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Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

Prelude to a Campaign

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, environmentalist, Vietnam War protester and unabashed critic of the Bush administration, ponders a bid for the presidency in 2004

By Betsy Rothstein

The warm sun comes bursting through the open French doors leading to a balcony facing Constitution Avenue, aking Sen. John Forbes Kerry’s personal office more reminiscent of a European living room than an old suite in the Russell Office Building.The third-term Massachusetts senator, who has been weighing a 2004 presidential bid, wants to sit outside to talk. But he has second thoughts about the two white plastic lawn chairs on the balcony.

“David, these chairs are grotesque,” Kerry declares in the familiar voice that rings of the proper Brahmin New Englander that he is.

David Wade, his communications director, scrambles into action, while Kerry sinks his 6’5” frame into a floral high-back chair inside, unconcerned about wrinkling his gray pinstriped suit, which he wears with a wide-checkered, blue-and-white button-down shirt, accented by a sky-blue tie decorated with sailboats.

A relaxed Kerry makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is contemplating a presidential bid.

“I have said openly, I think I have been about as uncoy about it as anybody in saying that I am going to look at it,” Kerry says. “I’ve said it. And I’ve said openly that I am going to do the things necessary over the course of this year to be able to make a wise judgment about it.”

In the past year, he has crisscrossed the nation, speaking to Democrats in more than 13 states. Last weekend, he joined other Democratic presidential hopefuls, including former Vice President Al Gore and Sens. Christopher Dodd (Conn.), Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.), at the Florida Democratic Convention in Orlando.

Kerry has $3.2 million on hand and has raised $1.2 million in the past three months. In the first 90 days of the election cycle, he raised a quarter of a million dollars for his leadership PAC.

Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

Kerry has one of the largest donor bases in American politics, according to his Boston campaign consultant, John Marttila. Last week, his senior colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is personally close to Dodd, raised $50,000 for Kerry at a fundraiser in his home in Washington, D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood. Asked if he would support Kerry if Dodd runs, Kennedy laughed and said, “We’ll talk next year.”

Kerry, who still has no Republican opponent in his reelection campaign this year, denies that he is looking beyond Nov. 5. “You don’t get ahead of yourself,” he says. “And I still have no plans to get ahead of myself.”

He claims he has been ambivalent about running for president. “On occasion it has been in the back of my head. On many occasions, it hasn’t been in my head at all.”

Kerry has chosen to highlight the environment and foreign policy as issues that could boost a White House bid. He has loudly denounced the Bush administration’s push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, Kerry, Lieberman and other Democrats celebrated a victory last Thursday (April 18), when the Senate voted 54-46 to block a bill forwarded by Republicans that would have opened the ANWR’s 1.5-million-acre coastal plain to oil and gas exploration.

And Kerry’s status as a Vietnam War hero gives him credibility to criticize Bush’s conduct of the war on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Many people have been concerned about the direction of this administration,” he says, “ranging from the Middle East to nuclear weapons in Russia to proliferation issues with North Korea and even our relationship with China. There remain very serious questions about those relationships.”

He adds: “We all respect the job the president has tried to do with respect to the war on terrorism, but there’s much more to governing and to making our country strong than just fighting a war on terrorism. We have enormous priorities here at home. . . . I wish the president were more supportive of them.”

John Kerry’s face—a near-perfect oval—is distinct with tiny crinkles underneath his pale blue eyes. And even a precocious group of eighth grade girls from Dedham, Mass., can’t help but marvel over Kerry’s thick mop of dusted-gray hair as he towers over them on the Senate steps.

“How do you keep your hair on?” asks one girl who explains that her father is suffering from hair loss. Kerry replies, “I’m just lucky, I guess.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) thinks Kerry’s looks are an asset: “Physically he’s imposing. With that full head of hair, he’s a very attractive human being for politics.” In an attempt to distinguish himself from the wooden persona of Al Gore, who skipped him over as his running mate in 2000, or the smooth-talking Bill Clinton or the plain-spoken President Bush, Kerry seems willing—even eager—to discuss the more personal aspects of his life.

Take his alleged aloofness.

It’s a characteristic that has dogged him over the years, consistently reinforced, he says, by those who don’t know him or don’t agree with his politics.

“Maybe from afar, from a photograph or from television, someone draws that impression,” says Kerry. “I don’t think I am aloof. What I do, like a lot of people in public life, is try to reserve a little space that not every part of you has to be public every day.”

He adds, “I think people respect that, and they almost trust that more than somebody who wears every piece of themselves on their sleeve. I don’t think human beings are like that. People have a little space that’s theirs, and I like to declare that. It makes me feel a little more in control of my life, I guess.”

But Howie Carr, a conservative radio personality in Boston who is an avowed enemy of Kerry, claims he is “an aloof personality” who is “out of touch” with his constituents.

“No one really sees him unless you’re on Nantucket,” says Carr. “He’s very dogged in his pursuit of what he wants—which is higher office.”

Sen. Bob Torricelli (D-N.J.) notes that Kerry “can be shy and retiring,” but adds, “Often, people respond to people who aren’t overbearing.”

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) has another take on Kerry: “He has the kind of personality that makes him an effective, natural candidate,” he says. “Of course, compared to someone from Louisiana, everyone’s sort of dull.”

One veteran Washington television correspondent had this piece of advice for Kerry: “Stop at the end of the 10th sentence. He has a tendency to run on and on. He’s got a lot of points that he wants to make.”

