By NANCY GIBBS and DOUGLAS WALLER
His 19 years as a Senator involved big investigations, little legislation—and some surprising alliances. A TIME report
Every campaign by now is traveling with a cold it passes around, and John Kerry has not been spared: he sits in his plane with tea and lozenges, sounding like a cement mixer.
He had had a morning conference call, a town hall meeting and an economic justice forum in South Carolina and was on his way to a union rally in Delaware before ending up in Kansas City, Mo., for the night. And the funny thing is, none of this was supposed to have happened: not the cold, not the crowds, not, in fact, the campaign itself. "I mean, I fully expected Al Gore to be our President for our generation," Kerry says, remembering what these days felt like four years ago.
"I worked my ass off for him. I went around the country. I campaigned hard. I expected him to be elected, and that would have been that."
But, of course, that was not that, and now John Forbes Kerry gets the turn he has waited for all his life. He has told friends he learned something from Gore's fate about what really matters in a race. It was not about whether to run as a centrist or a populist, not about labels or lock boxes.
Gore lost, he says, because people believed he didn't believe in anything. "People take a measure of your vision, your character," Kerry says. "They really want to know how you can affect their lives—whether they trust you."
For Kerry, the good news from New Hampshire, beyond the fact that he won, is that he's reading the voters right: pollsters found that the single most important quality voters were looking for was the ability of the candidate to stand up for his beliefs. The bad news for Kerry is that he won only 20% of those people.
More people voted for him because they thought the austere combat veteran with the lucky initials could beat President Bush than because they agreed with him or knew what he stood for. Whether that provides his rivals an opening in the next few weeks remains to be seen, but it certainly won't go unnoticed by the White House.
In fact, even as Howard Dean was attacking Kerry from the left for voting for the second Iraq war, the USA Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind, G.O.P. chairman Ed Gillespie was already preparing clueless-massachusetts-liberal placards everywhere he went.
"Whether it's economic policy, national security policy or social issues, John Kerry is out of synch with most voters," Gillespie proclaimed on Jan. 23. Other G.O.P. hit men have him in their sights: "We made Al Gore look like a Massachusetts liberal," says one. "Can you imagine what we'll do with a Massachusetts liberal?"
But Kerry is primed for this line of attack. He has had many years not just to refine his political philosophy but also to explain it in a way voters might accept and with luck even admire. Throw the Latte Liberal label at him, and Kerry will counter with his support for faith-based programs and welfare reform and the fact that he proposed a dividend tax cut long before Bush did.
"They're going to have a hard time pinning that to me," Kerry once told TIME. "They're not going to find it is easy making me something I'm not." And besides, he said, as he invariably does when someone suggests the war hero is vulnerable, "I'm pretty good at defending myself."
"Measure me by my life," Kerry is fond of telling audiences on the campaign trail. "That's how you know that nothing that I'm saying to you is just words."
The chapters of Kerry's life before he came to Washington are pretty simple: a swift-boat captain in the Mekong Delta who stormed a Viet Cong position, took out the enemy with a grenade launcher and came out with a Silver Star; a principled protester who chastised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at age 27; then an ambitious prosecutor who put mobsters behind bars.
But a reckoning of Kerry's life in Washington is harder to make. Friends and enemies alike can find in his 19 years and 6,500 votes in the Senate whatever they are looking for: bold words that suggest fresh ideas but a lack of follow-through that suggests political caution; shifting positions on education, welfare and affirmative action that show either a capacity for growth or an absence of core beliefs.
Does the shortage of laws with his name on them show that to get things done, you need to share credit, or that he hasn't done much to deserve any?
Kerry may be running on his experience, but recent history suggests it may not prove all that helpful. Most longtime Senators have led complex legislative lives, steering a course past 99 other egos through the contradictions and compromises that may one day be hard to explain.
In fact, no one has swept into the White House trailing a long legislative record since Lyndon Johnson; no one has made the jump directly from the Senate since John F. Kennedy.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Senators: the workhorse legislators, who focus on kneading bills and amendments into laws, and the show-horse chief executives, who tend not to play well with the other Senators and are more likely to be associated with some high-profile investigation than any particular issue.
Ted Kennedy is the icon of the Democratic legislators, with his clubby style and his high-octane policy machine and his name on or near every major piece of legislation having to do with health or education or welfare. Elected in Kennedy's shadow, the junior Senator from Massachusetts had good reason to make his name elsewhere.
