The Silent Partner
Before we get started, we should probably make this much clear: He's not Robert Kennedy. u It's easy to understand why some people have that idea. Certainly, the similarities are there, what with his playing loyal protector and most trusted confidant to his older brother, an aristocratic, Catholic, combat-decorated Massachusetts senator aiming for the White House. Upon closer inspection, however, the analogy falls apart. Unlike Bobby, who managed John Kennedy's campaign, Cameron Forbes Kerry doesn't oversee the daily operations of John Kerry for President. And while Bobby was dynamic and occasionally bullying, Cam, as everyone calls him, comes across as brainy, laid-back, humble, even a little dull — more Nomar than Manny. Asked to describe him, a college roommate starts with “nice” and adds “undemonstrative.” A former Kerry staffer says: “I can't come up with any dramatic or quirky stories [about Cam], and I guess that's telling. He's always there, but he's a quiet presence.” Which makes the steady, substantial, and often invisible influence he holds in the Kerry campaign all the more intriguing.
Cam raises a lot of money for his brother — fellow lawyers at Mintz Levin, where he focuses on telecommunication and environmental litigation, have given almost a quarter-
million dollars to John Kerry, making them his biggest financial backers. He wrangles local Democratic power brokers, tweaks speeches with message guru Bob Shrum, and appears as his brother's stand-in at whistle stops far removed from whatever swing state is at center stage that afternoon. But his sway is strongest behind closed doors. Throughout this year's campaign, as throughout every Kerry campaign, Cam has huddled with his brother and his professional advisers during briefings and key strategy sessions; he's also part of a smaller committee weighing the candidate's vice presidential options. “He's never been shy about speaking up when he disagrees with something. He'll sit there and not say anything, but when he does, he's very aggressive about it,” the former staffer says. Cam remains restrained as he raises those arguments, vetting his thoughts before voicing them. Though he's now working reduced hours at his law firm, he's the type of lawyer who talks like a lawyer, even off the job. But more often, at those meetings, Cam just listens. “I guess sometimes the reason he may be so quiet,” says the staffer, “is because he shares his opinions directly with his brother later on.”
“I've heard this a thousand times: If someone is trying to get something done with John Kerry, very often they go to Cam,” says George Butler, who has known the brothers for more than three decades and is filming a documentary about the campaign. “I think people are very comfortable going to Cam — or whether they're comfortable or not, they go to him anyway because that's the way to get things done.” Butler says that there are a lot of conversations between the two, about all sorts of issues. “He'll wind up making the right decision, often after a midnight call to Cam. John will go over what he's going to do with Cam, and once they both clear it together, it's done.”
Only the Kerrys know what counsel Cam gives during those private deliberations. And they're not telling. “I don't like to get into advice I give him, because that's between him and me,” Cam told the New York Times. He didn't respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. Kerry, for his part, has offered few insights into the brothers' dynamic, which seems a bit out of character for a would-be metrosexual in chief who has spoken openly (and sometimes at great length) about his feelings for his famously impolitic wife, Teresa, and the bond he shares with the swift-boat crew he led in Vietnam. Kerry's daughters, Alexandra, an aspiring filmmaker, and Vanessa, a student at Harvard Medical School, have joined him at rallies and primary-night victory parties. But Cam has largely kept to the background.
Maybe he's just shy. But then, Bobby Kennedy was shy, too. So maybe there's a bigger reason Cam's relationship with John has remained pretty much under the radar. Maybe the Kerry brothers both have good reason to keep it that way.
At 53, Cam is seven years his brother's junior, but their differences extend beyond the head start John took into their formative decades. For one, the two men don't look much alike. Cam's features are softer than his brother's (most people's are), his brow less heavy and his locks more curly — or at least they have been since Kerry adopted his new streamlined hairdo in December. And well before the Globe documented the family's Jewish roots, Cam was practicing the faith: He converted upon marrying his wife, Kathy Weinman, a fellow attorney.
