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Often unflattering look at a man who would be president

John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best

John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best

By Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney, and Nina J. Easton

PublicAffairs, 448 pp., illustrated, $14.95

One of the toughest things for any news organization is to get it ''right" when covering a hometown presidential candidate. You are expected to know the candidate well. That candidate has a lot of local fans and enemies. Be too aggressive and the fans will accuse you of overkill. Go too easy and you are accused of writing puff pieces.

In their biography of John Kerry, a trio of Boston Globe writers takes a stiff brush to the life and record of the Massachusetts senator and soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee. Kerry's fans will say they were too hard on the man. His detractors will say they weren't hard enough. For those of us in the middle, they've produced a useful work.

The concept is familiar: A newspaper profile series is strung together and fleshed out later into a book. The book traces Kerry from his grandfather's move to the United States through his current campaign. It paints a portrait of a smart, calculating, and ambitious politician. In meticulous detail, the authors go through Kerry's lifelong ambition to be president, his twists and turns on a variety of policy questions during his career. Controversies surrounding Kerry's service in Vietnam and his days as a war protester are all explored here.

The picture the book paints of Kerry is often not very flattering. He comes off as a driven politician with no compass, only a finger to the wind. With polls showing many Americans don't yet know Kerry, the mushiness outlined by the Globe could prove Kerry's undoing in what is expected to be a close presidential campaign.

For example, the authors write that while Kerry clearly supported the war in Afghanistan, his ''thinking on Iraq would never be so clear-cut.

''And Kerry's personal decisionmaking style made it even murkier. For John Kerry, all major decisions were Socratic exercises. He would seek advice from many quarters, examine all the angles, and raise every doubt. . . .

''On policy matters, these exercises provided him a lawyerly command of the arguments pro and con, and gave him great peripheral vision in the political arena. But this due diligence often manifested itself in Kerry's propensity for windy explanations, with nuance layered upon nuance. He often sounded as if he were talking himself out of the decision he had just made."

In describing Kerry's efforts to deal with Democratic primary opponent Howard Dean's ascendancy because of the Iraq war, the authors note, ''Kerry was in full straddle mode." ''For Kerry, the rapid success of the American invasion, contrasted with continued public fears about its aftermath and a newly energized antiwar wing of Democrats, produced a zig-zagging of his position that lasted for months."

Kerry, in an April 20 interview, told me ''I haven't read" the book or the series. ''I read one section of it only and I found faults in parts of that which is on the military part of it. I thought they ignored some of the facts they'd been given by the campaign relative to the error of personnel rules and the facts regarding my medical records. I thought they were just plain inaccurate with respect to that, and we registered that with them."

The authors report that while Kerry gave them 10 hours of interviews for the series, he declined to give them more time when they were expanding the stories into this book. That is too bad, both for him and the reader. Facts, observations, and assertions cry out for Kerry's explanation. If he stiffed the reporters, he can't complain now, but it does leave the reader hanging at times, and Kerry may have wound up just stiffing himself.

There are minor quibbles. I could have done without so much in the last chapter on the early stages of the presidential campaign. There will be a time and place for campaign books later.

A discussion and an appendix deal with Kerry's paternal grandfather being Jewish. While it's an interesting fact, the book belabors the point. OK, so Kerry is faux Hibernian. Perhaps it does say something about Kerry that while he misled no one about his heritage, he has been content to let people think it was something it wasn't.

And the work lacks much of the color and texture you find in rich biographies such as Robert Caro's works on Lyndon Johnson. Admittedly, Kerry is no LBJ. But the world of Boston and Massachusetts politics is a colorful one, and we could have used a few more of the best tales.

Also, some of the Globe's current and former columnists could have been invited to submit special analysis pieces or commentaries as concluding chapters. We need perspective on facts that the reporters have just told us. Is Kerry all that calculating? And so what if he is? A little probity may be needed in the White House these days. Did his service in Vietnam make him too reluctant to use US military power, or simply more circumspect about it?

But those are nitpicks, not flaws. For those of us who need to know Kerry as well as the Globe knows him, this book is useful. Voters will get helpful information that they need to cast thoughtful votes.

David Yepsen is the political columnist for The Des Moines Register.

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