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John Kerry: Candidate in the Making

  With his daughters, Alexandra, 11, and Vanessa, 8, looking on, John F. Kerry was sworn in as a senator by Vice President George Bush in January 1985.
More photos
(Time-Life File Photo / Terry Ashe)

Taking one prize, then a bigger one

By Brian C. Mooney, Globe Staff, 6/19/2003


Events in Kerry's life

  photo galleries

Kerry's life in pictures

  the series

Part One:
A privileged youth, a taste for risk
Handwritten letter to his parents
Transcript of the letter

Part Two:
Heroism, growing concern over war
Kerry's journal from Vietnam
Where Kerry served in Vietnam

Part Three:
With antiwar role, high visibility
Clips from Watergate tapes
Transcripts of Watergate tapes
Doonesbury cartoon about Kerry

Part Four:
First campaign ends in defeat
Sampling of Lowell Sun coverage

Part Five:
Taking one prize, then a bigger one
Kerry took loss in tax shelter
Kerry's tax shelter documents
Freeze Voter '84 memo

Part Six:
With probes, making his mark

Part Seven:
At center of power, seeking summit A quest for the edge
Senator Kerry's voting record

As he began his comeback in early 1982, John F. Kerry found a political landscape as changed as he was by events of the previous 10 years.

Gone was the rock star aura of the 1972 congressional candidate who had railed against the Vietnam War. In the buttoned-down Reagan era, Kerry was now Mr. Mainstream, a downtown lawyer with a wife, two kids, and an expensive home in prestigious Chestnut Hill.

Kerry's political goals had changed too, at least for the short term. His sights once set on Congress and the hothouse of Washington politics, Kerry was entering the race for lieutenant governor, a post with few prescribed duties.

In a crowded Democratic primary contest that was receiving scant public notice, Kerry tried to stand out, not only as a crime-fighting former prosecutor with progressive credentials, but also as a champion of a nuclear weapons freeze. For a candidate seeking a job with little influence over state policy, never mind global disarmament, the posturing was quite a stretch.

But the Vietnam War, Kerry's signature issue in the past, had long since ended. His antiwar constituency's new rallying cry was opposition to the arms buildup in the continuing Cold War. Kerry let them know he was an ally.

The freeze never caught on as an issue in the lieutenant governor's race, however. Instead, the campaign's core issues, as Kerry described them at the time, were "competency, experience, and vision." For a man who a decade earlier had debated the morality of a war, the thematic dropoff couldn't have been much steeper.

But this was the level at which Kerry could reenter politics after 10 years on the sidelines. And it was his first statewide outing.

Primary night was a nailbiter. Kerry didn't declare victory until 3:30 in the morning, after nosing past runnerup Evelyn Murphy in late returns. In the November election, he was paired on the ticket with Michael S. Dukakis, the gubernatorial nominee. They won easily.

Victory, however, came at a cost. Kerry won his first election and lost his first wife. By mid-campaign, his marriage to Julia had fallen apart. Struggling with depression since 1980, she felt abandoned and had tired of being, in her words, "a political wife."

Kerry's stay in the lieutenant governor's office would be brief.

On Jan. 12, 1984, a year into his four-year term, Kerry was in Germany's Black Forest on an acid rain fact-finding trip when he received stunning news of an announcement that would be made later that day back in Boston -- illness was forcing Paul E. Tsongas to give up his seat in the US Senate.

"I was woken up at 3 in the morning and told Paul Tsongas was not running," Kerry remembers.

An incredible opportunity was at hand. "But it was tricky," said Kerry.

As a candidate, he had said he was not seeking the lieutenant governor's job as a political stepping-stone. "I was concerned that it would be viewed as not having learned the lessons [of 1972] and that it was premature," he said.

"One year into the lieutenant governor's office, to stand up and say `Hey, I think I should be senator,' " Kerry said. "You know, it was ballsy.

"But it was the right place for me in terms of the things that were my passions," he recalled. "The issue of war and peace was on the table again."

Two weeks later, Kerry jumped into the race.

Not only did he have a legitimate platform to argue for a nuclear freeze, the issue would help propel him into one of the most exclusive clubs in the world -- the United States Senate.

