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updated 7/26/2004 1:35:20 AM ET 2004-07-26T05:35:20

For months, hundreds of people have spent millions of dollars in an effort to put a fresh face on an old town. And the city does indeed sparkle with newly paved streets, parks, sidewalks and malls cleared of litter as well as citizens and cabbies all instinctively aware that this is a week when municipal politeness must defeat genetic parochialism.

But Boston remains a time capsule. It is a quaint, provincial, often cynical village where local politics is more deeply balkanized and tribal than in Kosovo, with whole wards capable of tilting against a candidate because of a slur someone heard someone else’s uncle utter at a Communion breakfast in the winter of 1952.

At the national level, politics is imprisoned by a past that began on the third floor of 122 Bowdoin St. - across from the State House - in 1946. That was the voting address of John F. Kennedy.

It is still possible to walk into hundreds of area homes and see framed photographs of Kennedy, Pope John XXIII and Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series side by side on the walls of locals who know that history coughs up victories that have been few and far between.

Jack Kennedy may have died in Dallas 41 autumns ago but he lives forever in the 617 Area. And no revisionism can diminish the influence he had on generations of pols who followed, a lot of them desperately mimicking the original.

“He was dazzling,” said Kevin White, one of only three mayors Boston has had in 38 years and the architect of great urban change that reshaped and re-invigorated the city. “I remember the first time I shook hands with him. He came up on Air Force One to a Democratic State Committee dinner at the old Armory up Commonwealth Avenue. It was the fall of 1962.

“The White House told the Democratic candidates for statewide office we had a choice: We could meet Jack Kennedy at the airport or go to the dinner which was black-tie to have our picture taken with him. One or the other. Had to choose. Couldn’t do both.

“That year, Frank Bellotti was running for Attorney General. I was running for Secretary of State and Eddie McLaughlin was Lieutenant Governor. All three of us chose the airport except Eddie, a cute one, shows up in a tuxedo, thinking he’d do both.

“The plane arrives. The door swings open. Jack Kennedy bounds down the stairs. My God, it was like looking at the Sun King. Eddie is first in line and Jack grabs his hand, takes one step back, looks at him for a split second and says: ‘Eddie. Taking the job kind of seriously aren’t you?’ What a line. How great was he?”

If John F. Kennedy were the Sun King, political meteorologists wouldn’t be in error if they labeled John F. Kerry partly cloudy. The city is about to place him on the nation’s menu. He is an acquired taste, too; a take-out item that arrives in a clear cover and looks splendidly appetizing but is difficult to unwrap.

John Forbes Kerry. Who is he? Where does he come from? The last question offers the easiest answer: He is from Boston but not of Boston. For example, he does not know what it’s like to grow up in a neighborhood where people identify themselves by parish rather than street - “I’m from St. Mark’s. The wife grew up in St Gregory’s.” - but he clearly would have loved the experience and regrets not having it. And in the years he has been on the ballot here, not even FedEx could keep track of the different zip codes John Kerry employed.

Who is he? He is a politician who can surrender to conventional wisdom and come close to drowning in defeat due to leaning too long on the whispered advice of a parade of paid consultants.

But he has an acute awareness of danger and a clear ability to walk and talk himself toward victory in those last few moments before people judge and vote. He is a photo-finish performer.

He is also a guy who can charm, annoy, infuriate, bore and frustrate even close friends, all in a single conversation. He has a tone that can turn a joyful announcement into something that sounds like the verdict at Nuremberg. He can discuss economic theory from Davos with people who don’t know that place from a Dove bar and never notice as their eyes glaze over.

But John Kerry can cry. And listen. And see pain. All of that and more because of an element of his personality that he is often reluctant to display: He knows what it’s like to be afraid, to be vulnerable, to, quite literally, be wounded.

Part of him went to war and never came back. That portion occasionally reappears at odd, sometimes sad events: the funeral of Tommy Belodeau, a decent, solid, hard-working guy who was part of Kerry’s Swift Boat crew in Vietnam and had a difficult life after the war. Kerry could barely keep his composure giving the eulogy the day Belodeau was buried a few years ago; at small dinners where Kerry is surrounded by other veterans, men who have a shared friendship now due to a shared horror from the past. Intimacy and the alliance of combat can indeed expose his soul.

He is John Forbes Kerry, a complex character who wears Hermes ties, rides a motorcycle, speaks several languages yet sometimes has difficulty communicating in English. He knows his way around the world but would need MapQuest to find Erie Street in Dorchester where Theodore H. White, presidential chronicler, grew up. He knows foreign leaders but couldn’t identify half the Massachusetts Legislature or two-thirds of the state’s mayors with a gun to his head.

Now, he returns home to a city where the memory of the original JFK still prospers. And Thursday, as he listens to the applause and is given the acceptance he has sought for years, his eyes will look past history and toward the prize he’s wanted since Jack Kennedy was in office. So, here in ththe summer of 2004, ambition and opportunity have finally collided for John F. Kerry.

Orginially published July 25, 2004.

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