At the center of power, seeking the summit

By John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 6/21/2003

WASHINGTON -- By the time John Kerry began his second term as US senator in 1991, his nickname among Massachusetts political insiders was "Live Shot," a reference to his relentless courting of reporters, especially those with TV cameras in tow. In the Senate, where seniority and decorum still mattered, Kerry was seen as an impatient new breed, more interested in generating headlines than mastering the tedious process of lawmaking.

Among those who harbored a simmering distrust of Kerry was a fellow Vietnam veteran, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. McCain, tortured as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, had campaigned for Kerry's opponent in 1984, denouncing the Democrat for joining the veterans who tossed medals and ribbons over a barricade at the Capitol during a 1971 antiwar rally. The North Vietnamese had taunted the American POWs with accounts of that protest.

In the spring of 1991, McCain found himself seated across from Kerry inside a noisy military transport plane on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East. In the Senate, the two men had circled each other warily. But now, strapped into uncomfortable seats with an interminable flight before them and only a flimsy table between them, they had no place to go. They made small talk with Senator John Glenn, the Democrat from Ohio, until Glenn fell asleep.

From there, "it kind of segued into John and I talking about Vietnam," McCain remembers. Deep into the night, as the plane droned over the Atlantic, Kerry and McCain revisited the defining experience of their lives. Says Kerry, "I asked a lot of questions about him, and he of me, and we talked about how he felt about his war, and my war."

In the ensuing weeks and months, McCain and Kerry individually, and then together, concluded that the unresolved divisions of the Vietnam War were causing too much national anguish, and that it was time to put the war to rest.

Four years later, on a summer day in 1995, Kerry and McCain stood beside President Clinton in the East Room at the White House as he announced that the United States would normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam. For a president who most famously had not served in their war, the two combat veterans served as wingmen.

In his work toward that day, Kerry earned the "unbounded respect and admiration" of McCain, who, like others in the Senate, originally viewed Kerry with suspicion. "You get to know people and you make decisions about them," says McCain. "I found him to be the genuine article."

The rapprochement with Vietnam was a turning point in Kerry's life and political career. In 1992, he took on the politically risky duty of chairing a select committee investigating the whereabouts of missing soldiers in Southeast Asia. At the time, rumors of secret prison camps abounded, fed by a relatively small but dedicated cast of businesses and nonprofit organizations cashing in on the hopes of POW families. Bogus photos of American prisoners appeared, even in the mainstream press.

Politically, Kerry's mission was a potential "tar baby," he recalled, that his advisers warned him to avoid. His new friend McCain was branded by extremists in the POW-MIA community as a traitor, a brainwashed "Manchurian Candidate." "Things were said about him that I find . . . beyond cruel," said Kerry. At hearings where McCain's anger at his critics flared, Kerry would reach over and place his hand on McCain's arm to calm him down. "I remain grateful to him for doing that," McCain acknowledges.

Kerry suspected the Nixon and Ford administrations, in their haste to cut American losses, had left some captured soldiers behind, but he was dubious about the existence of secret camps. Nevertheless, he doggedly investigated even the wilder theories, and made a dozen forays to Southeast Asia to ask the Vietnamese for better cooperation. Ultimately, he crafted a report stating that while there may have been POWs unaccounted for and possibly left behind, no proof existed that Americans were still being held.

Together, McCain and Kerry then led the effort to normalize relations with Vietnam. "The work John Kerry and John McCain did" is "truly one of the most extraordinary events we have had in the last 50 years," says Edward M. Kennedy, who has served in the Senate since 1962.

The year 1995 was important for another reason: Kerry was 51, with nearly two Senate terms behind him, and his youthful ambitions to run for president had fallen far off track. Now, though, an unexpected romance, followed by newfound family and wealth, would bring much needed order to his personal life -- and, eventually, set him back on that presidential path.

