There are two Democratic front-runners to be the next president of the United States.
One is a poster boy for America’s Statue of Liberty myth, the grandson of Eastern European immigrants, a man who worked his way through school doing hard labor on fishing boats, volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam, spent nearly a decade prosecuting criminals and putting them behind bars, loves to indulge in ice hockey, motorcycle riding, windsurfing and other extreme sports, a man who enjoys taunting George W. Bush as an effete, faux “man of the people,” panning the would-be warrior president’s famous aircraft carrier landing at the end of major hostilities in the Iraq War as an exercise in “dress-up.”
The other is a Brahmin scion of a Mayflower family, the son of a diplomat, educated in Switzerland and tony prep schools, who dated a Bouvier and went sailing off Newport with JFK, a fellow member with the privileged current president of Yale’s most elite secret society, a famous leader of the movement to end the war in Vietnam, serial dater of Hollywood stars, a politician known not for his populist rhetoric but for a near terminal case of Potomac-speak, a man who has wanted to be president for at least 40 years, who thanks to a fortunate late-in-life marriage to the widow of a Republican colleague is now the richest man in the United States Senate.
These opposing figures both reside in the tall, lanky, arguably Lincolnesque form of one John Forbes Kerry, junior senator from Massachusetts. While the fortuitous initials, same as his idol’s, are real, the moniker is more recent. Kerry isn’t really his name, if one takes a historical point of view. His Czech grandfather, with the acquiescence of his Hungarian grandmother, changed his name from Kohn to Kerry, the name of a famous county in Ireland, and a good name to have for a Boston businessman. For years, Kerry was thought to be part-Irish and part-Brahmin, which was only part true. It’s a confusion of personal identity that mirrors a larger confusion about political identity.
“With Kerry, you don’t know whether he is coming or going,” complains Slate columnist/über-blogger Mickey Kaus. “He seems to break with paleoliberalism on affirmative action or teacher tenure, then the firm pronouncements turn to mush. He votes for the Iraq War, then ties himself into knots, then denounces it. I think he used up all his boldness in the Vietnam era.”
Indeed, Kerry at times seems a profile in caution. Kerry began last year as the Democratic favorite, but a series of lackluster speeches — he spoke for 50 minutes at a California Democratic Party convention cocktail party, oblivious to the chatter from half the crowd — coupled with his difficulty articulating his position on the war and the rise of Howard Dean to leave him seemingly in the dust. But with the help of the Kennedys, Kerry rebooted his campaign last fall, began editing his sometimes-rambling Beltway-oriented remarks and was well positioned to take advantage of Dean’s sudden collapse.
Going into the 10 Super Tuesday primaries, Kerry has won 18 of 20 state primaries and caucuses. He has a big lead in the California primary and, if nominated, likely will carry California in the fall against President Bush, who appeared very competitive here just two months ago.
As he points his campaign west, Kerry shows major improvements from the stiffness of last year. Before an overflow crowd of 2,000 at a Las Vegas high school the night before the Nevada caucuses, which he swept with 63 percent of the vote, Kerry is compelling. Doffing his senatorial suit jacket but, like Gray Davis, not loosening his tie or rolling up his sleeves, Kerry roams the stage of the high school gymnasium, skillfully weaving an impromptu speech from the shards of his program. Aside from the environmental talk, Kerry is a longtime champion of renewable energy and foe of global warming, his speech is a pretty standard Democratic line these days — scorn for Bush’s handling of the war and relations with other nations, opposition to the big tax cuts and deficits, anger about the offshore outsourcing of jobs, support for universal health care — but Kerry has the crowd roaring repeatedly as he jabs at Bush.
But it is on national security, when he is able to refer to Vietnam, where Kerry seems most engaged by the battle with Bush.
Kerry has been battling a cold for weeks — and just now has been slimed by conservative Internet gossip Matt Drudge about a purported affair with an intern who was not an intern — but up close seems relaxed and confident. His eyes take on a particular intensity when he bats around Bush’s tough-guy rhetoric, making the words his own.
The crowd roars with the now familiar Kerry mantra, “Bring it on.” And Kerry takes great satisfaction as he proclaims that with victory this fall, he and his supporters will declare, “Mission accomplished.”