One of the knocks against Kerry is his oft-cited aloofness. Cam, by contrast, is a champion listener, notes Larry Carpman, hired to serve as press secretary to his brother's successful 1982 campaign for lieutenant governor. The chair of the Somerset board of selectmen, Eleanor Gagnon, who squared off against Cam during a contract dispute with his client Comcast, says, “His handshake was really firm, and he'll look you in the eye.” She adds that he didn't put on airs or play the powerful-brother card. Others who have interacted with Cam came away with the same impressions. He's what you might get if you gave Kerry a better touch for retail politics but took away all the electoral ambitions.
In 1968, while Kerry, two years out of Yale, was serving in Vietnam, Cam started classes at Harvard, a choice that provided a source of sibling rivalry and ribbing. While some of his classmates were storming University Hall, Cam fought the system from within, working on state legislative races. “He was rather less preoccupied with being a college student than most of us were in those heady days,” says New York Law School professor Stephen Ellmann, who roomed with Cam at Harvard for three years. “What he was doing was obviously in response to the injustices we were all seeing. He was more level-headed than people at the time.”
Nearly three and a half decades later, the sober-eyed approach Cam favored as a young campaign aide has evolved into circumspection. “He's a worrier,” says a local Democratic consultant. “Did we think about this? Are we talking to so-and-so?” That quality can prove vexing for Kerry's aides, who — though grateful for Cam's unobtrusive manner — would just as soon avoid encouraging the senator's healthy predisposition toward getting bogged down in minutiae and adopting squishy policy positions. “It's sort of Cam's nature to second-guess and question things,” says the former Kerry staffer. “He's the sort of person who rides in the car with John all day and points out all the things that are going wrong. . . . You need someone who's worried about the details, but you also don't want to add that worrying to the worrying the candidate's already doing. Cam's a good person, and he cares very much about his brother and wants him to succeed. But some of his best intentions were undermining the performance of the campaign” during the early primary season.
Last fall, one thing really worrying Cam was Howard Dean's Internet-driven fundraising surge and emergence as the darling of the left-leaning grass roots. “He couldn't understand why the Kerry campaign couldn't do that,” says another former adviser. “Because at some level their reference point in politics is as part of a movement, it was a weird thing for them not to be in that position.” Cam and his fellow Massachusetts-based, longtime Kerry loyalists became increasingly dissatisfied with campaign manager Jim Jordan, a DC insider they believed was bent on marginalizing their roles. “For a while there, [Kerry] and the campaign were just out of sync,” Cam later told a reporter.
In early November, Kerry fired Jordan and replaced him with Mary Beth Cahill, Ted Kennedy's Dorchester-bred chief of staff, sparking a round of press coverage that depicted an organization in a tailspin. Among Democratic apparatchiks, theories abound about who convinced the candidate to order Jordan's axing. But all the suspects had confided their views to Cam — whose own opinion, not surprisingly, remains unknown. “It was a situation where, obviously, something was going to change. The question was who was going to be shaken out,” says the former adviser. “When you have a brother on the campaign, and he's part of the Boston crowd, are you going to throw him overboard, or someone else?”
A lot of people might've found it tough to grow up in the shadow of John Kerry, but Cam seems to have only idolized his all-around-overachieving brother. He's been John Kerry's biggest booster and most ardent believer since before Kerry's first run for office.
In January 1970, Cam's sophomore year in college, he paid an unscheduled visit to Jerome Grossman, then president of Somerville's Massachusetts Envelope Company. Three months earlier, Grossman had helped stage a nationwide peace moratorium in which an estimated 10 million people skipped work to protest the Vietnam War. He was in the process of uniting pacifist Democrats to unseat the Third Congressional District's hawkish incumbent, Philip Philbin, and he'd put together a caucus to select his coalition's candidate. “My receptionist came in and said, ‘There's a kid outside in a sweater, and he insists on seeing you. He doesn't have an appointment. What should I do?'” recalls Grossman, who told her to send the kid in.
“My name is Cameron Kerry, and I have a brother.”
“Yeah, and . . . ?” replied Grossman.
“Well, my brother is special. He's back from Vietnam. He's a war hero, wounded, all kinds of decorations. He's got a lot of skills, and he's beginning his political career. I understand you're organizing a caucus to bring together opponents of the war, and I want you to support my brother.”