So Kerry became one of the rare Senators to turn down a spot on the coveted Appropriations Committee, from which he could have brought home lots of bridges and highways to Massachusetts, and instead picked the more cerebral Foreign Relations Committee.
This may have seemed natural for the Swiss-educated son of a foreign service officer, but few elections are won or lost over where you stand on Third World debt. In Kerry's case, however, the choice reflected his history as a prosecutor and his scars from Vietnam, a desire to hold accountable a government that had been known to lie heading into or out of an ambiguous war.
Within weeks of his arrival in the Senate in early 1985, when he was still learning where the bathrooms were and how to make his way around the cavernous Russell Senate Office Building, Kerry got a tip from a Vietnam veteran that the Reagan Administration was illegally providing aid to the contra rebels, circumventing a congressional ban.
Within weeks he was on a plane to Nicaragua with another freshman Senator, Tom Harkin, for a 36-hour fact-finding trip. Secretary of State George Shultz accused the rookies of being "used" by the Managua regime.
"It was a very painful time for us," recalls Jonathan Winer, Kerry's general counsel at the time. But that did not stop Kerry from spending the next 18 months trying to discover what White House aide Oliver North was up to in Central America.
Kerry and North were both sons of Vietnam, both winners of Bronze and Silver Stars and the Purple Heart (three for Kerry, two for North). But North viewed Vietnam as an honorable crusade against communism, and aiding the Nicaraguan contras as the next chapter in that fight.
Kerry, for his part, had no tolerance for deception in pursuit of that goal. Kerry boasts on the campaign trail that he "led the fight to expose Oliver North and his private aid network," which is true up to a point. But "he wasn't the only one blowing the whistle," says William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, who was tracking the issue at the time.
Once the entire arms-for-hostages scheme unraveled, it became clear there would have to be a full, formal Iran-contra investigation. But Kerry was kept off the resulting panel.
His high profile and relentless digging had made him a little too radioactive by that time. As a consolation prize, he was given the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, which led to the next wave of investigations into Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's drug trafficking, and money laundering through the Middle Eastern Bank of Credit & Commerce International.
All that experience in investigations and oversight didn't give Kerry anything especially useful to take home to hungry Massachusetts voters. But it does allow him to say now that he was among the first in the Senate to combat the growing threat from transnational forces—the money launderers, drug smugglers and arms dealers who have become prime targets in the war on terrorism.
THE SENATE VETERAN
Kerry emerged from his investigations in the 1980s with more enemies than friends. His hometown papers never had much use for him, and the local pols nicknamed him "Live Shot" for all the quality time he spent in front of the cameras. But Kerry did not just take the easy telegenic assignments.
In 1991 he agreed to serve as chairman of a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs investigating the fate of American soldiers missing or held captive in Vietnam. Few jobs could have been more thankless; various paramilitary groups were exploiting the families of missing soldiers by insisting some had been left behind and launching Rambo-style "rescue missions."
The committee's ranking Republican, New Hampshire's Bob Smith, was obsessed with conspiracy theories. "At that time, the POW issue was white hot, I mean white hot," recalls Senator John McCain, himself a former POW. "I've never seen an issue like that. There was so much raw emotion."
Until that point, the Senate's various Vietnam vets had not exactly been close. "For a long time, I didn't spend much time with him," McCain says of Kerry. "Not out of dislike, but not out of particular like either." He had disapproved of Kerry's conduct in 1971 as a leader of the antiwar movement, when Kerry and other vets famously threw their ribbons, medals and dog tags onto the steps of the Capitol.
"I've never discussed it with him, but I didn't like the throwing of the medals," McCain says. "It showed an improper lack of respect for the people who did so much for those medals." But over the course of the POW/MIA investigation, during many of Kerry's 17 trips to Vietnam and conversations long into the night, McCain's view of Kerry went from distrust to respect.
In the end, Kerry got the whole committee, including Smith, to sign the report, which said there were no POWs left alive in Vietnam. "There were three straight all-nighters in Kerry's office writing that report," remembers a G.O.P. staff member. "And Kerry was there the whole time, checking in, keeping all the staffers happy. And he was impressive at all times."
Offering a kind of pickled praise, this Republican says Kerry "is better than he seems. He's narcissistic, but that goes with being a Senator. He's an extraordinary diplomat. He's got good forensic skills; he's excellent at picking apart an argument." The report allowed McCain and Kerry to press the Clinton Administration to normalize relations with Vietnam.
