IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What makes John Kerry tick?

At age 60, Sen. John Kerry is pursuing the American presidency with the same doggedness and focus that are lifelong traits for a son of privilege who nonetheless had to fight for much of what he got.
John Kerry Announces John Edwards As VP Running Mate
Kerry's tall, skinny physique makes him look deceptively fragile.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Vietnam, anti-war protests, the rigor of politics were still years in the future. In 1963, John Kerry was just a college kid looking for adventure on a summer abroad. Traveling on better wheels than most, there were Kerry and a buddy exploring Europe in a low-slung Austin Healy, racing against an Alfa Romeo on the twisting road to Nice, chasing a Porsche across Italy.

The gendarmes caught him in Monte Carlo: Kerry, so intent on retracing the course of the Grand Prix that he headed the wrong direction on a one-way street.

“John had to do those types of things,” says his travel companion and longtime friend Harvey Bundy.

Even the youthful hijinks of John Kerry had an extra element of intensity about them.

Now, at age 60, Kerry is pursuing the American presidency with the same doggedness and focus that are lifelong traits for a son of privilege who nonetheless had to fight for much of what he got. The impatient young man whose first two tries for Congress fizzled, who waited another 15 years for the right entree to Congress and two more decades for a good shot at the White House, is right where his stars seemed fixed from the beginning.

“He’s always been the kind of guy who knew his place in history,” says Daniel Barbiero, a friend since prep school and college roommate.

Kerry winces at any such hint of destiny.

Life, he says in an interview in his stocking feet aboard his campaign plane, offers too much “twist of fate” to think in such grandiose terms.

“When you lose Robert Kennedy, you lose John Kennedy, you lose Martin Luther King, you lose your very closest friends, you lose both your parents ... you just know every day is every day. You take ’em as they come. And it’s up to others later on to make judgments about how it all fits.”

Even as a child, Kerry was always “the most politically attuned,” says his younger brother Cameron. “He was always the leader of the pack in the neighborhood among the cousins, the quarterback at touch football.”

His drive and competitiveness, says Cameron, are “just hard-wired.”

They are still there in adulthood, as Kerry windsurfs Naushon Island in a full-on Northeastern gale or silences a campaign heckler by declaring: “I never run away from anything, especially George Bush.”

William Stanberry, Kerry’s debate-team partner at Yale, says Kerry’s interest in the presidency was clear even in college.

“I couldn’t help admire the gall, in a way, of someone who had such a clearly stated long-term objective,” he recalls. “To some extent it was impressive, and to some extent almost ridiculous.”

The 'Yippee' cake
Blakely Fetridge Bundy, the girlfriend, and later wife of Harvey Bundy, one of Kerry’s college roommates, remembers his pals presenting Kerry with a telegram and a red, white and blue cake that said “Yippee!” in May 1964 when he was elected president of the Yale Political Union, a college debating society.

She wrote in her journal at the time: “We decided that for all further successes — especially when he’s elected president of the U.S. — that we’ll send him a Yippee! cake.” So far this year, the Bundys have shipped off two more Yippees! — one for Kerry’s upset win in Iowa’s presidential caucuses and one when Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination.

Always a leader, always an achiever, Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, nonetheless sketches a less scripted life plan for himself, one driven by a desire to serve more than an ambition to climb.

Early on, he says, thoughts of the presidency were only “a hazy possibility.”

“I don’t think you think of it in real terms,” he says. “I don’t think it’s very real.”

By the time he entered the race, though, “I just felt it completely. I really had no doubts.”

He decided to run, he says, because the Democrats “had no voice.” The Republicans, he felt, were reducing national security issues to political slogans.

He wanted to offer people a “360-degree view of where America is today,” as he wrote in his campaign book.

That panoramic perspective is trademark Kerry.

Critics call it waffling
Where supporters see a refreshing openness and an ability to think through complex issues almost three-dimensionally, his critics find waffling and ambivalence. Kerryisms, such as his explanation that he voted for an $87 billion aid package for Afghanistan and Iraq before he voted against it, quickly find their way into Bush campaign attack ads.

“He has this good and bad characteristic to describe at length the things that he sees,” said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who served with Kerry in Congress. “Sometimes he can give you the impression that he’s on two sides of an issue. He’s not.”

Ever was it so.

As a 27-year-old war protester who captured the attention of a nation, Kerry told a “60 Minutes” interviewer in 1971 that when he went to Vietnam, “I was gung-ho in a certain sense but had doubts in another sense.”

He came home from war, he said, with “a tremendous amount of hope” but also “a certain depression.”

Watching Kerry debate an issue can be “a little bit like at a tennis match, watching the ball going back and forth,” says David Leiter, his former chief of staff. “He is curious. ... He’s engaged and thoughtful. He always struggles to get it right.”

Adds Blakely Bundy: “He doesn’t think in black and white. He thinks in shades of gray because he is so knowledgeable.”

The nuance that typifies Kerry’s public statements is there as well in his life portrait, which is painted with blended colors and dappled brushstrokes rather than sharp lines.