On May 26, 1995, at an evening ceremony underneath a canopy, John Forbes Kerry exchanged gold rings with Teresa Heinz, the 56-year-old widow of Pennsylvania Senator H. John Heinz and one of the richest women in the country. Social and political glitterati gathered at Heinz's home on Nantucket Harbor. The couple had met at an Earth Conference in Brazil, where she heard Kerry singing at Mass in Portuguese, the language of her Mozambiquen youth. At the wedding, Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary performed; Heinz wore peach Oscar de la Renta.

Teresa Heinz was a staunch Republican. That would change. She was opposed to her new husband running for higher office. That, too, would change. Eight years later, at age 59, John Kerry would declare his intention to run against a popular sitting president.

To get there, though, he first would need to survive the most grueling campaign of his life, in which he would need to convince a majority of Massachusetts that he was, in McCain's words, "the genuine article."

Weakness on domestic issues

Kerry is rarely at a loss for words, but on the night of June 3, 1996, in the second of a series of election-year debates with then-Governor William F. Weld, a question about his legislative record left him flailing for an answer.

It was a fat pitch down the middle, the kind of question that politicians like to drive for extra bases: He was asked to name three things he had accomplished in 12 years in the Senate that helped the people of Massachusetts.

Kerry's response was limp. There was a targeted capital gains tax cut for start-up companies, he said, and reauthorization of federal fishing acts that gave funds to help fishermen, and a rewrite of the national flood insurance law. With more time to think, Kerry might have improved his response -- but not by much. While foreign policy "comes to him in his sleep, he's a natural," says a former chief of staff, his work on domestic themes "can sometimes seem herky-jerky."

In 1992, for example, Kerry announced he was going to launch an initiative on race, crime, and the problems of urban America. He gave the opening speech of a promised series at Yale University, warning about the costs of a "culture of dependency. . . . We must ask whether [social disintegration] is the result of a massive shift in the psychology of our nation that some argue grew out of the excesses of the 1960s, a shift from self-reliance to indulgence and dependence, from caring to self-indulgence, from public accountability to public abdication and chaos," the former antiwar protester said.

The civil rights movement, Kerry warned, had evolved into a legalistic and divisive struggle over affirmative action quotas that alienated white voters. "The truth is that affirmative action has kept America thinking in racial terms," he said.

It was a daring speech for a liberal politician. To some, it appeared as if Kerry was genuflecting toward Little Rock, where Bill Clinton was running for president on a platform that included personal accountability, "ending welfare as we know it," and support for capital punishment -- and might need a northern Democrat to balance the ticket that November. After Clinton chose a fellow southerner, Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, as his running mate, Kerry quietly dropped the series of speeches he had promised to make on race relations.

Kerry was credited with quieter legislative triumphs, like his work on the 1994 crime bill, in which he persuaded the Senate and Clinton White House to finance a campaign pledge to put 100,000 more police officers on the street. Kerry's stated intention was "to make a difference, not just pass a bill," as he told former administrative assistant David Leiter in a 1990s job interview.

Kerry says he began courting TV cameras, earning the "Live Shot" nickname, as part of a campaign strategy to counteract the TV ad blitz by his wealthy 1990 opponent, Republican James Rappaport. "It was the only way I could win against a multimillionaire," he says. "We devised a strategy to be in every television market to be able to drive the free media and counter what he was paying for."

Still, Kerry's views could be fickle, even on foreign policy. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Kerry suggested that the United States needed to give Saddam Hussein enough diplomatic "wiggle room" to leave Kuwait without losing face. He then voted against the congressional resolution authorizing military force, but became an enthusiastic supporter of the war as the allied coalition drove to victory in early 1991. His position was so nuanced that his office couldn't keep up with the changes, at one point mistakenly mailing out letters to his constituents that appeared to take both sides in the debate.

On Jan. 22, 1991, Kerry's office sent a letter to a constituent, thanking him for expressing opposition to the deployment of additional US troops in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. "I share your concerns," Kerry wrote, noting that on Jan. 11 he had voted in favor of a resolution opposing giving the president immediate authority to go to war and seeking to give economic sanctions more time to work.