Emerging from a crowd

Before making the leap to the Senate, Kerry had to deftly navigate the treacherous terrain of Democratic Party politics in Massachusetts, surviving two primaries -- for lieutenant governor in 1982 and for the Senate two years later -- that could have buried his Washington ambitions.

In 1982, the party had split along conservative-liberal lines for the grudge rematch between Governor Edward J. King and Dukakis, the man King had ousted from the corner office four years earlier. But at the endorsement convention in Springfield that May, the Kerry forces were ready for any outcome. In a crowd of Democrats straining for attention in the race for lieutenant governor, the Kerry camp offered delegates a choice of lapel buttons -- "King/Kerry" or "Dukakis/Kerry."

Because of his controversial past and recent stint as a commentator on WCVB-TV (Channel 5), Kerry enjoyed wider name recognition than his opponents. But he was not a favorite of the party apparatchiks. During a seven-hour, five-ballot endorsement scrum, Kerry barely qualified for the September ballot by winning 15 percent of the delegate votes.

But his floor troops artfully maneuvered delegates to help another candidate, former state legislator Lois Pines, reach that threshold on the second ballot. That meant that Kerry would face a primary field of two activist women, Pines and former state environmental secretary Evelyn Murphy, the convention's ultimate winner, and two male state legislators, Senator Samuel Rotondi and Representative Louis R. Nickinello.

In the shadow of the Dukakis-King slugfest, the race for the second spot on the ticket was little more than a sideshow.

Kerry cast himself as a progressive Democrat with urban appeal, a former prosecutor, and proponent of public infrastructure investment. He poured more than $100,000 of his own money into the campaign.

Then in private law practice, he received a huge publicity boost shortly before the primary when he and his law partner, Roanne Sragow, won freedom for George A. Reissfelder, who was 15 years into a life prison sentence for a murder he had always maintained he did not commit.

The low-key campaign was also noteworthy for the emergence in statewide politics of a young streetwise operative from Dorchester by the name of Michael Whouley, who ran Kerry's field operation. Whouley directed Kerry's impressive statewide organization in the `84 Senate quest and went on to become a prized operative in the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. He now serves as an informal adviser to the Kerry presidential campaign.

The `82 primary race for lieutenant governor was a photo finish.

Joseph Baerlein, Murphy's campaign manager, recalls meeting Kerry on a pedestrian bridge over the Central Artery late on primary day. Kerry was glum, believing exit polls that showed him trailing Murphy in a very tight race, Baerlein remembers.

"I told him I thought it was going to be a long night," said Baerlein, now a lobbyist and consultant.

It was. With 29 percent of the vote, Kerry edged Murphy by fewer than 40,000 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast. He carried Boston, Worcester, Lowell, and several other key cities and rolled up more than half his victory margin in the old Fifth Congressional District, which had rejected him a decade earlier.

Publicly, Kerry was firing on all cylinders during the campaign, but it masked the turmoil of his private life. His marriage, troubled for some time, was in shambles. He and Julia had quietly separated in the summer of 1982. Julia maintained appearances, though, posing for photographs with Michael and Kitty Dukakis after John won the primary. She also attended the inauguration the following January.

But the marriage was beyond repair. "Politics became my husband's life," Julia wrote in "A Change of Heart," her 1996 book about divorce. "I tried to be happy for him, but after 14 years as a political wife I associated politics with anger, fear, and loneliness."

In an interview, she declined to elaborate on this period, except to say: "The dissolution of the marriage was my doing, not John's. I wanted something else."

After he took office, Kerry was romantically involved with Sragow for a few years, but Kerry said their relationship "had nothing to do with our marriage or breakup or anything." Sragow, now a state district court judge, declined to be interviewed.

As lieutenant governor, Kerry threw himself into his work and the excitement of returning to public life. When he took the oath in January, he stepped into a job with few responsibilities, except to serve as acting chief executive in the absence of the governor and chair meetings of the Executive Council, a vestige of colonial government whose primary function is to confirm or reject judicial nominations.

But Dukakis delegated tasks to Kerry, who seized the opportunity.

As he tried to make a mark, Kerry maintained a breakneck pace, squeezing in fatherly time with his two daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, who were living with Julia.

