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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The John Kerry I never knew


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John F. Kerry
Opinion
Senate
Massachusetts

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- A couple of years ago, after the program had already begun at a political dinner honoring the beloved and then fatally ill Joe Moakley, a Boston Democratic congressman, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry made a late and highly visible entrance, walking to his table at the front of the room. The evening's master of ceremonies refused to ignore the interruption. With perfect mock sympathy, he "explained": "You'll have to excuse the junior senator's tardiness; he got caught in front of a mirror." The crowd erupted in knowing laughter.

Personal vanity had been only one part of the political-press consensus on Kerry. He was regularly described as aloof, patrician or emotionally detached. Yes, it was agreed, the man was smart, and he knew the issues. But John Kerry, it was agreed, was in love with his wife's husband. Never a shot-and-a-beer guy, he was not the kind of Massachusetts politician who could sing a song or tell a self-deprecating story. Although I was not an intimate of the man, it was a consensus from which I did not strenuously dissent.

Let me tell you about a John Kerry much different from that glib stereotype. Seven years ago, Kerry personally recruited Brendan O'Donnell, then 19, to become an intern in his Senate office in Washington. Senate internships are coveted positions, often reserved for the children of well-connected or deep-pocketed campaign donors. Brendan O'Donnell's mother, Kathryn, was an honored elementary teacher and a widow. Her husband and Brendan's father, Kirk, was an enormously talented lawyer-politician had died unexpectedly the previous September. In the cold calculus of power, neither Brendan O'Donnell nor his family could do anything politically for John Kerry or anybody else.

What I forgot to mention is that Brendan is learning disabled. In 1999, he explained his condition this way in a statement John Kerry later quoted on the Senate floor: "I think there should be a different name for learning disabilities ... to me, it's not a disability -- it's just that I have something which causes a storm in my mind. When I look at something, I have to take my time and take it all in." But take it in he does, performing all his assigned tasks in the Senate office with enthusiasm and dispatch.

It's Brendan's abilities, not his disability, which have made him a popular and valuable member today of the Kerry Senate staff. He is enormously warm and welcoming, the unfailing dispenser of good cheer in the office. One senior Kerry staffer added, "Brendan is exceptionally insightful about people. One night, Brendan went out with me and the woman I was seeing for a burger. The next day, I asked Brendan what he thought of my date. His candid response, 'I think she's trouble,' was prophetic. Brendan turned out to be absolutely right."

Although it's George W. Bush who's better known for nicknaming acquaintances, Kerry addresses his young colleague as "Brendy" or "the B-Man." What only a few get to see is the physically playful friendship between Brendan O'Donnell and John Kerry. As the senator put it when we chatted this week, referring to the shadow punches the two men toss at each other: "We hug, and we slug." In the words of another Kerry staffer, Brendan brings out "the frisky" in the senator. Asked what Brendan O'Donnell brings to his office, Kerry answers: "He has a strong work ethic. He is wonderful. He is an inspiration to everyone here, including me."

Don't try to tell Brendan O' Donnell that his boss, Sen. John Kerry, is aloof, self-absorbed or emotionally detached. He knows better. Brendan once spoke about individuals with learning disabilities: "We are the same as everyone else, and if someone takes the time to teach us, to work with us, and to help us understand, we can do whatever we want." He is right, and Sen. John Kerry has cared enough personally to take that time. Sorry if that shatters your stereotype like it shattered mine.


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