On Jan. 31, the same constituent received a letter stating that, "From the outset of the invasion, I have strongly and unequivocally supported President Bush's response to the crisis and the policy goals he has established with our military deployment in the Persian Gulf."

Kerry blamed the mix-up on a computer error and subsequently wrote in defense of his position on the Gulf war: "The debate in the Senate was not about whether we should or should not have used force, but when force should be used."

A formidable opponent

That legislative record left Kerry vulnerable when Weld, the popular Republican governor, came calling for Kerry's Senate seat in 1996.

In his first two Senate campaigns, Kerry had walked over fairly light Republican opposition, millionaire businessmen Raymond Shamie in 1984 and Rappaport in 1990. He'd dispatched Shamie by painting him as a conservative extremist. Rappaport's challenge was waylaid by Kerry's clever television ads that ridiculed the Republican's past residency in Hawaii and questioned his business dealings.

There would be no easy route around Weld. Despite the state's lopsided Democratic voter registration advantage, Weld had been reelected in 1994 in a historic landslide, burying state Representative Mark Roosevelt with nearly 71 percent of the vote.

Kerry's equal or better in lineage, education, and resume, Weld was now restless in his State House office. Like Kerry, he had presidential aspirations. Like Kerry, he saw a path to the White House running through the seat of the state's junior senator.

It was a campaign for the ages, the marquee Senate contest in the country. A pair of heavyweights, they slugged it out in seven memorable debates on statewide television. They argued about every issue imaginable, trying to magnify small differences as they grappled for the political center.

Weld rolled out the platform that had served him well in state elections: reform welfare, be tougher on criminals, and cut taxes. Kerry staked out Democratic positions on health insurance for children, investments in education, and better job-training programs.

Kerry, however, was suffering defections by some Bay State Democratic officials. Others did little to help him. After Kerry's 12 years in Washington, some said he was a stranger, a remote figure who courted them at election time.

The candidates made a personal pledge to each other to abide by a cap on overall spending and media costs. They also agreed not to spend more than $500,000 in personal wealth. But in the final weeks, with Weld outspending Kerry, the incumbent blew off the cap, mortgaged the Beacon Hill townhouse he jointly owned with his wife, and poured $1.7 million into his campaign kitty. He claimed Weld was buying more media time than their agreement allowed, but there was scant evidence to back that up.

As Election Day neared, some polls had Weld closing on his opponent. But Kerry, say his campaign operatives, always performs worst when he is cautiously nursing a lead, best when in danger.

Kerry turned out swift boat crewmen, his Navy superiors, and even retired admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. at Charlestown Navy Yard to sing his praises. Ted Kennedy, too, stepped in. The senior senator co-wrote legislation with Kerry to ensure that all children were covered by health insurance, a program to be financed by a cigarette tax. Kennedy's staff helped Kerry draft the bill and gave it to him to announce just a month before the election. Kerry used the issue in his ads and speeches as a cudgel against Weld, who had vetoed a similar measure in Massachusetts.

In the gravitational pull of President Clinton's crushing 33-percent victory over Bob Dole in Massachusetts, Kerry beat Weld by 191,508 votes, or 7.5 percent of the 2.55 million cast At his victory party on election night, Kerry proclaimed, "We made this a race about health care for poor children, and when we finish, the Kerry-Kennedy health care bill for children will provide all children in America with health care!"

But with the election over, it was Kennedy who did the heavy lifting on the child insurance bill: finding a Republican cosponsor in Utah Senator Orrin Hatch; raising money to run ads to battle the tobacco lobby; and going to war with Republican Senate leaders and the Clinton White House, when necessary, to win passage of a $24 billion health care program for uninsured children.

"Mostly Kerry is more interested in the titles of his bills than the actual guts of the legislation," says Weld's campaign spokesman, Rob Gray, now a GOP consultant. "He worked on bills that sounded good in press releases and gave him good media, and then moved on to the next thing."

