Should This Man Be President?

“Everybody ready?” asks Senator John Forbes Kerry as cameras encircle him outside Roxbury’s Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center.

Actually, the reporters who have been cooling their heels this morning awaiting Kerry’s typically belated arrival have been ready for more than an hour. But they’re not who Kerry is concerned about. His eyes dart over to a two-man “steadycam” film crew that’s on hand to record Kerry’s encounter with the media. The crew has become a fixture at Kerry’s public appearances — stockpiling tape for use in commercials during his 2002 Senate reelection race, an aide volunteers with a straight face.

There’s a pause, and then the aide and the reporters burst out laughing. There is no 2002 Senate race; Massachusetts Republicans have all but given up hope of mounting even a token challenge to Kerry. It’s understood that the steadycam is, like an early March crocus, one of many harbingers of a 2004 Kerry presidential bid. There’s also a new promotional Web site, Still photos documenting Kerry’s Silver Star, Bronze Star, and multiple Purple Heart award-winning Vietnam War service have been taken down from the walls of his Senate office to be posted on the site and copied for distribution to news outlets during the campaign. For more than a year, Kerry has been studying Spanish, the better to reach the nation’s burgeoning pool of Hispanic voters. And the word is out among the operatives who have been part of Kerry’s 30-year political odyssey from antiwar activist to A-list presidential hopeful: Get ready for the big one. “I think he would do the country well,” says veteran Boston political activist Bobby White, an expert on field organizing who helped Al Gore last time around and anticipates spending time in Iowa and other presidential outposts on Kerry’s behalf — including New Hampshire, whose all-important, first-in-the-nation presidential primary is exactly two years from this month.

On this particular morning, it’s easy to see why Kerry and his supporters feel the timing is right to go for the gold. Amid apprehension over the prospect of additional American casualties and their possible impact on public support for the war on terrorism, Kerry is sought after as a barometer of potential baby-boomer opinion. He is, after all, more than just a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the few senior Democrats with a solid background in foreign policy. Kerry is one of the best-known antiwar activists of the Vietnam era, the earnest young member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War who became a movement hero in 1971 when he lectured a congressional hearing on the war’s folly and memorably wondered: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Thirty-one years later, American lives are once again at risk in a U.S. military campaign without a clear end in sight. And once again, John Kerry is waxing eloquent as the steadycam rolls. “I have concerns about whether or not Americans will all remain as committed way down the road as they are today, because we just have a society that likes to move on,” says Kerry. “I don’t think this is one that allows us to do that. Having protested a war, I’m sympathetic to people’s right to do it, but I don’t understand people who disagree with what we have to do for something we didn’t ask for, when our own country has been attacked.” America must respond, ground troops and all, says Kerry. “There’s a part of me as an old warrior that would like to be on that line, feeling like we’d like to be doing our duty on the front line.”

As the Democrats wonder how to level the 2004 playing field against an incumbent who, at least for now, enjoys extraordinarily strong public support for his prosecution of the war on terrorism, it seems they could hardly do better than to nominate a tall, athletic former war hero who embodies the boomer metamorphosis from post-Vietnam War isolationism to post-September 11 militarism. Who else is there? Baby-faced Senator John Edwards of North Carolina? Gravitas-deficiency syndrome. Pasty-faced Capitol Hill insiders like Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle or House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt? Where are their Purple Hearts? If wartime experience and battle-tested courage comparable to that of George W. Bush are prerequisites for Democratic primary voters when they head to the polls in 2004, goes the Kerry logic, why couldn’t Massachusetts put another JFK in the White House?

But there’s a catch. Unfortunately for Kerry and his acolytes, chances are that the long, heavily scrutinized march to 2004 will unveil another side of John Kerry, one at odds with the stirring steadycam image of the former protester turned statesman: the apparent opportunistic hypocrite on display weeks later at a protest by laid-off Logan Airport airline workers.

Union officials have rounded up several freshly fired employees to amplify labor’s political message: that the Republican-sponsored bailout of the airline industry is a disgraceful misuse of funds that should be spent on benefits for their members. “We need real help; we don’t need tax breaks for the super-rich and for corporations,” says Rodney Ward, a laid-off US Airways flight attendant. The airlines, he says, “are carrying out the cuts and restructuring that they wanted to do before September 11 and blaming it all on our national tragedy.”

Next to Ward in front of the cameras, nodding vigorously and wrapping a reassuring arm around his shoulder, is Kerry. The Republican response to the economic fallout from the terrorist attacks is “unconscionable,” he agrees, decrying “the largest one-month increase in unemployment in the past 21 years in our country.”

