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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.

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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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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.

In the Senate Kerry made his bones as a prosecutor rather than a legislator. In the spring of 1986, he assigned staffers to investigate whether the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were involved in drug trafficking and gunrunning. Kerry's inquiry stumbled into Oliver North's still-secret contra support network, and for several years Kerry pursued the cocaine-contra angle. It was a lonely endeavor. The investigators of the House-Senate Iran/contra committee were steering clear of the contra-drugs business. "Kerry took crap from everybody," recalls Jack Blum, who ran the investigation. "The White House was telling the press our witnesses were full of shit, the story was crazy. There were Democrats in the Senate--like Sam Nunn--looking at us like we were nuts. And he kept going. Did he enjoy it? No. He was frustrated that so much of our work was written off by the Senate and much of the press."

After three years of digging--and several hearings that discomfited the CIA--Kerry produced a report that declared, "It is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking...and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers." And, the report indicated, the CIA had been aware of this. Kerry's findings provoked little reaction in the media and official Washington. Almost a decade later, the CIA inspector general would release a study confirming these conclusions. The contra probe led Kerry into other muckpits. He discovered that the US government had long sat on information regarding the crimes of Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up dictator of Panama. The Noriega investigation drew Kerry to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a $23 billion institution used by money launderers, arms merchants, drug dealers, terrorists and spy services, including the CIA. Good work, Democratic senators sarcastically told him, investigating a bank that maintained relationships with prominent Democrats including Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young and Clark Clifford. The first President Bush openly attacked Kerry, who publicly accused the White House of trying to dig up dirt on him. In 1992 his subcommittee issued a report that assailed the CIA, the Justice Department and US banking regulators for having "failed to recognize and contain the international bank fraud of BCCI."

By then, Kerry was on to his next excavation: an inquiry into Vietnam POWs and MIAs. For years, self-styled POW advocates and relatives of the 2,200 unaccounted-for veterans had kept alive the notion that Americans remained in captivity in Southeast Asia. That idea had become an obstacle to normalizing US-Vietnam relations. With this probe, Kerry aimed to bring a close to the war. He visited Vietnam. His committee forced the declassification of massive amounts of government records. Its final report, issued in 1993, found, "There is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." This carefully crafted conclusion would not put to rest speculation and conspiracy theories. But Kerry's work on this front--conducted hand in hand with John McCain--eased the way toward establishing relations between the two nations.

"Each investigation--it's all about Vietnam," says a former aide. "You have to expose government lies so you can restore trust in government, to keep the Establishment--John Kerry's Establishment--honest."

Over the years, Kerry has guardedly discussed his Vietnam service. "I feel as if I've been living it for a long time," he says. "I just would like not to. It's not where my life is." Yet friends and advisers note that Vietnam is a piece of his past and psyche never too distant. "John has a restless quality," remarks a friend of thirty years. "That may be his nature, but a lot is tied to the war. At times, he puts himself out of the situation he's in. He is a little plagued. That's not crazy. To take what happened and think about it is not stupid." Kerry's political lieutenants seem happy with the prospect of placing his war record front and center in a presidential campaign. "The war thing is an effective piece of protection for a Democrat," says one adviser. "He had it both ways on the war."

When Kerry talks about the war these days, he looks to smooth the rough edges that linger from that time. He no longer feels that the architects of the war deserve to be tagged "war criminals"--a phrase he once hurled at them. In a recent interview, he said, "I believe very deeply it was a noble effort to begin with.... But we misjudged history. We misjudged our own country. We misjudged our strategy. And we fell into a dark place." In his view, the war was a well-intentioned venture that went awry, and "the faults in Vietnam were those of the war, not the warriors." That is, the guilt is collective, not individual. In 1971 Kerry acknowledged his participation in the war's brutality, bitterly noting, "I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers." Thirty years later, the harshness is gone. He says he has no interest in casting blame. He does not pronounce judgments that divide or alienate.

