He didn't even want us to show a picture of him in uniform."

The Dukakis Democrats had decided to screen out future Ed Kings by requiring that statewide candidates win at least 15 percent of the convention delegates to gain a place on the primary ballot. Kerry's chief organizer for the convention was a cocky young Boston Irish kid named Mike Whouley. On the first ballot Murphy cleared the 15 percent hurdle easily; Kerry made it with but a handful of votes to spare. But his campaign wanted to see another woman get on the ballot to dilute Murphy's appeal to female voters. Enough delegates switched their votes on subsequent balloting so that Murphy found herself sharing the ballot with a female state senator whose district included Murphy's home town.

Kerry battled Murphy to a draw. Backed by $100,000 of his own money, Kerry ran a highly effective, wickedly funny TV spot that lampooned what lieutenant governors usually do. Created by media magician Ken Swope, the spot showed a mock lieutenant governor talking to a wooden duck and cutting his necktie along with a ribbon for a grand opening. Kerry edged out Murphy after an all-night primary. He carried Boston, Worcester and, curiously enough, Lowell; the Boston Globe said more than half his victory margin came from the old 5th District, which had rejected him a decade earlier. He joined the ticket with Dukakis, who had hung on to win the rematch.

Two years later, Paul Tsongas, who had beaten the first-ever African-American senator, Edward Brooke, to win his seat, announced without warning that he would leave the Senate. He had cancer. Three strong candidates emerged: Lt. Gov. John Kerry; Rep. Ed Markey, leader of the nuclear weapons freeze movement in Congress; and Rep. Jim Shannon, a protégé of Speaker Tip O'Neill. Shannon represented that same 5th District seat Kerry had lost. With O'Neill's help, Shannon sat on the fundraising machine known as the Ways and Means Committee, which controls the federal budget.

The Boston Globe, with a new editor determined to make the paper "less predictably Democratic," challenged the Democrats to refuse political action committee, or PAC, money. This was particularly painful for Shannon, who had the old ways and means to collect thousands of dollars in one-stop shopping for PAC money. After Markey dropped out of the race, Kerry accepted the PAC-money ban. Shannon resisted. Editorials followed. The Globe's heavy-fingered editorial cartoonist muddied Shannon the day before a statewide liberal endorsing group was to meet. Looking at months of bad ink, Shannon cried uncle. He gave back the PAC money he had taken and forswore taking any in the future. This meant Kerry would face Shannon as he would later face Howard Dean, on equal financial footing.

At the Democrats' nominating convention, Shannon beat Kerry for the party endorsement; Kerry used Shannon's win as proof that Shannon was a party insider. Shannon was the preference of politically astute men at the Globe, in the state house, and in Washington. When the Globe later endorsed him, they saw few ideological differences with Kerry but chose Shannon because of his "skill and personality."

The Kerry campaign exposed Shannon's skill in writing a tax loophole that favored a major Massachusetts insurance company. Kerry, as he would in every campaign, pounced on his opponent's mistake. Kerry derided the multimillion-dollar loophole as "a disgusting giveaway." When Shannon insisted that he had done nothing wrong and would do it again, Kerry was right where he wanted to be -- on the outside of politics-as-usual.

With the primary approaching, Kerry's own polls showed Shannon moving into the lead as the candidates participated in a split-screen televised mini-debate. Kerry had been knocking Shannon for being both for and against the controversial MX missile system. Shannon tried to throw the flip-flop charge back at Kerry by questioning how he could now campaign as an antiwar candidate when he had fought in Vietnam. "If you felt that strongly about the war, you would not have gone," Shannon, in high school during Vietnam, charged.

In the very next debate, a seething Kerry told Shannon, "You impugn the service of veterans in that war by saying they are somehow dopes or wrong for going," he said. Shannon balked. Employing a Southernism popular in Congress to assail an argument as baseless, Shannon said, "John, you know that dog won't hunt."

The Doghunters were born. A band of Vietnam vets who supported Kerry heard their own service demeaned and rallied almost spontaneously.

One of the lead Doghunters was John Hurley, who had first watched Kerry nearly steal a caucus from his candidate, Drinan, 14 years before. (Hurley is now Kerry's national vets recruiter.) Another was Tom Vallely, an ex-Marine and longtime Kerry friend who now runs the Vietnam Program at Harvard University. Chris Gregory, a Vietnam veteran leader, led former soldiers who staked out Shannon's headquarters and shadowed him as he campaigned. In the days and years ahead, the ranks of the Doghunters would swell.

