Delivering a major address in April before a portrait of George Washington and busts of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, John Kerry must have felt as though he was back running for President. But on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his stirring testimony before Congress as a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry was invoking a theme downplayed throughout his 2004 campaign and confronting the issue that bedeviled his candidacy: the war in Iraq.
“As in 1971, this is another moment when American patriotism demands more dissent and less complacency in the face of bland assurances from those in power,” Kerry told a crowd of 800 full of fellow vets and Democratic activists. “As in Vietnam, we have stayed and fought and died even though it is time for us to go.” Kerry had recently broken with the Democratic leadership and proposed setting a deadline for Iraqis to form a permanent government and for US troops to leave. According to the Boston Globe, the audience was “wildly enthusiastic”–a phrase not often used to describe crowds listening to the junior senator from Massachusetts. Former DNC chair Steve Grossman called the speech “profoundly presidential,” which is exactly what Kerry once again wants to be.
In the past few months Kerry has presented a side of himself very different from the one the public saw during the 2004 campaign. Freed from the grip of consultants, the spotlight of the national media and the Republican attack dogs, he is looser, clearer and more compelling. Call it the Al Gore Effect. At the end of a presidential campaign, losing candidates either retreat, keep up the good fight or attempt the arduous task of redefining themselves. Kerry’s both fighting and redefining these days.
“The fact of losing so narrowly tends to concentrate the mind,” Kerry tells me in an interview in his Senate office. Only a week after the death of his first wife, the mother of their two daughters, Kerry is surprisingly relaxed and upbeat, frank about his past failures and future aspirations. People close to him certainly sense a change in attitude. Former Senator Gary Hart, a confidant, believes Kerry has circled back to the Vietnam era, recognizing the folly of current US policy and rising to protest against it. “He’s much more outspoken, much more decisive and much less likely to give credit to this Administration,” Hart says.
The notoriously cautious Kerry has gone bold, conveying his views on Iraq and national security through an aggressive schedule of speeches, op-eds and talk-show appearances. Into the void of Democratic Party leadership, he’s speaking for the vocal opposition–even endorsing Senator Russ Feingold’s resolution to censure President Bush. Kerry’s been written off before and is rising from the political graveyard yet again. “What does he have to lose now?” says Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley. “He might as well go for broke.”
That wasn’t always Kerry’s attitude. Upon returning to the Senate after the 2004 election, he gave Bush some space. Though he blocked drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a threatened filibuster, Kerry focused for the most part on noncontroversial issues like children’s healthcare and a bill of rights for military families. Over time, he grew more outspoken, renaming the Bush Administration “the Katrina Administration” after the devastation of New Orleans. Soon he was plunging into intraparty squabbles, and he led a failed attempt to filibuster Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination.