John F. Kerry's rise to fame was affected by two people who could not have been more opposite: the actress and antiwar activist Jane Fonda, and President Richard M. Nixon. Both associations helped seal Kerry's early reputation as a scourge of the political right.
More than seven months before Kerry delivered the April 1971 Senate testimony that would turn him into an overnight media sensation, he was a little-known Vietnam veteran who rose to speak at a rally in Valley Forge, Pa. Among the fellow speakers was Fonda. Fonda spoke early in the rally, while Kerry was among the last to speak. Foreshadowing his Senate testimony, Kerry said: It ''is not patriotism to ask Americans to die for a mistake.'' (Seven months later, he testified a bit more eloquently: ''How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?'') Kerry's words deeply impressed Fonda. ''I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is a real leader, a Lincolnesque kind of leader,' '' Fonda recalled in a 2004 interview.
Fonda does not remember talking with him or even shaking his hand at the time, but she would play an important role in his life. Fonda provided much of the funding that enabled the Vietnam Veterans Against the War to air allegations that US troops had committed atrocities. The result was the Winter Soldier hearings, a three-day event held in Detroit in January 1971.
Kerry, who did not publicly speak in Detroit, was deeply affected by the gruesome stories of about 150 veterans, and their words became the basis of many of his subsequent statements about US ''atrocities'' during Vietnam. ''It really rocked him,'' Fonda said of the impact of the Detroit testimony on Kerry. (Years later Kerry said his choice of words was unfortunate, but he disagreed with those who say the stories of atrocities have been largely discredited.)
The media mostly ignored the Winter Soldier hearings, and Kerry contended that this was because the center of media and political power was Washington, not Detroit. Fonda recalled that it was Kerry who suggested the effort be moved to Washington and brought before Congress.
''That was when John sort of took over the leadership [of the VVAW] in the sense that, 'what we have to do now is in Washington, do this in Congress,'.'' she said. ''We all knew the guy was a moderate, that he wanted everybody to clean up their act. He had friends in Congress, so this was the sort of what the VVAW needed.''
Kerry said, ''It was my idea to come to Washington; it was my idea to do the march.''
The week that Kerry arrived in Washington to deliver his Senate testimony, Fonda was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine under the headline ''Jane Fonda, Busy Rebel, Pusher of Causes.'' Kerry's name was not in either of the two stories about Vietnam. But by the end of the week, Kerry became a media sensation - and a target of the Nixon White House.
For days, Nixon had been discussing Kerry with his top aides, including Charles Colson and Henry Kissinger. But Nixon used some of his most revealing words in conversations with his secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Woods fumed about Kerry and his fellow protesters. ''They don't care what happens,'' she told Nixon, ''and they, and then if, if, if everything goes Communist, and then if, eventually it's gonna react and ruin this country ..... [Of] course they're tired of the war. Everyone's tired of war. No one could be more tired of it than you. No one!''
Nixon responded: ''[Of] course the real, one of the real problems, this goddamn press is so [unintelligible] unfair. They, they don't give our Republicans who are out tryin' to answer these people, and they put 'em on. Apparently the guy that's really good, the only good one of the damn veterans group, only good from a PR standpoint, is Kerry ..... [the] news [is] all Kerry.''
Four days later, Nixon and Woods met again, even more disgusted at the tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered on the Mall.
Woods: ''I think people are getting sick to death seeing nothing on their television but those bums.''
Nixon: ''Really? ..... they ran, you know, that, that fellow Leary or - ''
Nixon: ''Kerry so much. He was very, very good, they say.''
Then Nixon shared some gossip: Kerry had not slept on the Mall, the president said. ''He wasn't livin' down there with those guys.''
Nixon: ''He's livin' out in a posh pad in Georgetown. That's where he was.''
Woods: ''Oh, so, they ..... yeah.''
Nixon: ''They're all a funny bunch, but, uh, well, I tell you, we're gonna stand firm against 'em. I got Henry [Kissinger] in here ..... I said, 'Now look, just, they're not gonna rattle us one bit. We're gonna stay on our course. This country's not gonna be run by a bunch of goddamned rabble.' Don't you agree?''
Kerry also was monitored by the FBI, whose agents followed his antiwar activities, if not Kerry personally. And after the Watergate break-in, James McCord, one of the burglars, testified before Congress that the government was investigating whether the Democratic National Committee was working with the VVAW in a plot to commit violence at the Republican National Convention. ''I felt the Watergate operation might produce some leads in answering some of those questions, and I had been advised that the operation had the sanction of the White House,'' McCord testified.
Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com.