On the trail of Kerry's failed dream
Pair of wars dominated strategy before election
Written and reported by Nina J. Easton, Michael Kranish, Patrick Healy, Glen Johnson, Anne E. Kornblut, and Brian Mooney of the Globe staff.
On the afternoon of Aug. 9, John F. Kerry stood on the lip of the Grand Canyon, about to make one of the biggest mistakes of his three-year quest for the presidency. A stiff wind was blowing across the canyon, and Kerry, whose hearing was damaged by gun blasts in Vietnam, had trouble understanding some of the questions being thrown his way. But he pressed on, coughing from the pollen blowing on the breeze.
Would Kerry have voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, one reporter asked, even if he knew then that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction? "Yes, I would have voted for the authority; I believe it's the right authority for a president to have," Kerry replied, as aides stood by, dumbfounded.
Kerry's answer ricocheted around the political world. Faced with the revelation that almost all the prewar arguments for invading Iraq were wrong -- the existence of weapons of mass destruction, close links to Al Qaeda -- President Bush had nonetheless insisted that he would do nothing differently. And he had been challenging Kerry to do the same, hoping to catch the Democrat changing his position on the unpopular war.
The senator explained to aides that part of the question had been lost in the wind; he thought he was answering a variation on the same basic query he'd been asked countless times: Was it right to give Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq? Kerry had simply given his standard "yes," with the proviso that he would have "done this very differently from the way President Bush has" -- yet the misunderstanding now muddied Kerry's message.
Worried advisers briefly considered issuing a clarification, but feared it might further feed Republican efforts to portray Kerry as a "flip-flopper."
Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Bush campaign pounced: Kerry now agrees with the president! Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon crowed about Kerry's "forced error," while the president repeated Kerry's answer over and over on the campaign trail and the GOP later advertised the Democrat's varied Iraq statements. "How can John Kerry protect us," the narrator in those ads intoned, "when he doesn't even know where he stands?"
Now, as Kerry campaign strategists try to fathom his Nov. 2 loss, one word emerges out of the rubble: war. History suggested the difficulties of beating a wartime president, even one with a job approval rating under 50 percent. But Kerry's own tortured relationship to war, dating to his youth, enabled the GOP to portray him as weak and inconsistent.
On Vietnam, Kerry had been both war hero and antiwar protester: Angry veterans were able to turn those contrasting roles into an attack on the candidate's character with a $25 million dollar ad campaign in swing states.
On Iraq, Kerry broke from a Senate record of opposing controversial military interventions -- in the 1980s, he fought President Reagan's involvement in Central America; in 1991 he voted against the Persian Gulf War -- to support a 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein. But afterward he criticized the invasion and voted against a bill funding troops there.
Kerry was his own handler on Iraq, aides said, and he seemed to draw on his Vietnam experience. "He had a deep, personal aversion to saying plainly that Iraq was a mistake and [that] he would not have gone to war," said one adviser, explaining that Kerry was concerned about the impact on troops in the field. "Coming to grips with that truth, I think that was probably his biggest problem."
The senator firmly believed he was being consistent -- voting yes on the resolution to give the president the clout to resume inspections, but warning Bush not to move hastily. At one point, when aides tried to coax him into a simpler message, he spread papers on the floor to show how the fine points of his arguments fit.
"John got caught with his legalistic and logical mind wanting to make consistency matter, and not let them say [he's] a flip-flopper," said Kerry's longtime friend David Thorne.
Even as aides fretted that Kerry had not found his voice on the issue, they continued to hope that his hybrid position -- maintaining vigilance in a post-9/11 world, but planning more carefully than Bush -- would capture the mood of the country. They were buoyed by the fact that voters in the primaries, when Kerry was also attacked for inconsistency, suddenly moved to his side, as if they had understood him all along.
They hoped it would happen again.
But every time Kerry tried to raise the level of attack on Bush over Iraq, he found himself trapped by his own previous vote for the war and the Republicans' relentless depictions of him as inconsistent. "John's complexity hurt him," said his former Yale roommate Daniel Barbiero.
By the time a new team of battle-tested advisers persuaded Kerry to speak in clear, simple terms -- calling Bush's Iraq policy "a colossal failure" -- the dynamics of the campaign were already set.
Bush's critics depict him as simplistic and stubborn. But on Election Day, it became clear that a majority of Americans took comfort in the president's clipped certainty in the face of dangerous times and moral flux. When voters left the polls that Tuesday, they gave the president a 3.5 million lead in the popular vote.
"If there was one most important basis by which Bush won and Kerry lost, it was that Kerry was not seen as a strong enough leader," said Andrew Kohut, president of Pew Research Center. "Not too many people were concerned about Kerry being too liberal or seeing Kerry as a tax-and-spend Democrat. But they were concerned about him as a person who changed his mind too much."
By mid-March, two weeks after Super Tuesday, as Kerry took a snowboarding break at his wife's Sun Valley, Idaho, getaway, Bush was already on the attack, saturating the springtime airwaves with $70 million worth of advertising.
A defining moment
On March 18, Bush's media advisers sat inside the campaign's glassy corporate office building in Arlington, Va., counting their good fortunes. The president's strategists had intended to pursue a tried-and-true strategy: Define your opponent and do it early. Now Kerry himself had handed them the words to do just that.
Bush had learned in his only losing campaign -- a 1978 US House race in West Texas, where he was labeled a liberal Eastern elitist -- that it was political death to let your opponents define you first. So in the ensuing years he had turned that same strategy against his foes. In the case of Kerry, Bush readily agreed to a plan to define the senator as a flip-flopper weak on defense.
A Bush campaign negative ad, released March 16, criticized Kerry for voting against an $87 billion bill to fund US troops in Iraq. The ad depicted Kerry voting no on "body armor for troops in combat," on "higher pay," on "better healthcare for reservists and their families."
Kerry's 2002 vote authorizing the use of force against Iraq had been cast with one eye on the upcoming presidential election; one faction of advisers argued he couldn't beat Bush otherwise. And Kerry's own past suggested the dangers of running as an antiwar candidate: As one of them, he suffered a devastating defeat for a US House seat in 1972, the same year President Nixon, despite Vietnam, won by a landslide.
Kerry's 2003 vote against the $87 billion to fund US troops in Iraq was likewise cast in the context of a presidential race. At the time, his primary opponent, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, was enjoying a surprise surge, thanks to energized antiwar Democrats. At first, Kerry was willing to support the $87 billion, provided it was paid for by eliminating Bush's tax cut for the rich. When that provision failed, Kerry voted against it.
That vote provided ready ammunition for a GOP assault. Nicolle Devenish, communications director for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said the idea for their first attack ad grew out of a breakfast strategy session at political adviser Karl Rove's Washington, D.C., home. In early March, knowing that Kerry planned to surround himself with his "band of brothers" from Vietnam and to speak to veterans in West Virginia, "we decided to bracket him for voting against men and women in the military," Devenish said.
At that same West Virginia event, Kerry stepped into quicksand when, unsolicited, he decided to respond to the GOP attack ad and explain his vote. The words he chose would ring throughout the campaign.
"This is very important," he said. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it."
Watching on television from Bush headquarters, McKinnon jumped out of his chair. "I just knew, immediately," recalled the onetime Democrat who switched sides after personally bonding with then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. "There was a buzz in the whole place. We knew immediately that it was a big deal.
"We kind of set the trap [with the original ad], and then he walked right into it."
If the Republicans had successfully written the first chapter of Kerry's general election campaign, another group of foes --swift boat veterans from Vietnam -- were conspiring to write the second.
Swift boat veterans attack
On April 4, a group of 10 Vietnam veterans crammed into a second-floor conference room in Dallas and began plotting the downfall of John Kerry. The room was decorated with Parisian watercolors of ostriches and kittens, a design favored by the host of this meeting, Merrie Spaeth, a public relations executive who had once been director of media relations for Reagan.
The original seeds of this meeting lay not with Spaeth, but with two Vietnam veterans whose relationships with Kerry dated back three decades: The first was John O'Neill, a Nixon White House ally who had famously debated Kerry over the Vietnam War on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1971. The second was Roy Hoffmann, one of Kerry's former commanding officers.
O'Neill, who had donated a kidney to his ailing wife, was at a Texas hospital in early February when he saw campaign footage of Kerry on television and decided the Democrat had to be stopped. He began calling veterans who might also be offended by the prospect of a man who once accused soldiers of "atrocities" becoming the nation's commander in chief. The veterans discussed vague plans to publicize Kerry's antiwar activities.
O'Neill had not served with Kerry, so his knowledge of the candidate's combat action was limited. But Hoffmann had -- and was still steaming over his portrayal in a Kerry-approved biography, "Tour of Duty," by Douglas Brinkley. The book compared Hoffmann to the Robert Duvall character in the movie "Apocalypse Now," who said he loved "the smell of napalm in the morning." Brinkley wrote that swift boat veterans had described Hoffmann as "hotheaded, bloodthirsty, and egomaniacal."
Kerry had tried to head off Hoffmann's anger by calling and offering to ask Brinkley to change the offending passages. But Hoffmann would not be swayed. Mutual disdain for Kerry eventually brought Hoffmann and O'Neill together, and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that would later blindside the Democrat's campaign, was born.
The April 4 meeting in Dallas stretched to 12 hours, according to accounts from three people who were there, as the group ate barbecue and Tex-Mex and planned a news conference to denounce Kerry as "unfit for command." At one point, the veterans pulled out checkbooks and agreed to donate the first $60,000, with O'Neill offering $25,000. This seemed like a huge sum to many of them, but Spaeth said she told them they could collect much more through a fund-raising appeal -- an effort that netted $20 million.
The group debated strategy: Should it focus on Kerry's assertions that US soldiers had committed atrocities? Or should it go after his combat record, raising questions about whether he deserved his medals and three Purple Hearts?
Spaeth and others believed the group should focus its attacks on Kerry's antiwar efforts. Michael Bernique, who had gone on missions with Kerry, argued that he had acted courageously in combat. But others were adamant about going after his combat record.
O'Neill and Hoffmann had heard reports questioning whether Kerry deserved his first Purple Heart, given for a wound that Kerry's commanding officer had compared to a rose-thorn prick. They also entertained suspicions from veterans about Kerry's medals -- one a Bronze Star, the other a Silver Star. "We got very disquieting e-mails about what he had done in Vietnam," O'Neill said.
The O'Neill faction also argued that poking holes in Kerry's combat record would attract fresh media attention.
When the group decided to focus on Kerry's combat record as well as his antiwar activities, Bernique and several others objected and dropped out.
Kerry knew he needed to extend an olive branch to the many veterans still enraged over his 1971 assertions that fellow soldiers participated in mutilations, gang rapes, and the burning of villages. In April, Kerry went on NBC's "Meet the Press" and confessed that his accusations had been "a little bit over the top."
But if Kerry thought his mea culpa could tamp down 33-year-old flames of anger, he was wrong. On May 4, the swift boat vets convened a news conference in Washington to question Kerry's fitness as commander in chief. "This is not a political issue," said Hoffmann. "It is a matter of his judgment, truthfulness, reliability, loyalty, and trust -- all absolute tenets of command."
A phalanx of television cameras recorded the event, but the news conference didn't attract nearly as much publicity as the group hoped. What helped Kerry most was a change in headlines: The veterans' attack on Kerry was overshadowed by an unfolding scandal in a Baghdad prison that was about to knock the Bush campaign off course.
The failure of the swift boat veterans to gain traction lulled the Kerry campaign into a false sense of security. In fact, O'Neill was quietly preparing for a more intensive assault.
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal suddenly put Bush back on the defensive.
Images of American soldiers laughing as naked Iraqi prisoners were tied, hooded, attached to electrodes, and forced into sexual positions unleashed a wave of anti-American fervor abroad and self-doubt at home. A year and a half earlier, some officials had predicted America would be greeted as a liberator of Iraq. Now, US troops were gaining a reputation as occupiers, and a handful were grossly abusive.
Bush expressed his "deep disgust." The White House tried to distance the president from the scandal, but the furor mounted with each shocking revelation.
A black mood settled on Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters. For weeks, Republicans had been riding high, churning out negative ads morphing Kerry into a liberal loser, a second coming of the failed Michael S. Dukakis.
They could control the image-making. They couldn't control events. And the war in Iraq, already taking a toll on the president's popularity, now threatened his reelection. "You sort of see the campaign going down in flames," McKinnon recalled.
McKinnon called this period "Black May."
But the Kerry campaign wasn't firing on all cylinders either. The prison scandal, a spike in American casualties in Iraq, and the public investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hurt Bush, but didn't necessarily help Kerry. Still largely unknown outside Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate was having trouble getting his message across.
This might have been an ideal time to hit Bush hard. Instead, the candidate proceeded on a deliberate course, crafted by media adviser Bob Shrum and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, to raise money, broadcast policy proposals. and advertise Kerry's life story. In early May, the campaign announced a $25 million, mostly biographical advertising buy -- the largest single buy to that date by either side.
Kerry's appearances focused on domestic issues, largely because campaign-organized focus groups rated healthcare and the economy as top concerns. At one campaign stop, Kerry even refused to answer whether the prison scandal should force Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign, saying "I've already commented."
When Kerry finally started giving foreign policy speeches by the end of May, his words had a term paper quality. He would lay out "four imperatives" and insist that in the war on terror "we need to be clear about our purposes and our principles." Bush, meanwhile, was casting the campaign as a "choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger."
If the Kerry team expected to sit back and let headlines sink the president, they were wrong. In June the bad news out of Iraq began to ebb, and Bush advisers realized the president's poll numbers had not dropped as badly as they expected. "We suddenly realized how resilient the president was," McKinnon said. "We took the toughest hit possible, and yet we found ourselves in June still beating Kerry."
During this period, Kerry himself expressed concern that his campaign message lacked spark. He called Paul Begala, the consultant who had helped steer Bill Clinton to victory and now cohosted the CNN show "Crossfire."
Didn't stay on message
"Kerry said, 'We need to get more focused,' " Begala recalled, "and I remember telling him the campaign was all over the map, no coherent rationale for him and [for] rejecting Bush. He agreed and said, 'I really need you to come aboard.' "
Begala, knowing the senator was a former prosecutor, asked the candidate to present his case to voters to hire Kerry and fire Bush. Kerry responded by naming six issues, according to Begala's notes of the conversation: Jobs, taxes, fiscal policy, healthcare, energy, and education.
This was a list, not a "case," Begala fretted.
Eager to help but reluctant to drop his TV career to join the campaign, Begala in May gave a private briefing to Kerry's campaign staff members about their failings. He took out a whiteboard and, according to notes provided to the Globe, listed 12 ways to define and defeat Bush:
"Over his head/incompetent," he wrote. "For the rich/special interests.
"Ideological/stubborn/rigid. Out of touch. Ignores problems. Can only to do one thing at a time. Liar/broken promises. Wrong Priorities. No plan for the future. Divider. You're on your own. Ignores middle class."
Pick one, Begala urged Kerry's staff, and then hammer it until Election Day.
But as June dragged on, Begala saw no change. His friends, including longtime associate James Carville, pressured him to quit CNN and take up Kerry's offer. Carville also talked to Kerry, and believed the senator had committed to giving Begala a key position. Begala now convinced himself; he had to join the Kerry campaign for the good of the party.
So in mid-June, Begala met with campaign manager Cahill at Kerry's campaign headquarters in Washington and said he had changed his mind; he would quit CNN and join Kerry.
The reaction was not what he anticipated. What are you talking about? Cahill asked, according to Begala.
"It seems obvious you don't have a message or strategy-driven campaign," Begala said he replied.
Again, Cahill asked what Begala was talking about. Begala remembers that she looked "like I was going to perform open-heart surgery on her. She said: 'I need to think about this. Give me a couple of days to set that up.' From that day to now, I never heard another word from her. And you know, I was pretty angry. I'm still pretty angry."
Cahill says she regrets leaving Begala up in the air. " I made a mistake by not calling him back," Cahill said, adding that she was already in discussions about the message with numerous outside advisers.
His secret deliberations
As a politician, Kerry tends to be cautious and deliberate. He is also adept at keeping secrets, even from his staff.
So when it came time to choose a running mate, Kerry set up a search operation headed by James A. Johnson, a friend and financier known for his discretion. But it was Kerry alone who settled on a choice and then kept the news under wraps, even from Johnson.
Kerry's frenetic use of his cellphone was never more apparent than during the vice presidential search in May and June, as he called scores of friends for advice. His first choice was Senator John McCain of Arizona. But by late spring it was clear McCain preferred to hug fellow Republican George Bush on the GOP campaign trail than join the Democrats.
To bolster his national security credentials, Kerry's supporters urged him to turn to retired General Wesley K. Clark or Richard A. Gephardt, a former House minority leader. But Clark was relatively untested, and Gephardt carried a different risk -- the odor of political failure.
According to aides, Kerry believed Gephardt was the politician most qualified to step into the president's shoes. He had been in the US House since 1977 and was Democratic leader for seven years. He couldn't be pegged as soft on defense; Gephardt had stood alongside Bush in the Rose Garden after helping craft the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
But Kerry and aides worried that after two failed presidential runs and his longtime inability to recapture the House for Democrats, Gephardt would be considered past his prime. And with the campaign still struggling to find its footing, Kerry believed he couldn't risk a disappointing vice presidential choice, aides recalled.
Playing it safe also meant ruling out Governor Thomas J. Vilsack of Iowa, who was untested in national politics.
Over and over, Kerry kept circling back to the man who clearly wanted it most: Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. During the primaries, Kerry had held the junior senator in low regard: At one point, a Globe reporter overheard Kerry chortling over the idea that the former trial attorney was running for president before he'd even finished one term in the Senate: "And people call me ambitious!" he exclaimed. On another occasion, Kerry speculated that Edwards could not even carry his home state for him in November.
But polls indicated that he was the runaway favorite among Democratic voters. He had been tested in an arduous primary contest and had shown surprising political skills as the last major rival to Kerry. And Edwards, with his son-of-a-millworker biography and passionate rhetoric about an economic divide creating "two Americas," offered an appeal to the middle class that the Brahmin-bred Kerry lacked.
Edwards had mounted a vigorous campaign to secure the number two slot. No sooner had he quit the presidential race than he hit the trail for Kerry. And on March 11, when Edwards invited his fund-raisers to Washington to thank them for their support, he took the unusual step of inviting Kerry. Meeting at The St. Regis hotel, Edwards appealed to his donors to support the presumptive nominee.
By mid-June, Kerry was close to choosing Edwards. Kerry telephoned the charter company that was providing his campaign plane. He ordered three sets of decals: Kerry-Edwards, Kerry-Gephardt, and Kerry-Vilsack, but the latter two were decoys. On July 6, Kerry announced his running mate and his plane rolled out of a hangar at Pittsburgh International Airport decked out in "Kerry-Edwards" logos. The announcement generated a flurry of excited coverage, featuring Edwards's photogenic family.
In the end, though, Edwards's help to the ticket was questionable. He fell off the major media radar screen, instead currying local coverage in battleground states such as Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio. And he did fail to deliver his home state, despite campaigning there more than a half-dozen times. And when Kerry's Vietnam foes began their August assault, Kerry had to turn to other surrogates, those with military credentials, to come to his defense.
Every week through the early summer, senior advisers would gather in the fishbowl conference room of Kerry's Washington headquarters to plan their candidate's big national debut, the Democratic National Convention in Boston. As the group grew to as many as 18 people, some advisers worried that the sessions lacked focus.
Still, a consensus began to emerge that the convention should be used to build up Kerry's commander in chief credentials, not tear down Bush's. The reason was mostly practical: Independent groups on the left, dubbed "527s" after their position in the tax code, were already churning out millions of dollars in negative ads against Bush. Why duplicate this vigorous, and well-funded, Bush-bashing effort?
Moreover, the president was suffering from high unfavorable ratings in the polls. Bush-haters didn't need to be convinced of their animus for the president. Selling Kerry as a viable alternative was the task at hand.
His strategists believed that highlighting Kerry's combat record was a no-brainer: Vietnam had always helped him in Massachusetts. "We wanted to give people hope and assure them that Kerry had the strength and guts to stand up to enemies and defeat terrorism. Everything at the convention was calculated to make that point," said Billy Shaheen, his New Hampshire campaign chairman.
In the planning, proposed segments about Kerry's Senate record -- on the environment, on small business, on foreign policy -- were scrapped or scaled back. And aides sought to ensure that both prime time and afternoon speeches were short, on message, and positive about Kerry without being overly harsh on Bush.
Those goals, meant to appeal to swing voters, were out-of-synch with a staunchly antiwar audience; a Globe poll indicated that about 90 percent of the delegates inside the FleetCenter opposed the war, which Kerry had voted to authorize. And anger at Bush was so fierce that delegates broke into raucous cheers at even the most gentle denunciations of his administration.
The convention hall was festooned with photos of Kerry in combat. His band of brothers stood on stage. Jim Rassmann, then a registered Republican, retold the story of how Kerry had saved his life while under fire in Vietnam.
On Thursday, July 29, the last night of the convention, the man whose fame was launched by denunciations of a war stepped onto the podium and gave a military salute. "I'm John Kerry," the candidate told the cheering delegates, "and I'm reporting for duty."
The line was the brainstorm of former US senator Max Cleland of Georgia. A close friend and Vietnam veteran who had lost both legs and his right arm in combat, Cleland had planned to use a version of the line in introducing Kerry. "John saw that in a draft of my speech, he liked it, and he took it for his own," Cleland recalled.
Kerry had drafted his own speech in longhand on a legal pad with input from advisers. Once finished, he practiced delivering it during sessions inside his Nantucket garage.
The speech was designed to introduce Kerry as a strong commander. Kerry said he would "never hesitate to use force" and "never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security." He spoke of knowing "what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place," about how the American flag "flew from the gun turret right behind my head." He promised to wage the war in Iraq "with the lessons I learned in war."
When the night, and the convention, closed, Democrats declared a roaring success. The polls were less enthusiastic.
Historically, presidential candidates emerge from their political conventions with as much as a 10-point bounce in the polls.
While Kerry's standing on national security issues improved after the convention, his big national debut from Boston didn't add more than a point or two to his support.
Some Democrats felt the Kerry team had squandered its best chance to build an aggressive case for why Bush should be removed from office. As for selling Kerry as a viable alternative: Only six lines of his acceptance speech were devoted to his 20 years in the Senate, a fact that his GOP foes loudly broadcast. The omission was, said one senior adviser, "a fair criticism."
Later, others worried that the focus on Vietnam left an opening for Kerry's swift boat foes to attack. "Was there too much Vietnam?" one top strategist pondered after the election. "Probably, in hindsight. But the swift boat group would have attacked regardless."
Vietnam as the centerpiece
John Kerry is not a man who indulges in emotional highs and lows. When he is angry, he is a master of the cold eyes, the stony mien, the slow burn, which are often delivered as he places his hands on your shoulder or moves his face up close to yours and expresses some measure of disapproval. Aides went to great lengths to avoid those moments.
"You know immediately when he's pissed at you," said Shaheen. "He gives you a look that goes through you. He sets his jaw. If you try to talk, it seems like he's not listening to you. But he never gets heated; he's the coolest cat in politics."
By Aug. 14, Kerry was mad -- and aides could feel it.
Ten days earlier, an inflammatory book by his Nixon-era foe, O'Neill, had topped a national best-seller list. "Unfit for Command" used mostly unsupported allegations to label Kerry a liar who didn't deserve some or all of his combat medals.
At the same time, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began airing ads, mostly in swing states, quoting men who said Kerry "has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam," "lied" to get his medals, "is no war hero," and "betrayed all his shipmates."
Kerry wanted to fight back right away, but Shrum and other media advisers cautioned against it, concerned about fanning the flames. "We watched as the story jumped from the Internet, to Fox News, to the other cable networks," said Cahill. "Our concern was we didn't want to help it along by our reaction."
The campaign hoped that the episode would blow over with minimal damage, as it had the previous spring. But this time, there was no prison scandal, or anything else, to swallow the swift boat veterans' crusade. "The August echo chamber was a difficult environment because nothing else was going on," said Thorne.
"The campaign collectively underestimated the effect of the swift boats. It was a collective mistake," recalled Michael Whouley, a longtime Kerry operative. "I think the candidate was probably the most concerned about it. It pissed him off, people attacking his Vietnam service."
Kerry wanted to know what impact the ads were having. Shrum recalled that for days the polls indicated nothing. Then the damage began to show. "As soon as we saw it, we moved," Shrum said.
By then, the damage had been done. A Time magazine poll suggested that Kerry's favorability rating had dropped from 53 percent in early August to 44 percent by late that month. A remarkable 77 percent said they had seen or heard about the ads, with one-third contending that there was some truth to the allegations.
An angry Kerry summoned longtime friend Thomas J. Vallely, a Bostonian and Silver Star recipient, and told him to "find me Billy Rood." William B. Rood had been present during the action that garnered Kerry the Silver Star the swift boat foes were now calling into question. Rood, an editor at the Chicago Tribune, had refused to speak publicly about the action. He took Kerry's call, though he didn't tell the senator what he planned to do.
On Aug. 22, an article by Rood appeared in the
Still, the swift boat veterans had damaged Kerry's standing and left some Democratic strategists asking whether the candidate's focus on Vietnam had created an opening for his political opponents.
One of Kerry's closest friends, Bobby Muller, a fellow Vietnam antiwar leader, went to a September lunch at Washington's Equinox restaurant with Thorne and Vallely. "The failure to respond is inexcusable," Muller said.
The question of whether the campaign should have made Vietnam "such a centerpiece could be second-guessed forever," said Thorne. " And I think the answer is it served us well in distinguishing John's unique biography and also helped put forth an image of a strong commander in chief, an antidote to the very allegation that Bush was making -- that he is weak, can't lead the country."
But the swift boat campaign, he added, was like aikido, the martial art in which you "use the other person's energy in your own defense. They used the energy that we had created about Vietnam to turn it against us."
Veteran campaign advisers
Since May, Begala and other former Clinton advisers had been raising alarms about the direction of the campaign, arguing that Kerry needed to make a clearer, more direct assault on Bush. As one senior adviser, looking back on the entire campaign, described the situation: "Our idea of a 'negative frame' is to say, 'Bush is taking us in the wrong direction.' Their idea of a negative frame is to say, 'Kerry is a coward, liar, and not fit to be president of the United States.' They're hitting us with a baseball bat and we're spitting on them."
By August, Kerry was ready to expand his circle of strategists with veterans of Democratic presidential politics who, unlike Shrum and Cahill, had worked closely with a winner. Kerry and Cahill reached out to Clinton's combat-tested lieutenants: former spokesmen Joe Lockhart and Mike McCurry, senior advisers Joel Johnson and Doug Sosnik, and pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.
"Not to bring the Clinton people in by summer was a terrible failing," said a senior campaign adviser who spoke regularly with Kerry. "A presidential campaign always has to be an expanding pie. You must always say, who can I bring in?"
Lockhart, McCurry, and Johnson were particularly adept at "winning the news cycle" by spinning the day's events against Bush. Those in and around the campaign saw a tougher, more disciplined message emerge.
Kerry also began speaking with the former president more frequently. Sometimes Lockhart arranged the conversations; sometimes Kerry would just call Clinton himself. Among their phone calls, which numbered one to two a week, the most important one occurred on the night of Sept. 4, a Saturday, as Clinton was in a New York City hospital preparing for heart surgery that Monday.
In the 90-minute conversation, aides say, Clinton counseled Kerry never to let another assault go personally unchallenged for so long. He also advised the candidate to make more sustained criticisms of Bush and to focus on core issues in battleground states -- job losses in Ohio, the toll of Iraq on military families throughout the Midwest.
The next day, in a move that would also prove crucial to Kerry's rebound, the nominee elevated Massachusetts strategist John Sasso, who had served as his general election manager at the Democratic National Committee, to be his traveling campaign manager. Both Kerry and Sasso believed the campaign needed a more disciplined message and a greater day-to-focus, and that Kerry was too often distracted by small-bore problems better left to aides.
Preparations pay off
Nothing helped Kerry think more clearly than an afternoon of windsurfing the Atlantic behind his wife's $9 million Nantucket beach house. On Monday afternoon, Aug. 30, as Republican delegates began trekking from their city hotels to opening night at Madison Square Garden, Kerry sat on the beach toying with a new sail, eager to test it out.
A salty breeze and white-capped surf beckoned. So Kerry slipped his board into the sea, stood upright holding the neon pink-striped sheet, and began sailing back and forth, back and forth, zigzagging among the small boats in the harbor.
Windsurfing was not a hobby likely to resonate with laid-off Ohio steelworkers or other swing voters. And Republicans gleefully seized upon the footage of the Nantucket scene in an ad suggesting Kerry's positions moved "whichever way the wind blows."
But what the Bush campaign didn't see was the danger lurking for their candidate inside the beach compound. The flaky windsurfing image masked the serious business at hand during that island weekend: As the Republican convention proceeded, Kerry and his advisers were already hard at work prepping for the first debate, still four weeks away.
The preparations had begun in June, when a team including former vice presidential aide Ronald A. Klain, Kerry adviser Jonathan Winer, former White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig, Clinton friend Vernon Jordan, and Shrum began compiling material. By August, the team was meeting with Kerry once a week.
"Kerry wanted to do this differently than either Clinton or Gore; he wanted to do a lot of work early," said Klain. "Both Clinton and Gore liked to cram. Kerry really wanted to absorb and needed to get stuff done early. . . . He was much more methodical [than Clinton or Gore]. He's a much more avid reader than either. His reading wasn't the prelude to learning; his reading was the learning. He was extremely disciplined about it."
The sessions that began in earnest in Nantucket and continued as mock debates in Spring Green, Wis., had one goal: Kerry wouldn't hear a single word from Bush that he hadn't heard before.
In the White House, meanwhile, Bush resisted practice sessions. His debate preparations were marred by irritation and distraction, advisers said. Bush engaged in at least two miserable sessions with his sparring partner, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Aides did not even force Bush to watch the sessions that went badly, because "everybody knew" they had not gone well, one adviser said. Finally, frustrated by the intrusions at the White House, senior aide Karen Hughes moved the practice to Bush's ranch at Crawford, Texas.
Still, by the time the first presidential debate opened in Miami on Sept. 30, Bush advisers thought they had already one-upped the Democrat by insisting on a buzzer to enforce time limits.
If Bush aides thought this strategy would show the Democrat as a pompous windbag, they were wrong. Instead, the time limits forced a steely and determined Kerry to make a crisp prosecutor's case against his opponent.
Kerry brought skills honed over summer practice sessions, as well as renewed energy from two effective foreign policy speeches he had delivered the previous week. Kerry was finding his voice on Iraq. Whereas before he talked of a "wrong direction" in the war on terror, he now hammered Bush for "colossal failures in judgment."
Faith, values in focus
"John is a prosecutor; John is a fighter. He needs to fight," said Thorne. "He needed to prosecute the war in Iraq, [saying] 'This is what has gone wrong.' "
Thorne, who was by Kerry's side during his 1971 antiwar leadership, said he now saw a "glimmer" of the passion Kerry had expressed 23 years earlier. "He began to speak from a place of conviction and passion. He felt at home."
Kerry's newfound confidence was on display during the first debate with Bush; as Kerry grew in stature, Bush seemed to shrink, repeating stock phrases and smirking as his opponent spoke. The aides standing backstage broke into smiles. "We knew we had the president of the United States on the run," said Klain.
But only for a while. A majority of voters thought Kerry had won the debate, but he was still neck-and-neck with Bush.