Two years later, in 1998, while contemplating a race for the presidency in 2000, Kerry made a boat-rocking speech on education reform, blasting policy makers and educators for "giving up on the vast majority of our children before we've even joined the real fight" and endorsing several proposals offered by critics of public education, including using federal financial pressure to end the tenure system that gives teachers job security.

But when the Senate took up President Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act" in 2001, it was Kennedy and Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, who played the leading roles, laboring in the trenches when the bill moved through the chamber.

'Just for Kerry'

During the Weld campaign, Kerry took to heart the defections of Massachusetts Democratic leaders and began the hard work of shoring up his in-state operation. A joke had emerged among some Democratic regulars that the senator's initials are "JFK: Just For Kerry."

Inside the Senate, Kerry's lone-wolf style was winning him friends among other Senate mavericks, including Republican colleagues McCain and then-Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Al D'Amato of New York. But even in a chamber known for its egos, Kerry stood out.

Friends say his aloof reputation has more to do with Kerry's demeanor than his ego. "I think John is probably shy, a shy person," says Kennedy. "That is almost counterintuitive, that you could have that quality of shyness and still be a good political figure, but I think he does."

Kerry did, however, instinctively grasp one important fact of life in the Senate: He needed to build an alliance with his seatmate Kennedy, a veteran skilled in the chamber's intricate ways.

It wasn't always easy. Kennedy was infuriated when, in 1994, Kerry announced that he was "delighted" by the Republican takeover of Congress, because the voters had penalized the Democrats for their "screw-ups" -- including Clinton's and Kennedy's proposals for universal health care. "I want this change," Kerry told the Boston Herald. "The Democrats have articulated . . . a very poor agenda. It's hard for me to believe that some of these guys could have been as either arrogant or obtuse as to not know where the American people were coming from."

But after the 1996 race and despite occasional clashes among their staffs, the two men built a personal relationship. One day, when the two lawmakers were returning from a funeral in the same car together, they stopped to let Kennedy's dog Splash out.

"Teddy, as you know, has an incredibly bad back. Huge pain," and didn't have the tennis racket he generally uses to propel a ball for the dog to chase, Kerry recalls. So as the car pulled over, Kennedy handed the ball to Kerry, with instructions on how to toss it. As he stood in a field beside a highway, the junior senator from Massachusetts laughed to himself at how far he'd come: "OK, so now I'm reduced to throwing a tennis ball for Ted Kennedy's dog. That's my job."

Kennedy made his mark in the Senate as a Democratic champion on social issues -- health care, education, the minimum wage. That left plenty of room for Kerry to focus on foreign policy and the environment. By the late 1990s, Kerry was emerging as one of the Senate's premier leaders on such environmental issues as air and water quality, global warming, and the protection of fisheries and wildlife and wilderness areas. When Bush took office in 2001, and prodevelopment Republicans said they would seek to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling, Kerry vowed to lead a Senate filibuster. The pristine refuge has remained untouched.

On economic issues, Kerry helped create targeted capital gains tax cuts and tax breaks for research and development, and pushed reductions in the tax on stock dividends, to spur the growth of new, high-tech computer and biotechnology firms, many of which are in Massachusetts.

Kerry says his accomplishments often are not noticed: "I think I have a much longer legislative track record and accomplishment than vast numbers of people have any inkling of. From writing the flood insurance laws for the country to redoing the marine mammal protection act to writing the fisheries act two or three times to amendments on money laundering -- there are whole bunches of things that are legislative accomplishments."

On education, for example, Kerry says he has quietly and successfully pushed measures for early childhood education and to provide more authority to school principals, which he said made it into law because he was willing to let others take center stage. "I learned quickly that as a junior senator you can't always get the Kerry bill to the floor and passed, but you can often get the Kerry amendment swallowed up in someone else's bill," he says.