Kerry says his own experience, with long absences from his family while at boarding schools, helped him become "a better father . . . [and] make sure I was there" for his daughters. But he acknowledges the "juggling act" of public life took its toll.

Family time had to be shoehorned into his hectic schedule. For some events, Kerry's staff attended to details, including instructions in his daily schedule, such as this entry for Dec. 11, 1983, a Sunday.

"!!!HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!" (Kerry turned 40 that day.)

"2:30 p.m. Arrive Cabot Theater (in Beverly). Go to the box office and pick up the tickets (6). Note: There are no reserved seats. It's first come first serve -- This show is sold out.

"3 p.m. The Magic Show begins. After the show, you and the kids are to meet your mother at Friendly's Restaurant for a snack."

Kerry's public schedule was a blur of activity -- travel to conferences, endless political and ceremonial appearances, fund-raisers, and meetings.

He coordinated federal relations, with his office monitoring the budget, grant applications, and regulatory issues in Washington. Kerry was also vice chairman of Dukakis's Anti-Crime Council, helping to craft a computer crimes bill and pushing for a state racketeering law and victim-witness assistance program.

But he became known primarily as a national figure in the fight against acid rain. In 1983, Kerry's first year as lieutenant governor, his schedules show at least 23 trips out of state on official business, nearly half related to acid rain.

"John had a natural inclination to pursue environmental issues, and we hammered away on acid rain," recalled James S. Hoyte, who was Dukakis's environmental secretary from 1983 to 1988. "He threw his energy into it in a big way and gained a lot of visibility for the issue," said Hoyte, now at Harvard University as an assistant to the president and a lecturer.

Kerry's efforts culminated in a February 1984 resolution of the National Governors Association calling for cuts in sulfur dioxide emissions that were poisoning waterways in the Northeast. The resolution was a public relations coup but avoided the nettlesome issue of cost, which would have been borne mostly by the industrial Midwest.

Nevertheless, it was a major step on the way to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, enacted when Kerry was in the Senate and George H. W. Bush occupied the White House.

It was also one of Kerry's last significant acts as lieutenant governor. He would serve until the end of 1984, but Kerry and many of his staff by this time were already running, virtually full time, in pursuit of the next prize, the Tsongas Senate seat.

'The liberal twins'

Kerry and his opponent in the 1984 Democratic primary, James M. Shannon. Kerry prevailed by a mere 24,529 votes, then handily defeated Republican Raymond Shamie.
(Globe Staff File Photo / Tom Landers)

Kerry entered the Senate race with the advantage of a statewide presence and organization. Within a few months of announcing his candidacy, however, he was in danger of losing strategic ground to US Representative James M. Shannon of Lawrence, his chief rival in the bruising Democratic primary.

Kerry had been outscored by Shannon in the endorsement questionnaire of a nuclear disarmament group that vehemently opposed the military buildup under President Reagan.

The nuclear freeze was a defining issue across the country for liberal Democrats, who were about to be flattened a second time at the polls by the steamroller of Reagan's conservatism. In Massachusetts, the activists were a key bloc, ardently courted by Kerry and Shannon, "the liberal twins," as the other two Democrats in the primary field called them.

Shannon had outscored Kerry, 100 to 94, on the questionnaire of the group, known as Freeze Voter `84, which favored canceling funds for a slew of major weapons systems.

Then a strange thing happened. Paul F. Walker, Shannon's most prominent backer on the group's executive committee, graded the answers and laid out for Kerry campaign manager Paul L. Rosenberg both the flaws in Kerry's responses and what the "correct" answers should be.

"Walker was confused about your answer" on funding the Trident submarine, Rosenberg wrote in an internal memo to Kerry, who had originally hedged in his opposition to funding new subs.

Freeze Voter '84
Read the previously undisclosed memo from campaign manager Paul L. Rosenberg to Kerry regarding changes to the questionnaire
Read the memo

"It is critically important that we get a 100 percent rating," Rosenberg wrote, in a memo that has not previously been made public. "You should explain how your position was misinterpreted so that he will correct the rating before it is distributed to the board tomorrow evening."

Walker "is favorably disposed to change the grading because `he knows of your strong support for the freeze and knows this is what you must have meant,' " Rosenberg concluded.

