Volume 73, Number 6 | June 9 - 15, 2004

Reporters’ book tries to answer: Who is John Kerry?

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

From left, New School president Bob Kerrey and reporters Nina J. Easton, Brian C. Mooney and Michael Kranish at the university on May 17.

How come presidential candidate John Kerry isn’t going for George W. Bush’s jugular already? Why do Kerry’s positions on the issues — like the war in Iraq — seem hard to pin down at times? Why can’t he ever give a short and simple answer?

The authors of the first in-depth biography on the Massachusetts senator — three Boston Globe reporters who say they know him best from having covered him for years — offered some answers to these questions and fleshed out the personality of the Democratic presidential nominee at a May 17 discussion at New School University in Greenwich Village.

The journalists, Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton, were joined by former Senator Bob Kerrey, the university’s president.

New School’s Tishman auditorium, with a 600-person capacity, was packed for the event, which was advertised by The New York Times, the Globe’s parent company.

The reporters described Kerry as a man who “sees everything in shades of gray,” as opposed to Bush, who sees the world in terms of “black and white.” While this may have its benefits, it also means it can be hard to predict where Kerry will come down on a given issue, they said.

“You never know how he’s going to vote when he comes onto the Senate floor,” said Easton, deputy chief of the Globe’s Washington bureau.

As to why Kerry isn’t already in full attack mode against Bush, especially now that Bush’s poll numbers have plummeted to all-time lows over the increasingly unpopular Iraq War, Mooney said Kerry typically gets his campaigns into gear only when he feels threatened, thriving on the competition.

“He gets stronger [as the campaign goes along],” Mooney said. “He’s an athletic person — he kite boards, he rollerblades. I don’t know if it’s a survival instinct, but something transforms him.”

Calling the athlete analogy “quite apt,” Kranish added: “Senator Kerry is a cyclist. He rides along in the slipstream until he feels challenged. I think right now the race is in that [slipstream] stage.”

A questioner from the audience, remarking on the enthusiasm he’d seen when former presidential candidate Howard Dean announced his new Democracy for America movement at Tishman auditorium, said Kerry’s campaign hasn’t been as inspiring.

“Somehow, all I remember is ‘Bring It On,’ ” he said, referring to Kerry’s rallying slogan.

Mooney agreed Kerry hasn’t generated the same level of excitement: “[John] Edwards had his ‘Two Americas.’ Kerry never had that simple or compelling a message.”

Bob Kerrey said what separates Kerry and Bush are their positions on the issues, notably the environment, education, civil rights and abortion. However, the quality needed now in a president more than anything else is “diplomacy,” Kerrey stressed.

“So who’s better,” he asked, “the guy that’s made 90 percent of the world angry at us or the guy who hasn’t made 90 percent of the world angry at us?”

Kerrey said, by his calculation on how the states will vote, Kerry is assured of winning 235 electoral votes and needs only 35 more to win the election.

The former senator said Kerry is, in fact, running a good campaign. As to whether Kerry needs to spar more with Bush, Kerrey said it might not be necessary: “You can make a very good case that — don’t open your mouth and Bush will destroy himself in the next six months.”

The authors noted that Kerry’s position on whether or not he supported the U.S. invading Iraq is somewhat ambiguous. They pointed to an e-mail message Kerry sent a supporter saying he strongly backed the war, yet later blamed the message on a “computer error.”

An audience member asked if there was any “political contrivance” in Kerry’s enlisting to fight in Vietnam. The reporters said while Kerry indeed idolized former President John F. Kennedy — who served in the military — the injury rate on small swift boats, like the one Kerry served on, was 75 percent, so he knowingly risked his life.

However, Easton added, “You can’t underestimate John F. Kennedy’s influence on John F. Kerry,” noting Kerry once dated Kennedy’s half-sister.

In their research, the Globe writers uncovered facts about Kerry’s background even he didn’t know. Kranish said Kerry was unaware, for example, that the place his grandfather committed suicide was in Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel — a place Kerry himself had visited numerous times. Kerry’s grandfather, a Czech Jew who changed his name from Fritz Kohn to Frederick Kerry and converted to Catholicism — while still in Europe to avoid anti-Semitism — was a prominent merchant who made and lost a fortune three times during his life. His death was front-page news in the Globe. On his mother’s side, Kerry’s blueblood middle name, Forbes, refers not to the family of magazine publishing fame but traces back to the Reverend John Forbes, a Scotsman who held an important colonial position in East Florida and was a loyalist during the Revolution, whose descendents started the prosperous Boston-China trade route. Also on his mother’s side, Kerry is a descendent of John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor.

On the subject of third-party candidate Ralph Nader’s impact on the presidential race, New School president Kerrey said Senator Kerry is taking the right approach.

“I think Nader could be a force and I think what Kerry is continuing to do is to show respect to Ralph Nader — and it will help,” Kerrey said. “Al Gore did not give respect to Ralph Nader,” he added.

An audience member said it seems campaigns often boil down to a lasting image or sound bite and that most voters just “go with their gut,” rather than based on issues. That could work for Kerry, too, Mooney said:

“Here’s a guy who plays ice hockey, who flies helicopters and planes — he’s everything Bush wants to be.”

“John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best,” by Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton; Public Affairs; 448 pp.; paperback; $14.95

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