By TODD S. PURDUM
Published: November 30, 2003
In 1971, when most of his rivals for the presidency were in college, in graduate school or just beginning ambitious but still anonymous careers, John Forbes Kerry was already a decorated combat veteran of two tours in Vietnam and such a prominent leader of the antiwar movement that "60 Minutes" profiled him and the correspondent Morley Safer asked, "Do you want to be president?"
"Of the United States?" Mr. Kerry replied. "No."
But then his face broke into a broad grin that suggested the idea had crossed his mind more than once, and he added, "That's such a crazy question at a time like this, when there are so many things that have to be done, and so many changes that have to be made, that I'm not sure you can set out and do those things and at the same time, you know, keep people as happy as you have to."
Now, after an odyssey — as a prosecutor, lieutenant governor and, for nearly 20 years, junior senator from Massachusetts — Mr. Kerry is running for president at last, and he is having trouble keeping people as happy as he has to. In an unsettled time, he has become a prisoner of the golden biography that was built to propel him. As he turns 60, he is struggling to explain the relevance of his lifetime experience, both to party insiders who have long had mixed feelings about him and to a new generation of antiwar activists for whom Vietnam is distant history.
Mr. Kerry wants it to be simple. "Gary Hart endorsed me the other day by saying, `I subscribe to the quaint notion that when somebody runs for the president of the United States, they ought to be qualified for the job,' " he told an audience in New Hampshire last month. It was a bit of nominal understatement he often uses — one that does nothing to mask a patrician undertone of disdain for both President Bush and his Democratic rivals.
But it is not simple. Having spent much of his career as a loner and an outsider, he finds himself fighting the impression that he is a quintessential Washington insider, yesterday's news.
In fact, there have always been two parallel, conflicting interpretations of John Kerry's life and career. More than most politicians, he has battled an enduring gap in perceptions: there is the circle of longtime friends and family who know and love him, and then there is a more skeptical collection of colleagues, contemporaries and critics who seem more or less persuaded that he does not add up.
Is Mr. Kerry the idealistic teenager who worshiped John F. Kennedy and the New Frontier's notion of public service? Or is he a careerist who aped the young president with the same initials, volunteering for service on a Navy patrol boat that was the Vietnam equivalent of PT-109?
Is he an indifferent legislator who used the Senate as a launching pad for high-profile investigations, or a born leader with a natural executive temperament who chafed at routines, took on thankless tasks and yearned to break free?
Is he a perpetual equivocator, who voted for the resolution authorizing war with Iraq but against the money to pay for rebuilding? Or is he attuned to the complexity of most issues and unwilling to reduce his answers to sound bites? Is he arrogant and aloof or shy and private, a thoughtful man who writes poetry and has taken up classical guitar as a way to relax?
Depending on who is doing the telling, John Kerry is all of those things.
"It takes longer than 30 seconds to explain him," said his friend Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat who spent years alongside Mr. Kerry in the Senate and is a fellow Vietnam veteran. "He's a very smart, well-read, balanced human being. You can't squeeze that into a 30-second description, and it's harder for him."
Comparing Senator Kerry's recently published letters home from Vietnam with his own, Mr. Kerrey marveled: "I'm writing home asking for food, for money. He's mapping out a world geopolitical strategy. It's phenomenal how deep his thinking goes at that stage of life. He's a man of considerable stature."