But the next day, when more than a thousand supporters turn out to the see the front-runner at a Nevada caucus site, things go less well. Kerry is unaccountably an hour late, and there is no sound system. Hundreds have been there for nearly two hours before he arrives, amusing themselves by chanting “No more Bush, bring it on.” A great cheer goes up when a lone Republican’s sign saying “Nevada is Bush Country” is torn in half. The campaign seems unorganized, unable to do much more than put Kerry atop a wave of Democratic determination to oust Bush. When Kerry does arrive, this time in blue blazer and open-necked shirt, his familiar shock of silver-shot black hair blown in a bright breeze, he spends much time greeting local politicians and supporters before making a brief attempt to address the crowd standing on a folding chair. Not even the press can hear him, so he turns instead to talking with a brace of veterans, becoming more animated and relaxed as he does.
When he was in his 20s, John Kerry was one of the ballsiest guys around. As a naval officer in the Vietnam War, where he saw heavy combat on a regular basis on the wild and woolly waterways of the Mekong Delta, he was bold, even reckless.
Kerry had severe misgivings about the wisdom of U.S. policy in Vietnam but not only joined the Navy but transferred off the relative safety of being a junior officer on a frigate guarding an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam to become skipper of a small patrol craft called a Swift boat. This was the Brown Water Navy, and though Kerry spent little more than a year in it, it has in large measure defined his life.
During less than five months as skipper of first one, then when that was shot up, another Swift boat, Kerry gained a reputation as a particularly bold special operator, earning one of the nation’s highest medals for valor, the Silver Star, in the process, along with a Bronze Star for reversing course to save a Green Beret under heavy enemy fire and three awards of the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
According to Navy doctrine, Kerry was not merely a bold officer, he was an arguably reckless officer.
During the engagement in which he won the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for bravery in combat, he placed himself and his crew at grave risk by turning and charging enemy fire from the shore, beaching his Swift boat and leaping ashore from its prow to chase down a Viet Cong soldier armed with a grenade launcher and an AK-47 assault rifle. Kerry shot the man dead with his pistol.
As a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry was again bold, even reckless. But as a senator, Kerry has frequently been viewed as a cautious figure, even to a fault. The caution began when he entered politics. Although a major anti-war star, Kerry at the start of the first Congressional race did not support George McGovern, the peace candidate, for the Democratic presidential nomination. He supported Edmund Muskie, the Maine Senator.
As organizer and spokesman for VVAW, Kerry became for a time the most famous anti-war leader around, galvanizing much of the country in 1971 as he and other vets tossed away ribbons and medals, the former champion debater asking assembled senators, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
It earned Kerry a prominent spot on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” and upped the ante substantially on a 20-something life. “What he did because he was a war hero added what none of the rest of us could,” says Tom Hayden, “and made him a target for all kinds of resentments.”
Indeed, in the Senate, though he very much has the pedigree of an insider, and has functioned as an insider in terms of the legislative logrolling by which much of the hidden work of the Senate gets done, Kerry has often seemed an outsider, indulging in literary quotations as he did in his 20s with his voluminous and well-written war diaries.
It’s hard to point to many legislative accomplishments, though Kerry has championed higher car-fuel-efficiency standards, helped block oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness and has been an active Earth summiteer on global warming. He played his most critical role through skillful leadership of a Senate committee on the fate of Vietnam War POWs and MIAs, disposing of the Rambo myth of the Communist country holding many American POWs. That led to the normalization of relations with Vietnam.
Kerry flashed his Vietnam-era boldness not as a legislator but as an investigating senator, bringing out some of the seamy underside of official America. He did much to expose the Iran/Contra scandal, the web of U.S. links with deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and the corrupt nexus of arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, and international influence peddling around the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. In the latter he exposed the front-man role of former Secretary of State Clark Clifford, Washington super-lobbyist and Democratic icon.
Despite intense pressure, Kerry didn’t back down and Clifford ended his career in disgrace. Perhaps burned by the experience, Kerry’s investigative boldness came to an end, leaving critics to point to his paucity of bills.