Kerry revised his answers, tied Shannon with a perfect score, and at the activists' meeting in late June denied Shannon the 60 percent majority he needed to secure the endorsement for himself. Instead, Shannon and Kerry shared the group's stamp of approval in the primary field that also included then-secretary of state Michael J. Connolly and former House speaker David M. Bartley.

Kerry today says he does not recall the amendments to his Freeze Voter `84 questionnaire, which were publicized at the time, and says his initial responses may have been an error or misinterpreted.

"I wasn't trying to be on both sides of it," Kerry said.

Walker, who said he later served as an informal adviser to Kerry, asserted that fairness, not politics, was behind his role. "We wanted to provide Kerry, and all candidates for that matter, an opportunity to clarify their positions," wrote Walker, now an administrator with the Washington-based environmental advocacy group, Global Green USA, in an e-mail response to Globe questions.

Shannon, however, was stunned to learn of his erstwhile ally's back-channel role.

"I can guarantee you this is all news to me. I never knew that," Shannon said recently.

The stalemate for the Freeze Voter `84 endorsement was an important tactical victory for Kerry. But it could be a handicap as Kerry campaigns for president nearly two decades later.

In his zeal to keep pace with Shannon's leftward drift on disarmament, Kerry supported cancellation of a host of weapons systems that have become the basis of US military might -- the high-tech munitions and delivery systems on display to the world as they leveled the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks.

These weapons became conversation topics at American dinner tables during the Iraq war, but candidate Kerry in 1984 said he would have voted to cancel many of them -- the B-1 bomber, B-2 stealth bomber, AH-64 Apache helicopter, Patriot missile, the F-15, F-14A and F-14D jets, the AV-8B Harrier jet, the Aegis air-defense cruiser, and the Trident missile system.

He also advocated reductions in many other systems, such as the M1 Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Tomahawk cruise missile, and the F-16 jet.

In retrospect, Kerry said some of his positions in those days were "ill-advised, and I think some of them are stupid in the context of the world we find ourselves in right now and the things that I've learned since then."

But he defended his opposition at the time to the MX missile, the "Star Wars" strategic defense initiative, and some other programs.

"Some of this stuff was ahead of its time. Some was not as well thought out as it might be," Kerry said of his campaign posture then. "I'm not ashamed of that. I was [40] years old, running for the United States Senate for the first time . . . and I'm sure that some of it was driven at the time by the nature of the beast I was fighting politically.

"I mean, you learn as you go in life," said Kerry. He characterized as "pretty responsible" his subsequent Senate voting record on defense.

The `84 primary was a four-man race, but it quickly narrowed into a Kerry-Shannon showdown.

At the state Democratic convention in June, Shannon spent a bundle and edged Kerry for the endorsement of the party activists. The Lawrence politician got no bump in the polls, however, and limped through the summer, short of cash. Snubbed again by the state party faithful, Kerry nevertheless turned defeat into an asset, painting himself as the "outsider" to Shannon the "insider."

The race ground on, through a mind-numbing 38 candidate forums before various advocacy groups. Ideologically, the "liberal twins" were aptly named.

"We were vying for the same pool of votes," said Shannon. "We kept outbidding each other . . . appealing to the margins."

"War and Peace" was Kerry's campaign theme, but the emphasis was mostly on peace. War, however, specifically the Vietnam War, may have saved his candidacy in the primary.

In the campaign's closing days, Shannon had surged slightly ahead in tracking polls. Unwittingly he helped blow his own lead.

Shannon was smarting from Kerry's taunts that the congressman had reversed himself, voting first for and later against the MX missile system. A week before the primary, Shannon tried to turn the table, contrasting his own U-turn on the MX to Kerry's change of heart on the Vietnam War.

"If you felt that strongly about the war, you would not have gone," Shannon said during a televised debate. "I was very proud that you changed your mind."

But two nights later, in another debate, Kerry jacked up the issue to another level.

"You impugn the service of veterans in that war by saying they are somehow dopes or wrong for going," he said.

Shannon refused to yield.

"John, you know that dog won't hunt," he said. "I don't owe anybody an apology."

A band of Vietnam vets, all Kerry men, then wheeled into action. "There was a kind of raw, gut instinct, and the campaign acted on it the way you wouldn't today," said longtime Kerry strategist John Marttila, meaning there was no polling data as a guide.