Grossman had already endorsed the Reverend Robert F. Drinan, who was then dean of Boston College Law School. Cam failed to change his mind — even after coming back a second time — and Drinan held off a persuasive performance by Kerry to win the caucus and, ultimately, the House seat. Shifting allegiances as adroitly as a veteran operative, Cam signed on to help elect Chet Atkins to the state legislature. Meanwhile, his brother, like countless other losing candidates before him, turned to the grand tradition of résumé padding. He went to Washington, marched on the National Mall, threw his ribbons and somebody else's medals (he kept his own) at the Capitol, delivered his star-making testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and returned to Massachusetts a celebrity.
After shopping around for an open House seat to pursue, Kerry settled on the Fifth District and set up headquarters in Lowell. His candidacy drew donations from antiwar intellectuals in Boston and New York, and its playbook was shaped by two budding solons, strategist John Marttila and pollster Tom Kiley, who remain fixtures of the Kerry brain trust. Cam's title was strategy director, but the biggest impact he made on the race resulted from an uncharacteristically impulsive act. Two days before Kerry was to face off against nine other challengers in the Democratic primary, his staff got an anonymous tip suggesting that the lines to its phone bank were about to be cut. Cam and Tom Vallely, a strapping ex-Marine, rushed to the basement of the building that housed the lines, kicking down a door to get in. Minutes later, Lowell police confronted them.
As it happened, the basement Cam and Vallely broke into also served an office belonging to one of Kerry's opponents. The next afternoon, the Lowell Sun covered the incident on its front page under a double-barreled headline: “Kerry Brother Arrested in Lowell ‘Watergate.'” “Cam was crushed,” says Marco Trbovich, the House campaign's communications director. “But John suffered his brother no incrimination, no antagonism.” Kerry maintained that his brother had been set up, and the scandal didn't prevent him from coasting to victory in the primary. It also was not a factor in his defeat in the general election. Credit for the loss rested largely with the Sun's editorial board, which viewed Kerry as a carpetbagging ultraliberal using outside money to try to buy a seat he would no doubt represent ineffectually. To ensure it covered all its points, the paper broke its anti-Kerry editorial into a four-part series.
While Kerry went to BC Law School, Cam briefly tried his hand at journalism, writing a few stories for the Boston Phoenix. He also continued to work on campaigns, including Paul Guzzi's 1974 bid for secretary of state. “The first poll — we had someone else do it for us because we didn't have enough money for polls — had my visibility at four percent, which was within the margin of error,” says Guzzi. “He had a great sense of what was required for a long shot to win.” Cam helped propel Guzzi to victory, but the operation he directed remained a seat-of-the-pants enterprise. That summer, he fell two months behind on the $150-a-month rent for his Central Square apartment.
In 1975, Cam decided to follow his brother to BC Law. He landed the job of executive editor of one of the law reviews, graduated magna cum laude, and took a job with a prestigious law firm in Washington, DC, where he met his wife, Kathy. He came back to Boston in 1982 to helm his brother's campaign for lieutenant governor. He hired a streetwise field director named Michael Whouley, who went on to become a minor deity to the Democratic cognoscenti. “Cam was one of four or five people intimately involved, and they ran a masterly race,” says Joe Baerlein, who steered the campaign of Evelyn F. Murphy, the second-place finisher in the decisive, hotly contested Democratic primary. “The win got John Kerry back in the game, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Cam passed up a full-time role in Kerry's ascent to the Senate in 1984 in favor of the kibitzer-without-portfolio post he's held ever since. His dedication to his brother's career now seems to reflect filial loyalty more than the taste for electioneering he once displayed. Drawing upon a command of French clichés and Hallmark-grade sappiness, Cam, who lives in Brookline, wrote the following entry for the class notes of his 25th Harvard reunion in 1997: “Plus ça change. . . . twenty-five years ago, I spent most of our senior year on my brother's (unsuccessful) congressional campaign. I spent the last two months on his senatorial reelection campaign (successful this time). In the interim, though, I acquired a life — a law practice, a marriage, two daughters, a home. . . . Election Day, I managed to keep a date with first grade soccer practice. Different priorities, and young soccer players show much more rewarding progress than the political system.”