Vietnam veterans supplied the energy, an opponent gave him the opening, his field organization run again by Whouley turned out the vote, and John Kerry tightened his message. He won by three points. Had he known, Howard Dean might have seen it coming.

In the general election for the Senate, Kerry faced Republican Ray Shamie, a genial millionaire businessman with right-wing political views. Shamie had given Ted Kennedy a scare in the Senate race two years before, and in the just completed primary had stunned the remaining Brahmin Republican establishment by defeating former U.S. attorney general Elliot Richardson, a Watergate hero. Shamie was on a roll and Kerry looked as though he were sitting smack in his path.

The Kerry campaign learned that Shamie had been smitten with the ideas of the John Birch Society, an anti-Semitic, paranoid, right-wing group that was preoccupied with how communists controlled, among others, President Dwight Eisenhower. Moreover, Shamie maintained a library that displayed Birch publications for employees at his company.

Immediately after the primaries, a then-Shamie consultant recalls, "Congressional Democrats like Barney Frank and Ed Markey branded Shamie a right-wing nut. We had no Republicans in office then to respond, and the media followed the lead of the Globe, which was reporting the attacks." Déjà vu Lowell, 1972.

Then it was "touch the third rail" time. (The third rail is the hot line on subway tracks.) The son of Gen. George Patton, who had himself been fond of the Birch Society, held his own press conference and charged that Kerry had blood on his hands for leading antiwar protests that encouraged the Viet Cong and thus caused more U.S. casualties. The Doghunters sprang into action. Vallely recruited a little-known congressman from Arizona, a Vietnam War hero named John McCain, to vouch for John Kerry's valor in combat. I'll never forget Vallely telling me about McCain that day in 1984. "This guy's going to be a star," he said.

Of all the commercials I have made for Kerry, my favorite capitalized on Shamie's unflinching support for the Reagan arms buildup. Kerry, in sweater and jeans, walked through an old-time hardware store. The big political stories of the day catalogued a Pentagon spending spree, where it paid exorbitant prices for ordinary goods: $200 hammers, etc. In the commercial, Kerry displayed an item from the shelf and compared its retail price to what the military had paid. "The Pentagon paid $110 for this 10-cent diode." He looked at the camera, smiled slightly, and said: "Anyone who thinks you need to spend like this to keep America safe ... must have a screw loose." The commercial won many awards, and Kerry easily won the election.

The 1990 senate race: First-term Sen. John Kerry, like Paul Tsongas before him, struggled to find a warm place in the considerable shadow of the lion of the Senate, Edward M. Kennedy. He wasn't as liberal as Kennedy, wasn't as powerful as Kennedy, wasn't as much fun as Kennedy. Whatever people liked about Ted Kennedy, John Kerry wasn't.

In his next contest, Kerry found himself pitted against the son of a wealthy, politically connected real estate developer. Jim Rappaport spent most of the primary campaign (he faced a Republican Vietnam vet) bashing Kerry falsely for having passed no laws in his first term as senator.

When Rappaport won the primary, we were waiting for him. We began with a round of positive TV spots. Rappaport stayed on the attack. Confident we had the goods on Rappaport, we struck back. We produced a series of soap-opera-style TV spots called "The Life of James Rappaport." My favorite was called "We Buy a Cow From Ourselves," which tells the story of one Rappaport getting a tax break for swapping ownership of a prized cow with another Rappaport. Each spot ended with footage of Jim Rappaport winking.

After the spots had been on for a week, Rappaport called for a cease-fire on negative ads. The Kerry campaign's response: Too late, pal; the spots stay on. At the same time, newspapers all over Massachusetts were slamming Rappaport's campaign tactics in columns and editorials. We pulled them together in one full-page newspaper ad nicknamed "Slimeball," the word one Boston columnist had used to describe his campaign.

While Rappaport outspent him, Kerry outsmarted Rappaport at every turn. In their final debate, on a hunch or a tip, Kerry demanded to know which taxes Rappaport had been accusing him of raising. On live TV, Rappaport could not name a single one. Game over. Kerry won with 57 percent of the vote.

In 1996, Kerry faced the toughest opponent of his political life, the charming, shrewd and resourceful Bill Weld. Republicans hoped that Weld, who had won a second term as governor with 71 percent in a state where Democrats enjoy a near monopoly, would unseat Kerry using his incumbency and good relations with the press. The Kerry campaign called it the "21 press secretaries" problem. Weld could make news any day, every day.

