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Kerry, John

John Kerry

On November 2, 2004, John Kerry (born 1943) lost a close, hard-fought United States presidential election to incumbent president George W. Bush. Political commentators in the following days offered the usual range of opinions in dissecting his defeat, but one theme emerged frequently—as indeed it had over the course of the campaign: Kerry, unlike successful Democratic candidate Bill Clinton in the 1990s, had a difficult time connecting emotionally with ordinary Americans, in part because of his reserved persona, and in part because his political background was fraught with contrasts and contradictions.

Although he harbored strong political ambitions from a very early age, Kerry possessed the personal reserve characteristic of his upper-crust Boston background, and was also hampered by a dislike of the spotlight. His political career was marked by single-minded, idealistic pursuit of causes that mattered to him, but he inherited from his father a diplomat's mind that often caused him to come down squarely on both sides of an issue. While he was a child of privilege, he volunteered for service in the Vietnam War, a conflict many young people of his generation, including his 2004 opponent, sat out, but spent much of his later political life renouncing that same war. Indeed, his tendency to "flip-flop" on a number of issues provided Bush with significant election-year fodder.

Contrasts and contradictions were part of Kerry's background even before he was born in Denver, Colorado on December 11, 1943. The name Kerry might be thought to signify generations of Irish ancestry, but in fact his paternal grandfather, a Czech Jew named Kohn, picked it out of an atlas. Kerry's father Richard was a lawyer and a U.S. Foreign Service officer with a strong internationalist outlook that shaped his son's thinking. His mother, Rosemary, was a Boston blue-blood, a member of a family that traced its ancestry back to the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop. Kerry himself was raised in and adhered to a faith that matched neither of these aspects of his background: he was a Roman Catholic.

Kerry's upbringing was intellectually rigorous, emotionally distant, highly varied, and somewhat rootless. Owing to his father's profession, the family traveled often. Though a gifted student, he did not form friendships easily, and this problem was made worse by the fact that he attended seven different schools by the time he was thirteen years old. Kerry's knowledge of European languages came from stint in a boarding school in Switzerland while his father was stationed in Berlin beginning in 1954. While he was there, at age 12, he suffered a bout with scarlet fever and was quarantined. Although his father did not come to visit, the two conversed enthusiastically about events of the day, and Richard Kerry inspired in his son a lifelong interest in things political.

Attended Posh Prep School

During his high-school years Kerry attended the elite St. Paul's preparatory school in Concord, New Hampshire. While his experiences there equipped him for future academic challenges, he also developed a permanent inclination toward prep-school styles in clothing. He also reportedly felt ill at ease among the sons of power brokers who were his classmates. "He wanted to be liked," fellow St. Paul student John Rousmaniere told a Newsweek contributor. "But he was too eager to please. John was a little clumsy in the way he approached people, a little too aggressive in trying to make friends. That's why people thought he was calculating."

An early hint of Kerry's ambitions came when he began turning in school papers signed with his initials, J.F.K.; he idolized President John F. Kennedy. In 1962 Kerry enrolled at Yale University. At this ivy league institution he immersed himself in the school's ancient traditions, honing his debating skills as a member of the Yale Political Union and joining Yale's notorious Skull and Bones secret society. (Another member was George W. Bush, who entered Yale two years behind Kerry). Kerry graduated from Yale in 1966 and gave a speech at his commencement in which he attacked U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Despite his professed opposition to the war, as well as in the face of his father's opposition, Kerry enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduation and was sent to Vietnam. His position moderated under enemy fire and Kerry temporarily became a supporter of the war effort. He was appointed captain of a Navy gunboat—a "Swift Boat"—patrolling Vietnam's Mekong Delta, and a daredevil streak that had already shown itself when he was in college served Kerry well in combat. Awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts during his term of service in Vietnam, Kerry also suffered long-term injuries from wounds in an arm and a leg.

Threw Medals on Capitol Steps

The next episode of Kerry's life proved more controversial. After returning to the United States early in 1969, Kerry grew increasingly disturbed by accounts of U.S. atrocities allegedly committed during the war. Some of these, such as the My Lai massacre, were well publicized in media accounts, but Kerry heard more allegations during a 1971 meeting of antiwar Vietnam veterans held in a Detroit motel. His opposition to the war hardened, and he emerged as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans against the War group. During testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee later that year, Kerry asked a rhetorical question that would often be quoted in the years to come: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" He also alleged, as quoted in U.S. News & World Report, that U.S. troops had "cut off limbs . . . [and] razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan," and he threw his war medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building.

The publicity that flowed from these appearances propelled Kerry toward an abortive entry into politics. Running in a conservative Boston district, he was defeated in runs for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970 and 1972. Kerry then dropped out of politics for a time. Instead, he earned a law degree from Boston College in 1976 and then served until 1979 in a position renowned in Northeastern politics as a stepping-stone to elective office: the job of assistant district attorney. Flirting occasionally with races for office, Kerry operated a private law practice from 1979 to 1984.

