Defining John Kerry | The Nation


Defining John Kerry

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Can Kerry deliver? In looking ahead, his strategists are concerned more with the man than his issues. "This will be largely a stylistic race," says one Kerry planner. "The Democrats now mentioned do not disagree much on public policy. There's no question about Kerry's abilities. He is a good fundraiser and can raise the $30 million needed. What's unknown is his ability to connect."

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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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Kerry is a sharp-minded fellow who speaks in full sentences and paragraphs. He has good hair and is tall. He could play himself in a movie--though his long, sad-dog face has developed deep vertical lines. He has more charisma than the average senator, but not much charm. He has never been accused of being a politician who easily bonds with others. He doesn't do small talk. For much of his career, he was not into the grunt work of politicking. "His attitude was, Why should I bother calling the mayor of Fall River?" says one friend. Aides to other Democratic senators describe him as sanctimonious, arrogant. Referring to his reputation for being distant, former Senator Paul Simon says, "I can see where people can get this impression. There's a touch of the patrician to him." Pollster Kiley remarks, "In his younger days, he would say, If you're right on the issues nothing else matters."

But that was then. These days a reporter cannot have a conversation with a Kerry adviser without being told Kerry has become more "comfortable." He's "comfortable" with himself, his life; "comfortable" with others, his career, his prospects. They mostly attribute the transformation to two events. His 1996 close-call win, the thinking goes, brought home the value of human-touch campaigning. His 1995 marriage to Teresa Heinz, the millionairess widow of Senator John Heinz, brought him calm and loosened him up. (Kerry's first marriage produced two daughters and ended in divorce.)

Yet the improved Kerry requires additional improvement. "In terms of style, he needs rejigging," says a Kerry aide. "He's aware of that. There is a sense that he is too stiff, a rich guy. And he tends to speechify." He is trying. In interviews, a semirelaxed Kerry discusses his past mistakes (such as carpetbagging for a House district to run in), his reputation for stiffness ("when I got into this business it seemed completely inappropriate and awkward to go running up to someone and say, 'Hi, I'm so-and-so, vote for me'--it was contrary to my upbringing") and his poems. He won't read them. But, he says, they are doggerel that rhymes. A favorite describes an encounter with a deer.

Kerry is an odd mix. There's Kerry the Eliot Ness crusader who takes on tough cases to serve justice. There's Kerry the dispassionate policy advocate who can appear more intrigued with issues than with making contact. His politics bounce between the two. He assails the flow of private money into campaigns; he sides with portions of the corporate political agenda. He hews to the liberal line on universal healthcare and increasing wages, but he has displayed more interest in the subject of international crime--hardly an unimportant topic, but one that does not stir many souls. Does that indicate he's a shrewd calculator looking to establish a unique political niche, or a detached Democrat who is sometimes unengaged by his party's traditional fights, or an intellectually curious person who pays attention to serious stuff ignored by others? He's long been rapped for being overly ambitious. But his antiwar effort, his Senate investigations and his close collaboration with environmentalists suggest he is driven by deep concerns other than careerism. Kiley notes that voters in Massachusetts "have a sense he is a high-performing senator. But if you ask what Ted Kennedy does, they say healthcare. If you ask what John Kerry does, they don't know, but they have a sense he's doing good things." Ask these voters where Kerry wants to take the Democratic Party--and the nation--and they likely have no clue.

"The question is," says one former Kerry aide, "will he get Al Gore on us and live in the head, rather than communicate from the heart?" But the real matter is, what's in his heart? After three decades in public life, the hard-to-understand-quickly John Kerry still has to provide an answer.

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