However, Michael Goldman, a Democratic consultant in Boston, says Kerry has his own brand of charisma.

“He has never been a guy who’s a slap-you-on-the-back kind of pol, but no one has ever called John Kerry wooden,” says Goldman. “He does not have Al Gore disease. He’s excellent on Imus.”

Goldman says Kerry fares better outside the Bay State.

“When you see him perform outside the state, it strikes you how impressive the guy really is to voters,” he says. “It doesn’t surprise anyone in Massachusetts that he has never been the most popular guy in the state. . . . From day one he has been viewed as a Washington guy.”

Kerry’s reputation as an outsider stems from his first try for public office, a failed campaign for Congress in 1972 after gaining public notice as an organizer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He went shopping for a district, and moved to the small, blue-collar city of Lowell, Mass.

“He comes in and figures he’ll look like a hometown guy,” says Paul Sullivan, political editor of the Lowell Sun. “Of course, he buys a house that cost over $100,000, the most expensive house in town. He was young, brash, all that stuff.”

Sullivan says Kerry “has never been accepted by the local apparatus, and in some ways it was because he was never out there toiling in the vineyards.” Nevertheless, Sullivan can’t see anyone beating Kerry in a Democratic presidential primary. “Hey listen, even when people didn’t like him, they still thought he was capable. Most people go from being liked to being respected. He went from being respected to being liked.”

After his defeat for Congress, Kerry went to law school, worked as a prosecutor and was elected lieutenant governor in 1982. Two years later, Kerry won election to the Senate. He faced his toughest challenge in 1996 against popular GOP Gov. William Weld, but still won by seven percentage points.

Kerry is accustomed to rough treatment by Boston journalists, who have relentlessly pursued his love life for the past two decades. In 1984, Kerry separated from his wife and mother of their two daughters, Julia Thorne. They were divorced in 1988. Thorne, who later wrote a book about years of battling depression, was not ecstatic about Kerry’s decision to seek an annulment of their marriage, but bears no ill will. In fact, her brother, Mike Thorne, remains in Kerry’s inner circle of advisors.

In 1995, Kerry wed Teresa Heinz, the widow of Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), who died in a plane crash in 1991, leaving his wife more than $600 million in assets. His marriage to the Heinz ketchup heiress has brought accusations that he married her for her money. “How many guys do you know that spent prime years dating women 25 years younger than him, and suddenly goes to a woman five or six years older?” asks Carr. “There has to be another reason.”

The accusation bothers Kerry.

“I can imagine a cynic wanting to think it,” says Kerry, who explains he feels protective of his wife. “I’ve never heard it. I don’t spend 10 seconds thinking about it. Period. Anybody who thinks that, I guess they’re going to think whatever they want to think. There’s nothing you can do about it. Period. I don’t care.”

Still, the charge rankles. “Obviously I knew that there would be people who cast those kinds of aspersions, but I’m just not going to worry about it.” Minutes later, he returns to the sensitive subject of his wife’s money.

“For any cynic, they should note that I never use any personal money in my campaigns. So the cynics can go jump in a lake as far as I’m concerned. I raise my own money for my races. Her money has nothing to do with my races, period. Never has. Never will. End of issue.”

When Kerry is asked what Heinz has brought to his life, a complete mood change seems to come over him.

“Happiness,” he says instantaneously. “Enormous, complete, complete, what’s the word? Just complete, total, open love. She is an amazing woman. And everyone who knows my wife knows that she is a very good judge of character, and a very strong, determined person who would not fall into a situation she did not trust or feel confident about.”

Hatch, who traveled with Kerry and Heinz to Davos, Switzerland, in 1999, attests to the depth of their relationship. “She’s down-to-earth for someone who is worth the money she is,” says Hatch. “He shows her tremendous deference and kindness. I think there’s a good relationship there.” Kerry, who dated actress Morgan Fairchild and a host of young women during his bachelor days, admits that he had serious reservations about ever getting remarried.

“Actually I felt very questioning,” he explains. “As my wife would tell you . . . it took me quite a while to trust the notion of having a complete and full relationship. It was not immediate in that sense. I think I had to be ready, but she was the person who just is who she is, and how she loves, that was able to make me feel whole and comfortable.”

Born in Denver and raised in myriad places such as Massachusetts, Norway and Berlin, Kerry spent his formative years in Europe, and ultimately, at St. Paul’s, an exclusive boarding school in New Hampshire that he found “sort of cliquish.”

“It was not a place where individuality was easy, “ says Kerry, who played bass in a rock band called the Electras.

Kerry is open about the fact that his family wasn’t poor.

“I was a lucky kid,” he says. “I grew up in a terrific family, [with] warm and thoughtful parents who were not particularly focused on their kids. I went to great schools. My parents had some money.”

Kerry’s father, who died two years ago, was a diplomat and lawyer who went into the foreign service, while his mother was a homemaker. “I would say we were well-off,” he says. “We never ran around thinking of ourselves as rich. We were comfortable.”

In 1967, Kerry left Boston for the Mekong Delta in Vietnam as a Navy gunboat captain. He came home in the spring of 1969 with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Perhaps his presidential aspirations were transparent as far back as 1971, when he was interviewed by Morley Safer on CBS’ 60 Minutes about his antiwar protests. Safer asked, “Do you want to be president?”

Kerry, startled by the question, laughed and replied, “No, that’s such a crazy question at a time like this.”

Three decades later, close advisors say he still hasn’t made up his mind.

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