On the whole, presidential brothers are a pretty ignominious bunch. Over the past 50 years — or “in the modern history of the country,” as John Kerry would put it — we've had the hard-drinking Sam Houston Johnson, kept out of sight and mostly out of trouble by the Secret Service, and then Donald Nixon, who took a sweetheart loan from billionaire Howard Hughes (then not yet a total weirdo and still a major Nixon backer) to bail out his restaurant chain and its signature Nixonburger. Billy Carter had his own product, Billy Beer, but he remained a lowbrow sideshow until he accepted a $200,000 loan from the Libyan government, at which point he became a registered agent of a rogue state. Although Roger Clinton was only half-brother to Bill, he made up for it with multiple imbroglios, ranging from cocaine distribution to DUI to attempting to buy an executive pardon for a member of the Gambino crime family. Then there's Neil Bush, who wiped out some of the points Jeb scored for George W. with his dubious Chinese consulting gig and his claim, during divorce proceedings last year, that he'd had sex with several women who showed up unannounced at his hotel rooms while he was traveling on business in Thailand and Hong Kong.
It's hard to imagine Cam causing similar headaches for Kerry. The charges he faced for his misadventures in Lowell were later dropped, and the episode, widely reported at the time, has already resurfaced during this election only to sink back into the archives with nary a ripple. The suggestion that Cam's fundraising efforts have persuaded Kerry to support bills benefiting his younger brother's clients, including cable companies — first raised in a report by a watchdog group last May — poses much greater potential for political fallout. But no evidence of a quid pro quo has surfaced, and the Kerry team has easily defused the charge whenever the press has brought it up. (“What am I going to do? Go to Lieberman if [John] doesn't vote right?” Cam once said when a reporter raised the issue.) The most serious youthful indiscretion to which Cam confessed in his application to the Massachusetts bar involved a dead-end slander lawsuit he got slapped with after he and his codefendants challenged absentee ballots cast in Cambridge's 1975 city elections — hardly the stuff of a Drudge Report or Smoking Gun exclusive. (Incidentally, John Kerry's bar application indicates that he got three speeding tickets between March 1972 and March 1974. Apparently, he was a Young Man in a Hurry in more ways than one.)
Cam's seemingly squeaky-clean record and evident chops as a strategist bring us back to the sainted Robert Kennedy, and, more specifically, to the question of whether Kerry might benefit by advancing the Cam-as-RFK model. After all, the Kennedy package only became more appealing when Bobby was considered part of the deal: He was the pit bull to Jack's playboy, the policy wonk to his salesman, the substance to his style. Americans love a buddy flick, and the Kerrys could spin one with Cam and John just as they've cast other family members and the senator's war buddies in the campaign. You can almost see the pitch: Hello, voters, meet Cameron, the wealthy, reserved, French-speaking corporate attorney–younger brother behind the wealthy, special-interest–fighting, occasionally somnolent, Gallic-looking (at least according to the Bush administration) candidate. . . .
Oh. Right. On second thought, maybe it'd be best for Cam to continue operating largely out of the spotlight.
As the Kerry team ramps up for the general election and settles into bigger office space, the senator's inner circle will have to make room for new members. “They've gone from a mom-and-pop to a Fortune 500 company almost overnight,” says the former Kerry adviser. “They're going to need to bring more talent in, and there are also going to be all these people involved, like labor, minority groups, the Hill, and so on, who will want to have a strong voice in the campaign.” All of those yogis and constituent liaisons, the Boston gang included, will be expected to pass their suggestions through Cahill, who's known to run a structured, highly disciplined operation. All of them, perhaps, except Cam. As the voices surrounding his brother increase, the influence he enjoys could only grow stronger.
“Having someone around there that only tells you the truth, it's rare in politics,” says Baerlein. “In Kerry's case, he's lucky [because] he's got a brother he trusts and respects who's been invaluable to him in that way. When you're running for president, hearing things from people in different states and different time zones, it helps to be grounded.” Of course, it's also rare in politics to find a confidant who resists the urge to divulge the counsel he gives. Cam seems to understand the clout he gains from his reticence. George Butler, who's known him for more than 30 years, says, “It's hard to put your finger on exactly what he does for Kerry,” but he knows there's something important going on there — a view that will no doubt be shared by new members of the campaign.
Does Kerry often change course after talking to Cam? Or does his brother merely validate his instinct? All they'll know for sure is what the rest of us know, which is that Cam will get the last word if he wants it.