Lawrence O’Donnell, a friend of Kerry’s from his days as top aide to the late Senate powerhouse Daniel Patrick Moynihan, says that Kerry has helped pass many bills that don’t bear his name. “It’s almost impossible to explain how the Senate works,” says O’Donnell, a producer of The West Wing, whose short-lived NBC series Mister Sterling had Kerry’s L.A.-based daughter Alexandra in a small role as a Senate aide. “John has also focused tremendously on foreign policy,” he points out, “where senators accomplish things more by influencing executive policy rather than names on bills. Then there is the Teddy [Kennedy] factor, being in the shadow of a legislative demon from your state, most famous Dem of all.”
John Kerry was an instant superstar in the early 1970s, but he flamed out. Nixon and the national Republican Party went out of their way to defeat him in his 1972 Massachusetts congressional race. Former presidential pollster Pat Caddell, now a Kerry critic for his raising special interest money, was Kerry’s pollster in his early days. Caddell didn’t see much Kerry temporizing then. Indeed, Muskie would have had a much better chance than McGovern, who lost in an historic landslide. Kerry lost, too, and just like that his political career seemed to be over. The war was winding down, the moment passing, the celebrity route to power evaporating. Kerry went to law school and became a prosecutor.
As he doggedly began climbing the mountain of fame and power once again, Kerry found himself in the unaccustomed role of the Number Two. First in 1982 to Michael Dukakis as his lieutenant governor, then to Ted Kennedy, perhaps the favorite Democrat in the country, as Massachusetts’ junior senator. Indeed, for a time he wasn’t even the most famous U.S. Senator named Kerry when Nebraska’s Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner, was elected to the Senate in 1988.
Gary Hart served on the Senate Intelligence Committee with Kerry. Hart won 26 presidential primaries in 1984, the year Kerry was elected to the Senate, but fell short of the Democratic presidential nomination at the hands of the party establishment favorite, former Vice President Walter Mondale. The front-runner for 1988, with a healthy lead over George W. Bush’s father, Hart was brought low by a sex scandal, engineered out of Florida where, as coincidence would have it, the Bushes have always been strong. This year Hart, whose prediction of major terrorist attacks in the U.S. was ignored by the Bush White House, is helping Kerry.
“John is reserved,” said Hart. “He is also, perhaps surprisingly to some given his East Coast background, very tough. Not to malign the former governor, but this guy is no Dukakis. Karl Rove better watch out or he will get his ass handed to him.”
Reserve is only one of the layers of Plexiglas Kerry puts up between himself and the public. There is the patrician aura, which seems odd in a way, given the recent Eastern European immigrant heritage on his father’s side. And there is the bafflegab of Potomac-speak.
Like most of the major Democratic candidates this time out, including the fallen Howard Dean and John Edwards, Kerry is a neoliberal. He is a fiscal moderate (backed the Gramm-Rudman/Hollings balanced-budget measure in the 1980s), a free trader, a social liberal, an environmentalist, an opponent of unilateral foreign policy and a moderate on national security policy, backing most, though not all, of America’s recent wars.
Another friend says Kerry is “a good man but not a comfortable man.” Perhaps that is because, while always linked to elite circles through his mother’s Brahmin family and his own talent, he has always been an outsider at the same time, grandson of Eastern European immigrants, his Forbes-side forebears having already dissipated most of the family fortune. The great houses of his youth belonged to others. Before he became the richest man in the Senate by marrying environmentalist philanthropist Teresa Heinz, Kerry was anything but rich. It’s because Kerry lacked the true insider status that he climbed and compromised his way back on the road to power when his great Vietnam moment, as both war hero and anti-war leader, had passed.
But in a race against fellow Yalie Bush and his mighty, nasty Republican machine, the boldness of the first of the two John Kerrys incarnated in the Democratic front-runner will be called for. Rather than circle the guns, Kerry will have to beach the boat and dash ashore as he did in the Mekong. Rather than nuance things to death as with his position on the Iraq War, Kerry will have to pose the incisive questions as he did with his Senate testimony in 1971, his pursuit of Clark Clifford in 1991, his criticism of Bush allowing Osama to slip the noose at Tora Bora.
Kerry says he feels real when he is on the edge. We’ll see if he can find the edge again and ride it to the White House.