How to Make a Senator Sweat

John Kerry arrived senatorially late to Lowell on a hot day back in July. He unfolded himself from a minivan in front of a new parking garage on a slightly rundown block just outside downtown, and ambled toward the assemblage of miscellaneous coat holders, bankers, and electeds, including Lowell Mayor Edward Caulfield, who, with a mouth full of gum and a matching purple tie and pocket square, stood as the very embodiment of Huey Long Chic. It didn’t take long for things to become awkward.

Kerry on a bad day is something to behold. The senator can, famously, radiate a sort of anti-charisma that doesn’t repel so much as baffle. When he showed up in Lowell, the crowd instinctively pushed toward him, propelled by the electric charge people feel when they see someone famous. But then came the inevitable disappointment. Kerry was uncomfortable, not entirely engaged. His back-slapping was unconvincing. To denote exuberance, he clapped his hands—but just once. It looked as if he was trying to kill a fly.

The stated purpose of the visit was to tour a collapsing mill complex that a Boston-based developer is trying to turn into housing, if he can get the federal preservation credits he needs. The tour began with the crowd following closely behind, as Kerry pointed at a building with "1825" engraved on it and approvingly remarked, "1825," and asked questions like "Is that an old railroad bridge?" and "What’s that barrier there?" When the developer explained the need to retain the façade of the building and its original wooden beams—an expensive proposition—in order to be eligible for the grant money, Kerry could hardly summon the energy to respond. "Is there enough of the original structure there to—" and here he paused, rubbing his eyes, before shaking his head slightly and uttering, "skimp?" There wasn’t, of course. That’s why the developer needed the grant.

Ten minutes later, most of the attendees had dropped away and were milling around a parking lot. Kerry and the developer walked alone, 50 yards up ahead. They approached a canal with a lock in it. A boat full of people waited to get through. "So this here is basically a lock," Kerry said. "They come up, you let them through, and then they go out? It’s pretty neat." He waved to the people in the boat, then killed another fly. "It’s pretty neat."

With the tour concluded, a cameraman from Fox 25 asked Kerry what he was doing in Lowell. He responded, "I’m, you know, doing the work of a senator."

Lowell (or "Lowell, Massachusetts," as Kerry called it later that same day while visiting Lawrence, Massachusetts, virtually next door) constituted the kickoff of the "Kerry on Your Corner" tour, in which the senator, facing his first Democratic primary challenge in 24 years, struck out for the low-rent territories to try to debunk the widely held belief that he loathes this sort of thing and, more important, has pretty much just lost interest in the commonwealth, and maybe even his job. Like J.Lo’s "Jenny from the Block," "Kerry on Your Corner" was conceived as an emergency triage maneuver meant to reestablish street cred left badly frayed by too much jet-setting.

There are a number of intersecting narratives that have planted John Kerry on Your Corner these days, besides the one and a quarter runs for president. (Remember: Until his bombed joke about dumb troops, he was a potential candidate for ’08.) Ted Kennedy has shown a glint of mortality, raising the specter of a senior Senator John Kerry, which worries those forever strafing him for being out of touch and dismal with constituent services. That worry could be alleviated if voters felt assured Kerry would actually stick around and grow into the kind of lion they’ve become accustomed to, but that’s far from certain. "It is the worst-kept secret in Democratic Massachusetts politics, and United States politics," observes one Massachusetts Democratic strategist, "that if Barack Obama wins, Kerry would like one of two jobs: secretary of state or secretary of defense. What people don’t understand is that he’s really got a shot at one, or both."

That’s good for Kerry, and perhaps even for the country (he’d make a fine secretary of state), but it also leaves the senator—never accused of being a font of enthusiasm—acutely susceptible to the dreaded Volpe Effect. John Volpe was a former Republican governor of Massachusetts and failed presidential candidate who went on to become secretary of transportation under Richard Nixon and ambassador to the Vatican under Gerald Ford. When the Ford administration ended, Volpe came back to Massachusetts. Sometime afterward, he was at a party that was also attended by a young Michael Goldman, now a Democratic political consultant and adviser to Governor Deval Patrick. A man came up to Volpe and asked him when he was going to run for governor again. "I’ll never forget this," says Goldman. "Volpe said, ‘You know, when I was governor, I used to spend a lot of time thinking about Uxbridge. And then when I was secretary of transportation, I had to worry about all 50 states, not just a town in Massachusetts. Then I became ambassador to the Vatican, and I had to wonder about how what we did affected the whole world.

"’I don’t think I can get that excited about going back to worrying about Uxbridge.’"

But the fear that Kerry can no longer maintain an appropriate level of shrieking exhilaration over the prospects of Uxbridge and its ilk is only the beginning of his troubles. Add to it the litany of grievances involving his campaign trail wishy-washiness on gay marriage, his war vote, and what ardent local Hillary fans see as a premature and opportunistic endorsement of Obama, and you’ve got a minor groundswell of Massachusetts Democratic delegates who, even if they don’t want Kerry out of office, would very much like to see him sweat a little. It’s an urge that only intensified after Kerry went considerably over the allotted 15 minutes during his speech at the June state Democratic convention in Lowell. Twenty-seven minutes after it began, says a pro-Kerry delegate, "a lot of party activists were like, ‘Fuck you, we’ll put the other guy on the ticket.’"

And that’s what they did. Those activists and their allies—amounting to nearly a quarter of the delegates—cast their votes for a shaggy-looking criminal-defense lawyer from Gloucester named Ed O’Reilly, giving him well over the 15 percent needed to get on the ballot for this month’s Democratic primary. It was a virtual mandate to go ruin the senator’s summer, before Republican candidate Jeff Beatty goes and ruins his fall.
Hence: Kerry on Your Corner.