Pictures from the past

Just off the Rotunda floor of the Capitol, up a series of stairwells, is a hidden-from-the-public corridor. Behind one door is the "hideaway" of Senator John Kerry, a windowless room that is a sort of Rorschach pattern of his personality. On one wall is a huge map of Vietnam, which enables Kerry to show visitors where he fought his battles. On another are old French war posters, offset by posters of The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. Attached to the corner of one is a handwritten note from the lead singer of the rock band U2: "John -- I'll be back. Bono." A framed picture shows Kerry with Kennedy, whom Kerry first met when he was a protester at the Mall in 1971 and Kennedy was a senator sympathetic to the cause. Another picture shows Kerry on the cover of a windsurfing magazine.

On a late January day, Kerry walked into this Capitol version of a dorm room, looking wan and tired. Four weeks later, he would undergo surgery for an early stage of prostate cancer. His father, Richard, died of the disease in 2000 at the age of 85. But on this day, insisting he was fine, Kerry agreed to sit through a three-hour interview, in which he discussed his ancestry, the suicide of his grandfather, and the deaths of his friends in Vietnam, especially Yale classmate Richard Pershing, who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade just as Kerry was preparing to join the war.

It was Pershing who touched off one of the strongest emotional chords in Kerry. In 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the death, Kerry called many of his Yale friends and invited them to visit Pershing's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. He talks often with his fellow members from the Skull and Bones club, a conversation that began in 1965, when many Bonesmen assumed Kerry would run for president, and continues as he plots that course.

From the Capitol's steps, the cemetery where Pershing is buried can be seen in the distance. Closer to the Capitol is the spot where Kerry, accompanied by another fellow Bonesman, David Thorne, led a protest against the Vietnam War in 1971 and threw his ribbons into a bin marked "Trash." And down Pennsylvania Avenue is the White House, where Kerry's idol, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, once served.

For so long, Kerry stood at the edges of this rarefied world of Washington power. Now he is on the inside, in a room without windows, plotting a further ascent. He can look around in the Senate, however, and realize that other Democratic members of his 1984 class of senators have tried to attain the presidency and failed. He can look at other former senators who have heroic war records, including Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Bob Dole of Kansas and John McCain of Arizona, and realize that a good war story is not nearly enough. And he can look at history: No Democrat from outside the South since Kennedy has won the presidency. Even the most neophyte Republican press agent will have no trouble portraying Kerry as a liberal from Massachusetts who once served as lieutenant governor under -- pause for effect -- Michael Dukakis.

Kerry does have one asset that worries opponents -- personal wealth. While federal election laws limit the extent to which he can tap his wife's $550 million fortune to finance his campaign, the law would enable Heinz Kerry to run "issue ads" not mentioning the candidate. The law also permits Kerry to tap up to 50 percent of joint assets, which include assets of unknown value as well the couple's townhouse on Beacon Hill's elegant Louisburg Square, worth an estimated $7 million. The couple have said they would only use her financial reserves to counter personal attacks by rivals.

Kerry's life has never been more privileged than during the years since his marriage to Teresa Heinz. While in Washington, he lives in an elegant Georgetown house. The couple can vacation at Heinz homes on Nantucket Harbor and in the mountains of Idaho. Heinz Kerry also owns a home Pittsburgh. Museum quality paintings hang in their halls, and the pair crisscross the country in a private jet.

Now he is restless to take on a new risk: a presidential campaign. Forty-three years ago, on a November day at St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, Kerry gave his first political speech, in favor of Kennedy's election to the White House. Later he told friends at Yale that he wanted to run for president one day. He has been a candidate in the making for much of his life. So when he returned to New Hampshire earlier this year, it was to speak of his own White House dreams, a product of political calculus that is both admired and ridiculed.

"I feel liberated by the fact of my candidacy," Kerry said as he stood in the snows of New Hampshire, almost exactly a year to the day before the state's first-in-the-nation primary. "I'm now defining what I think the agenda should be, not what the Senate should do, not what the Congress should do. I will rise or I will fall on that."

End of series.

Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney, and Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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