The press liked Weld's ironic detachment, his self-mocking, candid style. He jumped into the Charles River fully clothed to celebrate the cleanup of this once polluted waterway. When the Legislature debated a law permitting the keeping of ferrets as pets, he declared, "A ferret in the Barcalounger is a slice of heaven." He told a radio audience that one of his daughters preferred Kerry and was working for him rather than her father.

Eager for season-long confrontations, the state's news media formed a consortium that bullied Weld and Kerry into agreeing to debate a horse-gagging eight times, each debate sponsored by a media outlet in the consortium. In private, Kerry complained about the number of debates the entire campaign, in marked contrast to his current desire to debate Bush eight times. Weld did us the considerable favor of monotonously limiting his pitch to crime, welfare and taxes. Kerry's argument was broader and more, uh, nuanced.

Kerry reminded voters that the affable Weld would be one more vote in the Senate to keep Jesse Helms head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Ironically, when President Clinton nominated Weld the following year for an ambassadorship to Mexico, Jesse Helms successfully blocked him.) Weld assisted in nationalizing his candidacy by calling Newt Gingrich, the unpopular speaker of the House, "Newtie," and by casually saying Gingrich was his "ideological soul mate."

Kerry and Weld agreed to a spending cap, but both violated it. Weld understated his advertising buys; Kerry put $1.7 million of his personal money into advertising. Together Kerry and Weld spent more than $20 million, the second-most spent on a Senate race in the country.

After Kerry also won a crucial endorsement from Massachusetts police unions, which undercut Weld's crime argument, it was third-rail time. Weld wisely commended Kerry for his military service, but David Warsh, then a columnist for the Boston Globe, wondered if Kerry's actions in Vietnam had constituted a war crime. After all, the Vietnamese sniper whom Kerry turned his boat into shore to chase had been wounded. The Doghunters knew what to do. Kerry's boat crew and retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who had given Kerry his Silver Star, gathered at Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard to defend Kerry and recall his bravery. Kerry's crew members said the Vietnamese sniper had stopped and turned with a grenade launcher pointed at Kerry and his crew. Somebody had to do it, they said, and Kerry was in the lead.

At one of the last debates Weld, a former U.S. attorney, was criticizing Kerry for opposing the death penalty. Weld demanded that Kerry tell the mother of a slain police officer, seated in the audience, why her son's life was not as valuable as that of his killer, whose death Kerry opposed. (Never mind that Massachusetts didn't have a death penalty statute.) Kerry denounced the killer and said, "I know something about killing," in a grim reminder of his service in Vietnam. "I don't like killing. I don't think a state honors life by turning around and sanctioning killing." You could feel the gender gap growing and the race slipping away from Weld. He had gone a bridge too far. Kerry beat him by nearly eight points.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2003. Kerry, the early front-runner, has fallen badly behind Howard Dean in Iowa and New Hampshire. He fires his campaign manager, reconnects with his Boston advisors, moves his campaign to Iowa, mortgages his Beacon Hill mansion for $6 million, and brings trusty Michael Whouley to Iowa to direct a strong organization built by John Norris. Once again, what turns Kerry and his campaign around emotionally are Vietnam veterans. Surrounded by the Doghunters at every stop, Kerry begins speaking more simply, more concretely, more humanely. Many of the vets are real people with real problems, and like most other senators Kerry doesn't meet many people like them in Washington.

Hearing about Kerry's campaign on the radio, a former crewmate of Kerry's calls Kerry campaign headquarters. Jim Rassman, a Special Forces officer, explains how he had fallen overboard in a mine explosion while on Kerry's swift boat in the Mekong River. Kerry, wounded in his right arm, saw him in the water taking fire. He ran to the exposed bow, reached in, grabbed Rassman, and pulled him back onboard. Now a retired police officer and registered Republican, Rassman says he just wanted to thank Kerry.

Kerry's aides prepare a reunion in Des Moines -- a moment of comradeship that only veterans of combat can understand. Kerry embraces his fellow veteran, chokes back tears, and speaks privately for a moment with a man he had not seen in nearly a quarter century. He introduces his comrade in arms, and after Rassman thanks him, Kerry says he had done nothing but pull an injured man out of a river, something "anyone would have done."

No, they wouldn't. That's why we recognize the human exception known as heroism. Whatever humanity and passion John Kerry brings to public service flows from his experience as a Vietnam veteran. He believes that no one should be left behind.

Dan Payne

Dan Payne is a Boston media consultant who worked on John Kerry's U.S. Senate campaigns and for Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential primaries. He also writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.


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