Just as Kerry has subtly reconfigured his criticism of the war, forging a position that covers a wider swath of opinion, he has occasionally adopted stances that challenge traditional liberal views and that can be viewed as attempts to broaden his political reach. In a 1992 speech on urban policy, Kerry briefly cited problems with affirmative action, saying it had created "a reality of reverse discrimination that actually engenders racism" and calling it "inherently limited and divisive." He did declare his support for the program, while advocating greater spending for the urban poor, but he came across as a second-thoughts liberal sympathetic to critics of the program. Civil rights leaders blasted him; columnists wondered whether Kerry was angling to be Bill Clinton's neolib running mate. He spent weeks defending the two paragraphs. After this dust-up, one civil rights lobbyist recalls, "Kerry didn't continue banging that drum."

Kerry's reluctance to be a traditional Democrat may have caused him difficulty in 1996. Running for a third term (in 1990 he had defeated a GOP millionaire), Kerry faced William Weld, the popular Republican frat-boy governor. And he appeared to be in trouble, as he emphasized his work on free trade and international affairs. "Rarely has an important political figure in [Massachusetts] engendered such passionless support," the Boston Globe reported. Weld led in some polls. "It was so tough to get Kerry to relax and be a Democrat," a Massachusetts consultant says. "He wanted to run a campaign of shrewd rethinking. He made the race harder than it had to be."

Organized labor came to his assistance. "We tried to explain to Kerry that Ted Kennedy [in a tough re-election two years prior] did well talking about education and healthcare--working-family issues," says Robert Haynes, the president of the state AFL-CIO. "And Kerry did come around to that sort of agenda." In one ad, Kerry featured locked-out union workers at Commonwealth Gas complaining about their lack of medical benefits. The unions toiled hard for Kerry--even though he opposed labor on NAFTA, fast-track trade authority and most-favored-nation status for China. ("We fight this battle with him on trade," says Haynes. "We agree on everything else.") The state teachers' union rallied members for Kerry. He won by eight points.

Less than two years later, Kerry's supporters at the teachers' union were aghast when, during the course of proposing a program of education reform, he called for ending teacher tenure. In a speech, Kerry attacked the school bureaucracy and "stultifying collective bargaining agreements" with teachers' unions. "This is how he paid us back," says a teachers' union official. "He leans more elitist than populist, and he tries to be ever-enigmatic. He defies people to clarify him as a traditional liberal. Makes you wonder where his convictions are." On education issues, Kerry has collaborated with the Democratic Leadership Council, the corporate-funded outfit that tries to tug the party to the right. "That's why it's accurate to say he's not a purebred Massachusetts liberal," notes Will Marshall, president of the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute.

Do Kerry's ideological diversions stem from conviction or calculation? A desire not to be typecast as a Massachusetts Democrat? (Remember Michael Dukakis?) His pollster Tom Kiley says, "He's always a little suspicious of liberal nostrums and is looking for other solutions." Another Massachusetts political consultant remarks, "He feels a desire to differentiate himself from Teddy Kennedy. That's been his struggle. He regards himself as a New Democrat, but he is seen as being a definer of the liberal wing of the party. But he's not like Bill Clinton, trying to reposition the party. It's more a matter of temperament." A longtime friend says, "He has been frustrating to those around him who have hoped for bolder progressive positions. His record--the war, BCCI--shows he cares about righting injustice. But he does not sufficiently understand the level of economic injustice that exists in this society. If his passion for justice finds its way into the economics of working- and middle-class Americans, he will be a very powerful candidate."

In the early jockeying, Kerry is likely to display his liberal leanings more than his DLC inclinations. "New Democrats do not inspire Democratic primary voters," says a Kerry adviser. At party events, Kerry does sound more like Ted Kennedy than DLC founder Al From. "No working American should give up life or limb to provide a bigger golden parachute to a failed executive who seeks to fail upwards," he told Democrats in Colorado in March, adding, "Why not have every citizen have access to decent health insurance?... Rather than spend $50,000 a year per prisoner to house young people in jail...why not invest $5,000 a year per child in after-school programs?" There was no talk of undoing the education establishment, rethinking affirmative action or celebrating welfare reform. And Kerry puts his own twist on the straight Democratic juice: "When I was in the Navy I learned about...brotherhood.... The Army says they never leave their wounded. The Marines say they never even leave their dead. All of us need to be Citizen Soldiers again--and as Americans we must never leave each other behind." One can see a campaign theme brewing, a message that marries traditional Democratic concerns--healthcare, social justice, the environment--with the traditional rhetoric of service and duty.

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."

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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