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Defining John Kerry | The Nation

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Defining John Kerry

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"Do you consider yourself a liberal?"

Senator John Kerry gently winces, as if to say, "OK, here we go." He is sitting in an anteroom behind a hearing room where the Senate Finance Committee, on which he serves, is approving a supersized tax cut he opposes. As the Democrats are absorbing their most significant legislative loss in decades, a disappointed but wistful Kerry--"I wish we were defining this thing better"--is whiling away time between votes on amendments, talking to a reporter about his positions, his past, his personality. Even the poems he writes.

About the Author

David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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This is what he must do, for the junior senator from Massachusetts, the Vietnam-War-hero-turned-Vietnam-War-opponent, who contemplated chasing the presidency in 2000 and who has twice been considered for veep, is again doing White House recon. He has become a regular on the Sunday-show circuit, a leader in the Democratic charge--what exists of it--against President Bush. He threatened to filibuster Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Alaska wilderness. He's speaking to Democratic faithful at party functions across the country. With his party bully-pulpit-less, Kerry is one of a dozen or so Dems vying to shape its response to Bush and shape a presidential bid.

The field of yearners is crowded. Al Gore is pondering. Senator Joe Lieberman dutifully awaits the outcome of those deliberations. Senator Tom Daschle's ascent to majority leader has enhanced his standing as a possible candidate. House minority leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joe Biden have for years been longing to take another stab. Senator John Edwards, a buzz-generating freshman from North Carolina, and a few Democratic governors are eyeing the race. And the primary contest that emerges will establish where the party rests on that continuum that runs between traditional progressivism and neolib New Democratism. It's too soon to discern the contours of the fight, but with the early birds pecking away, serious contenders have to start flapping their wings. Which means Kerry has to begin defining both John Kerry and his party.

So a simple question: Is he a liberal? "Not really, no," he says. He pegs himself a "moderate," adding, "labels are too simple, particularly if you try to be thoughtful." He notes that he co-sponsored the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget legislation of the 1980s, voted for welfare reform and has been an ardent free-trader. That is, Kerry portrays himself as a so-called New Democrat, without using the term. But then he says he has fought for public housing. He favors abortion rights, legislation banning the replacement of striking workers and public financing of political campaigns. He does not accept PAC money; he opposes the death penalty. Environmentalists hail him as a stalwart ally. And Kerry points out: "I've taken on the Establishment--to some degree--on things like Iran/contra, drugs and the CIA, and BCCI," a crooked, politically wired bank. "Many people," he observes, "may want to characterize" him as a liberal. "And that's fine.... I don't run away from anything." Kerry quotes French writer André Gide: "Don't try to understand me too quickly." The line reflects a passion of his: not fitting into a box. Kerry can switch from crusading, reformist liberal to New Democrat and back again. As he seeks the White House and attempts to position and lead his party, will this be a talent to tap or a trait to overcome?

Kerry's political career, in a way, started in the Senate thirteen years before he was elected to that body. In 1971, as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he delivered eloquent testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee. In his most-quoted line, Kerry said, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" He indicted the war and the nation that waged it. The country, he testified, had created "a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence.... We are ashamed of and hated what we were called on to do.... We watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of Orientals." And Kerry attacked a money-dominated political system in which senators refused to take "gutsy stands" on poverty, low-income housing and birth control.

This social critic came from a home of means and privilege. His Ivy-educated father, an Army Air Corps pilot, was a lawyer in a leading Boston firm and then a Foreign Service officer. His mother hailed from the blue-blooded Forbes clan. Raised a Catholic, Kerry prepped at a New England boarding school and attended Yale (like Dad). At college, he was two years ahead of George W. Bush, whom he knew in passing. Kerry was Skull and Bones. After graduating in 1966, he enlisted in the Navy and went to Vietnam an officer and a believer in the war. He won a Silver Star for chasing down and killing a Vietcong armed with a rocket launcher. ("I just won't talk about all of it," he said of that episode in 1996. "I don't and I can't. The things that probably really turned me I've never told anybody.") He returned full of horror, eventually becoming a leader of VVAW.

Yet several months after his 1971 testimony, Kerry quietly left VVAW. He now says the group had become too polemical: "Some of the folks within the veterans' movement ultimately became confused and went way beyond just trying to end the war. There was a lot of rhetoric about every social ill and evil there was." In 1972, he ran for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts and lost. He went to Boston College Law School and then took a job as first assistant district attorney for Middlesex County. The fellow who had led protests had joined the law enforcement system. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1982 and, after serving less than two years, lunged when a Senate seat unexpectedly opened up. In the primary, he beat a congressman, and then he defeated a high-tech millionaire Republican. "He is likely to be one of the most liberal senators," The Almanac of American Politics observed.

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