Then comes question time, and a reporter points out that Kerry voted for the airline bailout he has so briskly denounced, as well as for a huge subsidy for the insurance industry. “I think they’re important parts of helping our economy,” Kerry concedes. “But when you talk about moving the economy again, folks,” he continues, in a bid to regain his populist momentum, “you’re talking about putting money in the hands of people who will go to the drugstore and spend it.” But does Kerry really believe the airline job cuts are the cruel connivance his labor allies are claiming? “I think a lot of the layoffs, regrettably, are temporarily necessary as a matter of any private business running a business,” he admits. The economic crisis, a reporter suggests, is more complicated than the pat scenario of Democratic good versus Republican evil he’s just described, isn’t it? “It’s always more complicated than that,” mutters Kerry, his eyes darting sideways in search of a less-embarrassing line of questioning or a friendly steadycam.

Coming soon to a presidential campaign stop near you: a tale of two Kerrys. Even here in his home state, let alone in the other 49, few voters know very much about Kerry beyond the undeniably impressive biographical basics: son of a much-traveled Foreign Service officer, a Catholic offshoot of the Forbes family tree, a Yale man who postponed his stint at Boston College Law School to enlist in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and a divorced father of two girls who found love again in the arms of multimillionaire widow Teresa Heinz, heir to the ketchup fortune of the same name. In the months ahead, the best of times for Kerry will showcase the intensely focused fighter of good fights; the young idealist who promoted trailblazing improvements in the criminal justice system as a Middlesex County prosecutor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts; the thoughtful U.S. senator who has flushed out corrupt drug-money launderers, promoted awareness and prevention of acid rain, and been a staunch defender of abortion rights. But the worst of times on the campaign trail are likely to expose a thin-skinned panderer who poses as a courageous, post-partisan freethinker on issues such as education and campaign finance reform, but bails out when the going gets tough.

With an aggressive national fundraising operation well under way, and his wife’s fortune partially at his disposal, the Good Kerry will have ample resources to tell his story. Others are standing by to tell the tale of the Bad Kerry. “We would have loved to put a tag line on all our ads that said, ‘John Kerry — he’s a phony,'” recalls Rob Gray, a GOP operative for former Governor Bill Weld’s near-miss 1996 Senate run, who reports that a Ryder truck full of Weld campaign opposition research on Kerry has long since been dispatched to Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington. “Political observers always had the sense it would catch up with Al Gore, and it did. It will likely catch up with Kerry as well.” A former Kerry ally and longtime Democratic activist who, citing Kerry’s “rabbit ears,” declined to be identified, confirms Gray’s analysis. “When the press has got a 24-hour stakeout on your mouth, you’d better know what to think,” this person says. “John doesn’t know what he thinks. Ambition will only carry you so far.”

You would think that Kerry, after struggling to pull a majority in the 1996 showdown with Weld during a Massachusetts election that saw other Democrats romp, would have undertaken some serious repair work on his political persona. But five years later, there’s scant evidence of any change in the cycle of haughty posturing and clumsy retreat that leaves so many of the voters and activists who know him puzzled, alienated, and, as one longtime supporter puts it, “disappointed, but never surprised.”

It’s not that Kerry is unaware of some of his image problems. Stung by a report during the 1996 campaign that his tax returns showed zero charitable donations for two years during the early 1990s — a Scrooge-like statistic for which he offered no plausible explanation-Kerry gave nearly 17 percent of his $131,000 Senate salary to charity in 1999. “I learned that you gotta make sure that every year is up to par,” he said. And in response to repeated complaints that his office does a poor job of responding to legitimate inquiries from outsiders, Kerry vowed to do better, shaking up his staffs in Boston and Washington. (On the other hand, he declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Consistency and courage on important issues would surely be high on the list of things voters use to measure their elected officials, and this is where Bad Kerry’s track record is most likely to hamper a presidential bid.

For instance, Kerry has been trying for the past three years to build a national name for himself as an education reformer, one of the few Democrats willing to fight for more federal education spending while also insisting on dramatic changes in the failed teacher union and public school status quo. In late 1998, he gave highly touted speeches in Washington and Boston denouncing the “bloated bureaucracy” of schools and calling for an end to teacher tenure — unusually blunt rhetoric from within a party that leans heavily on reform-resistant teacher unions for political support. The system had better wake up and get its act together, Kerry warned, or deal with mounting political support for voucher programs that give parents the right to spend tax dollars on private or parochial schools.