"There were no klieg lights for that," Kennedy says of Kerry's diplomatic effort. "That was loaded with possible dangers. It was just absolutely dynamite politically. And it took years for John to get this done."
From then on, the Senate had its own band of brothers. During the South Carolina G.O.P. primary four years ago, Kerry immediately gathered the signatures of all the other Senate military veterans on a letter defending McCain against the claims spread by the Bush campaign that McCain had abandoned veterans during his years in Congress.
"That meant a lot to me," says McCain. When Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey was accused of having taken part in a massacre, Kerry and the other veterans raced to his defense in person and in the Op-Ed pages.
Just as his alliances with Senate soldiers made Kerry both more successful and more human, so has his dependence on veterans during the campaign. In their company Kerry seems least like the cartoon version of himself: the loner, the striver who escaped from the wax museum.
With his comrades-in-arms, including the ones who come up to him at campaign events with a memory to share, a story to tell, Kerry finds time to pay attention, lean in, not look over their shoulder to see who else is in the room.
WHAT KIND OF LIBERAL?
Whatever his accomplishments on Vietnam issues, they had not given Kerry much of a record to parade before voters looking for reasons to re-elect him. "It's hard to say what John Kerry really cares about, other than the Vietnam stuff," says a Capitol Hill Democrat.
That opened him to a fierce challenge in 1996 from the popular Republican William Weld, who had been elected Governor with 71% of the vote in a historically Democratic state. Weld's attacks on Kerry provide the playbook for the G.O.P. opposition-research elves, who even now are busy rummaging through every speech for arrows to sling at him.
There was plenty to support the notion that Kerry was just a classic bleeding heart: his ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action have always hovered in the 90%-to-95% range. He has long been a supporter of gun control and gay rights, though not gay marriage.
He voted against mandatory sentences for drug dealers who sell to children; against the death penalty, even for cop killers; against restrictions on abortion. He favored higher gas taxes and raising the minimum wage; he supported providing disability payments to people whose disability was drug addiction or alcoholism—a position he defended in part because of the number of veterans still wrestling with substance-abuse problems.
But Weld's fate in that race also provides an object lesson for other opponents. The debates were that rare thing—two smart guys, quick on their feet, actually talking about the issues without so much as a moderator.
Weld seemed to think he could win on charm; Kerry proved to be extremely deft about how he took his affable opponent down because anything too personal, too nasty could easily backfire.
At one point Weld challenged Kerry for coddling criminals by producing the mother of a slain Springfield cop and asking him to "tell her why the life of the man who murdered her son is worth more than the life of a police officer."
Kerry goes quiet and lethal at moments like that. "It's not worth more," he replied. "It's not worth anything. It's scum that ought to be thrown in jail for the rest of its life." But that didn't change his view of the death penalty, and he added, "I know something about killing," he said. "I don't like killing. That's just a personal belief I have."
Kerry aced the test and pulled ahead, thanks also in part to some last-minute sweetening of his record by the Kennedy shop. Kennedy's staff worked closely with Kerry to write a bill extending children's health coverage, paid for by a cigarette tax.
That not only gave Kerry a consumer-friendly piece of legislation to run on but also reminded voters that Weld had blocked such a plan in Massachusetts. Kerry ended up winning by more than 7 percentage points.
But the question of Kerry's record has not gone away, and in this campaign, he has had to defend the fact that not many bills have his name on them. Kerry tried to turn Dean's recent attack on Kerry's Senate accomplishments to his advantage: "One of the things that you need to know as a President is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done," he acidly informed the country doctor at the debate last Thursday night and explained that this often meant working your ideas into bills that don't carry your name.
But the Dean camp lost no time e-mailing reporters Kerry's Senate scorecard: 371 laws sponsored, nine of which became law, and six of those were of "a ceremonial nature," meaning renaming a federal building or designating a national POW/MIA day. Kerry's camp shot back with 12 laws for which he takes all or some credit, including ones on money laundering and child care.
Nonetheless, the three substantive bills passed with Kerry's name on them are a starting point for voters wanting a handle on his political heart. Two had to do with marine research and protecting fisheries and reflected his consistent concern for the environment.
He became the early leader of the Democrats' drive to block Bush from drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He joined McCain to try, unsuccessfully, to raise average-fuel-economy standards to 36 m.p.g. by 2015, and he was an active supporter of the Kyoto accords to address global warming. The third law was designed to provide grants for women starting small businesses and reflects his entrepreneurial impulses when it comes to the tax code.
