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THOMAS OLIPHANT

The easy stereotypes don't fit John Kerry

WASHINGTON
AFTER KNOWING and writing about him for 34 years, it has always intrigued me how different John Kerry has looked in his many peer groups, how apart and occasionally alone he has been in an extremely public, active life.

It has also always interested me how at crunch time -- his epic struggle with Bill Weld for reelection eight years ago and when he rescued his faltering presidential campaign last winter -- Kerry has had to listen to wise mentors and counselors in order to connect with the customers of politics.

People who don't quite fit stereotypes are the ones who think anew, test new ideas, change the equation. There is, however, a thin line between apartness and hubris, one of the fatal character flaws in Greek tragedy. After a bad fall in his awkward try for Congress 32 years ago, Kerry has managed to avoid succumbing to that human temptation to think it's all about him.

In a few days, he and John Edwards will start a slow, photogenic tour east from the Rockies to his nominating convention. It amazes me that this reticent man will have as much control as he does over what the country ends up thinking about him as the next stage of his campaign begins.

George Bush's machine has spent $100 million in a so far vain attempt to make Kerry conform to conservative caricatures of liberals. The season of media deconstructions of his life's details has yielded trees, not a forest. It's partly negative comment that no clear impressions of him have formed despite at least six months of genuine prominence, but that's another way of saying that what comes next is mostly up to him.

My long exposure to Kerry's life makes me think of a story about the late Richard Neustadt of Harvard, the 20th century's pre-eminent presidential scholar. In 1986, Mike Dukakis asked him: Did all of the country's presidents have anything important in common? Neustadt answered with a grin that each of them was pretty weird.

On that basis, someone should start drafting Kerry's inaugural address. More than once in the next two weeks, people will talk about his family, money, and schooling pedigrees; they should save their breath. The truth is he wasn't all that preppie in the view of most real preppies; he was a combat leader in Vietnam who turned against the war when people with his pedigrees didn't typically fight in wars. He was mostly a moderating influence in the radicalizing antiwar movement he gave new life to in 1971, but I remember vividly him telling me during the veterans demonstration here that he assumed his activism would preclude a political career. His confusion the following year of his brief celebrity with political support led to his punch-in-the-jaw loss for Congress.

Because so much attention goes to his pedigrees and to Vietnam, most Americans would be surprised to be reminded that 27 years passed between his defeat and his true arrival on the national political scene four years ago when Al Gore came close to picking him for the Democratic ticket. For all his supposed advantages, Kerry came up the hard, slow way. I had learned during the Vietnam period that because the atmosphere was so intense, powerful voices could appear and disappear quickly; what first caused me to respect his drive was when he checked in after his congressional defeat to say he was going to Boston College Law School and was thinking about becoming a prosecutor -- not a chic career move on the left in those days.

He did not, however, climb the ladder as a regular Democrat. His career-making nominations -- real squeakers for lieutenant governor in 1982 and for the Senate two years later against worthy opponents -- came from outside his party's establishment. Sharp elbows were thrown at him, and he threw plenty of his own.

In the Senate for 20 years, he had the sense to live with Edward Kennedy's surpassing status and accomplishments and to seize the opportunities that were open in another long climb. Most of the media attention goes to his investigations of devious war-making in Central America and international crooks, but I was always more impressed by his gradual emergence as one of the Senate's leading figures on the environment, energy policy, and affordable housing. He has been a new ideas Democrat consistently, and not without controversy, but always with firm progressive roots. He has also put Vietnam in its place -- not behind him, because it is too much part of him, but in his conviction that last resort should mean last resort and that reckless behavior costs soldiers' lives. That conviction is balanced by an awareness that Madeleine Albright was correct in arguing that foreign policy must be based on the lessons of Munich, and now 9/11, as well as Saigon.

Others have mostly failed to define this guy. Now it's his turn and his chance.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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