In 1984, after Democratic Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas retired due to ill health, Kerry was elected to the U.S. Senate with 55 percent of the vote. Rather than practicing the pork-barrel politics that most newly elected officeholders cultivate in order to grease their paths to re-election, Kerry plunged into complex foreign-policy issues such as the investigations that erupted in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal that surfaced during the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan. In 1991 he revisited his Vietnam experience as chairman of a senate select committee on Prisoner of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) affairs that was assigned to investigate reports that American prisoners of war were still being held in Vietnam. Kerry worked with senators on both sides of the political aisle, including Republican John McCain, to produce the committee's final report, which laid the POW issue mostly to rest and soon paved the way for the normalization of U.S.–Vietnamese relations.

Because few Senate bills bore Kerry's name as sponsor, he was sometimes attacked as out-of-touch with his Massachusetts constituents. Nonetheless, he beat back a strong challenge from Massachusetts governor William Weld in the 1996 election, deflecting Weld's debate attack on Kerry's anti-death penalty stance with the response, as quoted in Time, that "I know something about killing. I don't like killing. That's just a personal belief I have." Although Kerry became involved in several key Congressional environmental initiatives during his third Senate term, including the 2001 Kerry Amendment banning oil and gas drilling on federally protected land, the charge of ineffectiveness continued to bedevil him during the 2004 campaign.

The rigors of political life led to the breakup of Kerry's first marriage, to Julia Thorne, in 1988. His second marriage to Mozambican-born ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz in 1995 produced a blended family that was unusual at the top levels of government. In this case two of Heinz's three children joined Kerry's daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, on the 2004 campaign trail. "I've heard tales about a presidential campaign driving families apart, but it's brought ours closer together," Alexandra Kerry told People.

Voted to Authorize Iraq War

Kerry faced his toughest decision in the U.S. Senate in the months preceding the country's invasion of Iraq in 2002. In the summer of that year, he voted to authorize President Bush to take military action in Iraq. A year later, while under attack from antiwar Democratic candidate Howard Dean, he voted against an $87 billion supplemental war appropriation, the lack of which would have handicapped U.S. troops overseas. He then attempted to explain his shifting stance by pointing to a vote on an amendment and claiming that he had "actually did vote for the $87 million before I voted against it." That statement became a stock element of Republican advertising in 2004.

Prevailing over the pugnacious Dean and a field of other candidates that included black activist Al Sharpton and telegenic North Carolina senator John Edwards in the 2004 Democratic primaries, Kerry won the nomination to oppose President Bush in the November election. Eventually selecting Edwards as his running mate, Kerry was bedeviled by attack advertisements mounted by the Swift Boat Veterans group, especially one that focused in his 1971 antiwar testimony. Kerry rarely answered those ads directly, relying on campaign staffers' advice that voters would reject the attacks. Instead he hammered President Bush on his conduct of the war in Iraq and on what he viewed as the anemic performance of the U.S. economy.

The lead changed hands several times in the closely fought race, with Kerry's forsenic skills erasing a Bush edge at one point after the first debate between the two candidates. A sharply divided country finally elected President Bush to a second term on November 2 by a three percent margin in the popular vote and a slim 286-251 electoral-vote edge. The race came down to a margin of just over 100,000 votes in Ohio, where the outcome was not clear until the morning of November 3. Kerry's concession speech quickly followed when he became convinced that pending Ohio vote challenges could not erase that margin.

While Kerry remained in the front ranks of outspoken Democrats in the aftermath of the election, following the successful Iraqi elections, Bush's aggressive stance in support of world peace, and the election of former rival Howard Dean to the position as head of the Democratic National Committee made the likelihood of a Kerry comeback less talked about. While rumors still surfaced that he was considering a second run in 2008, one Kerry adviser commented to a Newsweek contributor: "if he wants to come back, he'll have to come back as a different candidate, not the stiff who plays it safe and takes four sides of every issue." Still, in the chimerical world of politics, the uniquely American odyssey of John Kerry has not yet reached its end.


New Republic, March 8, 2004.

Newsweek, August 2, 2004; January 10, 2005.

People, August 9, 2004.

Time, February 9, 2004; August 2, 2004.

U.S. News & World Report, September 6, 2004.

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Kerry, John Forbes

John Forbes Kerry, 1943–, U.S. politician, b. Denver, grad. Yale, 1966, Boston College law school, 1976. A decorated navy veteran who served two tours in Vietnam after graduating from Yale, Kerry won national notice as an outspoken opponent of the war when he returned stateside. Entering politics in his home state of Massachusetts, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1972. After graduating from law school, he served as an assistant district attorney (1977–82) before becoming lieutenant governor of Massachusetts (1983–85). In 1984, Kerry was elected to the U.S. Senate; he was reelected four times. He chaired the Senate committee on small business from 2001 to 2003, and with Senator John McCain was instrumental in the the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo of Vietnam in the 1990s. An early favorite for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, he was initially eclipsed by Howard Dean but emerged as the frontrunner once the voting began, and he subsequently chose North Carolina senator John Edwards as his running mate. After the most expensive campaign in U.S. history to that point, the Democratic ticket lost to the incumbents, President G. W. Bush and Vice President Cheney, in the Nov., 2004. Kerry subsequently chaired the Senate small business and entrepreneurship (2007–9) and foreign relations (2009–13) committees. In 2013 he became secretary of state under President Obama.

See biography by M. Kranish et al. (2004); P. Alexander, The Candidate (2004).

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