He teamed with McCain again to make the Internet a tax-free zone, and while he has voted against all of Bush's tax cuts, he proposes reducing the capital-gains tax to zero in key investment-driven industries; he offers other business tax incentives to reward companies that keep jobs in the country.
His idea for a dividend-tax cut even before Bush proposed one is now a sensitive subject; his advisers say he will support it only if "it is done right."
And then there is Kerry's record on deficits and spending. Conservative Democrat Fritz Hollings says he will never forget when he was collecting votes in 1985 for the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing legislation and practically every senior Democrat in the Senate shut him down.
So he started trying the youngsters, including the new Senator from Massachusetts, who shocked him by responding, "We're in trouble; this budget has gotten out of hand." Kerry's support opened the door for other Democrats to vote for the measure. "Here I was—I couldn't even get conservative friends on this bill, but I got John Kerry," Hollings recalls. "He was willing to risk his political life with this vote."
Kerry followed through in smaller ways too, giving speech after speech about the laughable mohair subsidies that created virtually no jobs and cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. Hollings, who endorsed Kerry before the primary in his home state of South Carolina, admits that conservatives in his state are mystified that he's backing Kerry over a fellow Southerner like John Edwards, "They say, 'Wait a minute, Fritz. You're for that Massachusetts liberal?' I say that liberal-conservative stuff is just the Republican spin. Bill Clinton was a liberal, and he put our budget back in the black. The people in South Carolina are no different from the people in the North. They're interested in their country and in jobs."
Kerry can point to all sorts of positions that don't fall neatly in either side's ideological bucket; nor do they all seem screened for political advantage. Voters most concerned about lost manufacturing jobs won't like Kerry's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The teachers' unions weren't thrilled with his sympathetic discussions of school vouchers or his speech in 1998 in which he called for an "end to teacher tenure as we know it." Seniors may be surprised that in 1997 he proposed that rich people pay higher Medicare premiums. Iowa's farmers were reminded in the days before the caucuses that he had once proposed abolishing the Department of Agriculture.
Civil libertarians were spooked by his support for roving wiretaps even before 9/11. African Americans were troubled by his assertion in 1992 that it was time to move past affirmative action: "We cannot hope to make further racial progress when whites believe that it is they and not blacks that suffer most from racial discrimination."
However much these positions may hurt Kerry's standing with traditional Democratic constituencies, they may broaden his appeal among independents and make it harder for Republicans to stick him in a little cubby labeled DUKAKIS REDUX.
He co-sponsored a "two strikes, you're out" bill in 1996 that would have led to life imprisonment for sexual predators. He has worked with Senate majority leader Bill Frist to increase global AIDS funding and with Republican Kit Bond to bolster day care—including funding religious groups. Indeed, Kerry talks up faith-based charities with the zeal of a convert. "No one can tell me these programs don't work," he says.
That's why Republicans who have watched Kerry up close warn that Bush shouldn't consider him a liberal lightweight who can be boxed up and buried. "That's a prescription for disaster in November," says Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel.
"He is a seasoned, smart, tough, articulate campaigner who has a pretty strong record to offer the American people. And that's the way [Republicans] better take him on." But Bush might find subtler ways to use Kerry's words and record against him. When Americans try to gauge whether a politician is liberal or conservative, they look at more than his résumé or transcript.
"The liberal moniker is as much a cultural label as it is about a voting record," observes Democratic political consultant Anita Dunn. So which Kerry will the country come to see—the one in duck boots, shaped by a Swiss boarding school and Yale secret society? Or the one in sweats and khaki, baptized in the Mekong Delta?
THE WAFFLE OVER THE WAR
No single decision in Kerry's long Senate career has been so avidly dissected as his vote authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq. It was votes like his that gave rise to Howard Dean; his insurgent campaign drew most of its early oxygen from voters angry at the Democrats in Washington, who seemed unable or unwilling to keep the President on any kind of leash.
Cynics noted that all the Democrats with national aspirations—including Edwards, Lieberman, Kerry and, down the road, Hillary Clinton—had voted for the war. In Kerry's case, it was viewed as an antidote to his 1991 vote against the first Gulf War, since he couldn't be seen as soft on Saddam twice in a row.
But the 1991 vote was the exception to the rule. Kerry had supported the use of force in Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Somalia in 1992, Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001. He supports adding 40,000 troops to the overextended armed services.