Vietnam veterans began shadowing Shannon in the primary campaign's final days, traveling around the state, "looking for ways to pick fights," Marttila said.

"But this was not fake stuff. John's bona fides had been called into question, and these guys had gone to Vietnam. It was powerful material," Marttila recalled.

With help from the vets, who called themselves "the dog hunters," Kerry stopped Shannon cold. His athletic stamina and what one campaign staffer called "laser-like focus" became major assets in the frenzied final days as he outworked the field.

The finish was memorable. Kerry's field organization pulled him over the top. He lost Lowell and Middlesex County by big margins, but beat Shannon in Boston and most other major cities. Kerry's statewide margin was paper thin, only 24,529 votes, or 3.1 percent, out of 790,000 cast.

In the final election, Kerry's camp expected light opposition from Raymond Shamie, a self-made millionaire who in the GOP primary had upset Elliot L. Richardson, the resume-rich icon of the flagging Brahmin wing of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

Kerry's campaign softened up Shamie by demonizing the avuncular entrepreneur as a right-wing extremist who had flirted with the ultra-rightist John Birch Society years earlier.

Kerry basically did to Shamie what Kerry's tormentors had done to him in the 1972 congressional race, when they painted the upstart as a way-out liberal. Kerry's campaign was more subtle, however, in turning the rhetoric against radicalism on its head.

Along the way Kerry puffed up his Democratic credentials -- his campaign work for John F. Kennedy in high school, and the extent of his involvement as a Yale student in the Freedom Summer of 1964, when white volunteers headed to the South to help blacks push for voting rights.

A campaign flier, titled "A Message from John Kerry," began: "Ever since I worked as a young volunteer in John Kennedy's presidential campaign, I have been deeply committed to participation in politics and political issues . . . Back then, I joined the struggle for voting rights in the South."

But Kerry's involvement with the JFK campaign of 1960 was minimal. Today, he acknowledges he may only have participated in a single literature drop in Concord, N.H., while boarding at St. Paul's School.

Moreover, his role in the struggle to register black voters in Mississippi was confined to the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn. Kerry's accounts over the years of his involvement have sometimes left the impression -- and resulted in press reports -- that the young Yalie was actually down South, with the freedom riders. He wasn't.

"I remember we saw the buses off and helped raise money for the buses and were supportive of it, but I did not personally go down there on a freedom ride," Kerry said. Not long thereafter, he did visit the South, he said, "to see what was going on, which was an eye-opener for me. I had never seen a sign that said, `No colored, whites only.' "

The thrust of Kerry's candidacy, however, was an attack on Reagan's economic, foreign, and military policies.

Kerry was scornful, for instance, of the Grenada invasion, launched by Reagan the previous October to evacuate US medical students after a Marxist-backed military coup on the Caribbean island.

At one point he likened it to "Boston College playing football against the Sisters of Mercy." Earlier, Kerry told The Cape Codder newspaper:

"The invasion of Grenada represents the Reagan policy of substituting public relations for diplomatic relations . . . no substantial threat to US interests existed and American lives were not endangered . . . The invasion represented a bully's show of force against a weak Third World nation. The invasion only served to heighten world tensions and further strain brittle US/Soviet and North/South relations."

Campaigning now for president, however, Kerry is rewriting that history. As he accuses President George W. Bush of hamhanded diplomacy before the invasion of Iraq, Kerry often lists Grenada among the US military incursions he says he has supported.

"I was dismissive of the majesty of the invasion of Grenada," Kerry says now. "But I basically was supportive. I never publicly opposed it."

He draws a parallel to his recent stance on Iraq. "I mean, I supported disarming Saddam Hussein, but I was critical of the administration and how it did its diplomacy and so forth," he explained of a position critics say is a telling example of Kerry's straddling.

Ultimately, "war and peace" helped Kerry carry the day. Even as Massachusetts joined Reagan's 49-state rout of Walter F. Mondale, Kerry held the Democratic base, winning all but one of the state's cities to thump Shamie by 256,000 votes, a 10-percent margin.

More than 13 years after he rocketed onto the national stage with his antiwar speech, Kerry was returning to the Senate. Now, he would be a member of the club.

Alex Beam of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/15/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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