Kerry basked in the glow of the admiring publicity that followed. “John Kerry takes on the teachers’ unions,” one magazine headline trumpeted. But Kerry’s heresy annoyed those same unions, and they weren’t shy about letting him know it. By October 1999, at a press conference on education policy with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and top Senate liberals, Kerry’s tune had changed. Now, vouchers weren’t to be taken seriously, and underfunding, not incompetent teachers, had become the culprit for public-school failures. “The only way to deal with the problems of America’s education system is to fix the public-school system and to support it,” he said. Kerry’s brave criticism of the unions was quickly replaced with submission. On their litmus-test issues in the Senate during 1999 and 2000, Kerry voted for the preferred positions of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers 100 percent of the time.

The lifespan of Kerry’s pretend romance with education reform was considerably shorter than his embrace of campaign finance reform. When he first won his Senate seat in 1984, Kerry distinguished himself from a crowded Democratic field by refusing to accept donations from special-interest political action committees, or PACs, denouncing them as a corrupting influence on government. He flaunted this position, whipping up his supporters with applause lines like: “I’m frequently told by cynics in Washington that refusing PAC money is naive. Do you agree that it is naive to turn down special interests and their PAC money?” As recently as last November, Kerry was still bragging about how his 1996 race against Weld was an example of highbrow politics. “We both lived by a fixed limit that we agreed on, on how much we could spend in our campaign,” he recounted in a New York City speech.

But Kerry’s self-serving account ignored the fact that he clearly violated the candidates’ agreement to a $500,000 limit on personal funds used, pouring $1.7 million of his own money into the race during its final weeks. Kerry alleged that Weld had somehow voided their agreement. Then he tapped his wife’s fortune to help pay for the campaign. In December, Kerry pulled a similar stunt. Barely a week after boasting at a fundraising event in Boston that he was the only senator to be elected three times without taking PAC money, he announced the formation of a campaign fund — the Citizen Soldier Fund — that would accept PAC money. Explained Kerry: “I’ve come to acknowledge the unpleasant and unfortunate truth that campaign finance and other critical political reforms will remain stymied in Congress until Democrats obtain real working majorities in Washington and in state legislatures across the nation.”

Convenient. But then, expedience is a hallmark of Kerry’s relationship with public-policy positions that fall out of favor. In January 1991, Kerry joined 46 other senators in voting against a resolution authorizing U.S. military action to overturn Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. “Is the liberation of Kuwait so imperative that all those risks are worthwhile at this moment?” he intoned on the Senate floor. “There is a rush to war here. We are willing to act, it seems, with more bravado than patience.” It was a statement consistent with Kerry’s post-Vietnam credo. But a mere five years later, with Hussein acting up again and a Democratic president pursuing a military response, Kerry was cheerleading. “It is far, far better, as we’ve all learned through experience, to meet the challenge up front, early, right away,” he said. Then were you wrong back in 1991, he was asked. “My speech on the floor of the Senate could not have been clearer about my support for military force,” he replied. Even war — the issue most deeply intertwined with Kerry’s personal odyssey, and his chief claim to credibility as a presidential candidate — is not exempt from his penchant for cant.

Thus, Kerry can spend years grabbing headlines from his perch on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs by espousing the cause of missing American soldiers — even claiming, as he did in 1991, that he had “hot leads” there were American POWs alive in Southeast Asia — then turn around and brush off evidence of surviving prisoners that might undermine his case for lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam, as he did in 1994. His position touched off an acrimonious debate on the Senate floor, which moved one observer, legendary Vietnam War reporter Sydney Schanberg, to note that Kerry “does not like having others point out his habit of double talk and slippery shifts of position.”

The Bad Kerry, for example, couldn’t resist slamming George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign for “inappropriate” use of the acronym AWOL (absent without leave) to describe Al Gore’s record on veterans’ issues. Using language like that “reduces the campaign to a level that most of us are trying to avoid,” Kerry sneered on Meet the Press. But Kerry himself used the term repeatedly to attack Weld during the 1996 Senate race, accusing him in one case of being AWOL from the debate over Medicare reform. “Next time you summon your indignation over ‘inappropriate’ language, we suggest that you first search your own record,” two GOP House members wrote in a retort to Kerry.

Longtime Democratic campaign operative Michael Whouley of Danvers, who ran field operations for both Gore and Bill Clinton, calls the Good Kerry “the fiercest competitor I’ve ever observed in American politics.” High praise. But if the Kerry for President campaign is to be the best of political times rather than the worst, perhaps it’s a good idea for the Bad Kerry to take his own advice and channel some of those juices into listening to the dissenting voice of a Democrat loyalist who once worked for him. “His tendency to try to have it the best way in the current light is why his support in Massachusetts is a mile wide and an inch deep,” this operative says. “For everything he’s done, there’s another story of how he’s screwed people.”