Kerry's staff knew one of their biggest challenges was to turn a man known as an aloof Boston Brahmin, married to one of the nation's wealthiest women, into a man who could appeal to average Americans. For months, aides would propose that Kerry go hunting or that he talk more about his Catholic faith and experience as an altar boy.
But other aides would intervene, saying it would look gimmicky. Although Kerry did go on a hunting trip near the end of the race, "there were people who sat on it and made sure it didn't happen" earlier, said one campaign insider.
One of Kerry's biggest fears was that he would be denied Holy Communion because of his position on abortion. "The notion was sort of crushing to him," one of Kerry's aides said. Kerry's Catholicism should have been one of his strongest assets; an estimated one of every four voters in a presidential campaign are Catholics, and the margin is even higher in some battlegrounds states.
But the White House wasn't about to let Kerry use faith to his advantage, and portrayed him as out of step with the Catholic Church on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, both of which are against church orthodoxy.
Kerry made high-profile visits to churches and gave speeches on faith and values every week leading up to Election Day. But by then, the Bush campaign had already culled the membership lists of thousands of churches and sent out fliers attacking Kerry's record on issues of special interest to Catholics and other religious Christians.
And many of those church members were already casting ballots for Bush in states that allowed early voting.
Hopes and a dream fade
The Kerry team neared Election Day with high hopes. True, there had been some setbacks since Kerry's stellar debate performance. In the third and final debate, Kerry touched off a firestorm of criticism when he answered a question about gay marriage by naming Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter to show "we're all God's children." Kerry later told an aide he wished he hadn't made the comment.
On the campaign trail, it still could be difficult to combat Kerry's occasional political-tone deafness. During an Oct. 29 speech in Orlando, the candidate tried an unscripted plea, "Wake up, America!" Aides cringed -- was Kerry suggesting that Americans were asleep? -- and told him to drop the line.
Later that day, a new videotape of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden emerged. Kerry wanted to react in a statesmanlike way, but some aides -- seeing a rare opening to hit Bush on a core vulnerability -- toyed with releasing a statement with a different tone. "It would say something like: 'You see that guy up there on the screen looking fat and happy in his robes? Well, he would not be there if George Bush had captured him,' " said one senior adviser. Fearful of elevating the terrorist's influence, Kerry and his aides quashed the idea.
With the election just days away, no one wanted to rock the boat. Greenberg's daily tracking numbers indicated that Kerry was nudging ahead in mid-to-late October and ahead in a majority of battlegrounds, though aides worried that few other polls suggested the same.
Kerry had heard about early exit returns on Election Day, and he believed he would win. But as day turned to night in Boston, Kerry began to get dispiriting reports when he telephoned Cahill for updates.
After dinner with his family and the departure of his aides around 10 p.m., he began fidgeting: Pacing up and down stairs in his Beacon Hill town house, sorting through papers, starting conversations and then growing silent.
Once again, as in 2000, the election appeared to hinge on one state. Four years ago it was Florida. Now it was Ohio, where Bush appeared to be winning by about 136,000 votes, but some 155,000 "provisional" ballots, which still required verification, had not been counted. Without Ohio, Kerry would lose both the Electoral College and the popular vote. If he won the state, even by a single vote, the Electoral College would name him president.
After midnight, Kerry and Cahill decided that he should not make a planned visit to the crowd at Copley Square, instead sending Edwards to tell the crowd to wait one more night.
But by Wednesday morning, Kerry knew there was no chance he would gain enough votes in Ohio to become president. Agonizingly, he realized that his campaign had met its turnout goal in Ohio voters but that the Bush campaign had turned out many more rural voters than anticipated, including many apparently driven by cultural and leadership issues.
After the obligatory telephone call to Bush, Kerry delivered an emotional concession speech at Faneuil Hall in which he said he wished he could "embrace each and every one of you." Kerry then asked some of his longtime friends to come back to his Louisburg Square home for private reflection. Some had known Kerry for more than four decades and had always believed he would be president. A day earlier, they had been convinced of it.
Now the dream was over.
Kerry sat in the kitchen, sipping a bowl of soup, and shook his head as he turned to a friend and said simply, "We worked so hard." There were tears and hugs.
As Kerry sat, he started to analyze the race. Many voters, he concluded, cast their ballots on single issues, such as abortion or gay rights. Kerry had tried to walk a fine line on both issues, saying life began at conception while supporting abortion rights, and opposing same-sex marriage but also rejecting a constitutional amendment to ban it. From the start, it had been difficult for a Bostonian to appeal to the conservative South and some Midwest states. Kerry felt he had done it.
But through it all, the rivers of war -- Iraq and Vietnam -- ran through the campaign.
As the friends and family gathered around him, Kerry's daughter Vanessa comforted her father.
"I'm so proud my name is Kerry," she said.