As Kerry put it in his Sept. 2 announcement speech in South Carolina, "We may well have to use force to fight terrorism. I will not hesitate to do so. But if I am President, the United States will never go to war because we want to. We will only go to war because we have to."
The problem is not that Kerry voted for a war that most Americans still say they support. The problem is what he said about his reasoning when the vote became toxic among the Democratic faithful. Under pressure to explain, he declared during his announcement speech, "I voted to threaten the use of force to make Saddam Hussein comply with the resolutions of the United Nations." Threaten?
Even at the time, it was clear the resolution was more than an invitation to rattle a sword. "Everyone knew what was going on," says a senior Democratic Senate aide. "People understood we were giving the President the authority to do what he needed to do. You could see anything you wanted to in the resolution. But the lesson the Democrats learned from 1991 was that if you voted against the 2002 resolution, you were no longer viable as a national candidate. They were gaming the system."
It took Kerry many news cycles to get to the point where he could explain his stance coherently. He finally argued that he had to vote as though he were President—that for Bush to maximize his leverage at the U.N., he needed to show that Congress was behind him.
But then, Kerry argues, Bush broke his side of the deal by barely going through the motions to assemble the kind of international coalition that his father had 11 years before, stomping headlong into war, trampling valuable alliances and precedents, and then utterly botching the peace.
It would be easier for Kerry to put the war waffle behind him if it did not seem to support the charge that he steers by whatever political stars are shining brightest at the time. "John Kerry never met a side of an issue he didn't like," says Dean spokesman Jay Carson.
And it is true that some positions have changed. Kerry now supports the death penalty for terrorists, even though in the days before 9/11 he argued that it could impede the fight against terrorism because foreign countries might not extradite suspects to the U.S. for trial. He once objected to work requirements for welfare recipients and then changed his mind after some state experiments showed their effectiveness.
Three is his lucky number, and his critics will say it stands for the number of positions he takes on a given issue: pro, con and evolving. And while he vows on the campaign trail to take on special interests and their lobbyists, data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows that Kerry has taken in more money from paid lobbyists than any other Senator over the past 15 years.
But defenders argue that the changes and inconsistencies in Kerry's positions are signs that he has capacities valuable in a prospective President: a curious and subtle mind and the ability to see shades of gray.
He runs his staff like a prosecutor cross-examining a hostile witness, pressing for the answers. Kerry doesn't mind long memos; he prefers the options up front, with more explanation and frank detail in the back if he wants to dig deeper. "He doesn't want things too disinfected," says Jonathan Winer. "If it's too disinfected, he'll say, 'This is pap,' and give it back to you."
Among the colleagues who did get annoyed by Kerry's political mutations was, of course, his fellow Massachusetts Senator, who split with Kerry most decisively over the 1996 welfare-reform bill and Kerry's flirtation with applying a means test to Medicare.
The competition between the two has always been partly personal. Kennedy found Kerry to be "a bit of a phony," as a friend describes it, noting that Kennedy learned politics at his grandfather's knee. "Honey Fitz" could dine in the finest restaurants but after the meal would traipse back to the kitchen to joke with the cooks and waiters.
Kennedy has perceived Kerry in the past to be a man "more at home jetting to Davos and drinking $400 bottles of wine," says the Kennedy friend. (The candidate that Kennedy is closest to personally is John Edwards. They clicked right away. Kennedy took him into the club and worked with him on the patients' bill of rights. Unlike Kerry, "Edwards is a great storyteller," says the Kennedy adviser. "That's what Kennedy loves.")
Kennedy had no choice but to endorse Kerry: dissing a home-state partner would have been a devastating slight. That became even truer in November, when Kerry purged the top ranks of his campaign staff and replaced them with Kennedy veterans, including campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, who is widely credited with producing the strategy that has worked.
"Kennedy has decided that Kerry has the best chance of beating Bush," the Kennedy friend explains. "And if Kerry wins, Kennedy sees his chance to finish the Kennedy legacy."
In New Hampshire, Kerry fared best among those looking for experience and leadership, Dean with those in search of change. Dean's fate so far suggests he may be asking for too much.
In uncertain times it's never natural for voters to change leaders midstream, and to ask them to embrace wholesale revolution may be enough to inspire a movement but not enough to unseat a popular and well-funded incumbent.
If Democrats are making that calculation, then John Kerry seems to represent about the amount of revolution they think the country can handle at the moment.
—With reporting by James Carney and Karen Tumulty/Washington, Eric Roston with Kerry and Perry Bacon Jr. with Dean
Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.