He is the promising young man of Brahmin bloodlines who managed to attend an elite prep school only through the largesse of a generous aunt. He is the decorated war hero who evolved into a shaggy-haired protester. He is the politician who speaks of core principles yet is known for his cautious pragmatism. He is the candidate who can’t seem to warm up to people yet whose friends speak of his uncanny ability to connect. He is the fabulously wealthy success story who will eat anything and wolfs down peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches from an emergency stash kept by his personal assistant.

A large wingspan
The first thing that people must come to grips with when they consider John Kerry, even before they begin to parse his words, is his appearance. He is so long, so thin, he looks deceptively fragile. One’s head must scan up, then down to take in his full 6-foot-4 frame. His wingspan, when he gestures with his arms, seems to stretch to the walls.

His face, too, is long and thin, suggesting a deceptively sad demeanor. Comic Billy Crystal jokes that someone needs to let Kerry’s face know that he’s having a good time.

His lanky body only serves to accentuate the thick mass of silvery hair atop his head. “In the event of an emergency, my hair can be used as a flotation device,” Kerry once joked on his campaign plane.

That funny, self-deprecating side of Kerry, and his warm, generous side — which friends say are his true persona — doesn’t always come across in public. Voters too often see him as remote, standoffish.

“Have you had a beer with me yet?” Kerry protested when a local reporter once asked about his reputation for aloofness. “I like to have fun as much as the next person, and go out and hack around and have a good time.”

What would someone learn about him if they did go out for that beer, he is asked later.

“You just have to do it,” he insists. “You just have to have fun, let your hair down, relax, laugh, kick some jokes around, have a good time — talk about something other than this.”

Kerry’s daughter Alex, 30, says her father sometimes can get so focused that it “precludes having a lackadaisical moment.” But she says he can be witty and silly, even goofy, in more relaxed settings. He’s quick with a sarcastic jibe and skilled at mimicking accents, she says, but careful not to do so when someone might take offense.

His younger daughter, Vanessa, 27, offers four words to sum up her father: dedicated, curious, intelligent, playful.

“I like playful above all,” Kerry says, when offered his daughter’s list.

Then, somewhat reluctantly, he comes up with his own quartet: romantic, passionate, idealistic, engaged.

A playful side
Vanessa offers her dad’s “spidery walk,” a maneuver in which the gangly senator throws out his arms and legs just to embarrass his daughters, as an example of his playful side. The memory cracks her father up; he smiles for the only time in a 30-minute interview.

“You don’t want to see it,” he laughs. “I’m surprised she even mentioned it. But I do take pleasure in just getting them to say the words, ’Dad, you’re a freak.’ It’s a big deal. ... When Vanessa looks at me and says, “I can’t believe you’re my dad. What a freak,’ I know I’ve made it.”

In a 1996 campaign debate when Kerry was running for re-election to the Senate against the affable William Weld, Kerry offered a rare assessment of his public and private personas.

“I am very well aware that when God made me, one of the debits he gave was a sort of over-level of intensity, maybe an over-level of earnestness,” he said. “I don’t sort of wear every part of me on my sleeve as easily as some people do, and I know that. On the other hand, what I do know about myself is that when you have a fight, I am a good person to be in a foxhole with.”

Friends speak of small, frequent acts of generosity, and loyalty built up over decades.

Tracy Droz Tragos, whose father served with Kerry in Vietnam and was killed there, remembers how Kerry took time to make rubbings of her father’s name from the Vietnam War Memorial to send to her grandparents in small-town Missouri.

“That relationship meant the world to my grandmother,” says Tragos.

Cameron Kerry says he saw the “deeply emotional, sentimental side” of his brother as John helped care for their parents in their dying days. Kerry’s father, Richard, died of complications from prostate cancer in 2000 at age 85; his mother, Rosemary, died of respiratory complications in 2002 at age 89.

“Other people were there to care for them, but he jumped into it and helped care very tenderly for them,” Cameron Kerry recalls.

Still has shrapnel in his leg
Kerry, whose service as captain of a swift boat in Vietnam brought him three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star for heroism, still has a piece of shrapnel embedded in his leg. There is a scar, he says, but the wound doesn’t bother him.

“It’s just there,” he says, “part of my internal machinery.”

In a much broader sense, too, Vietnam is always just there within John Kerry, affecting the way he approaches public policy and life itself.

Vanessa Kerry remembers poking around her father’s desk as a child and coming across a B-40 rocket that had been aimed at Kerry’s boat when he jumped ashore to chase down and kill a young Vietcong fighter who was pointing a grenade launcher at the Americans.

“Those are the stories I grew up with,” she says. “... I think it has made my dad value every day. He’s the first to say every day is extra.”

Cameron Kerry said the wartime experience has made his brother a more “existential” figure, who feels deeply in his gut the implications of public policy decisions.

Kerry himself offers his own theory.

“It means no nonsense,” he says, “go for broke, make every day count. I think it’s very liberating and the truth becomes critical. ... That’s why I get so angry about Iraq. I think some of those young soldiers are facing danger because leaders didn’t share the full truth with the nation and I think there’s nothing worse.”

Kerry went to war with doubts about Vietnam and came home with certainty that the war was wrong; he received early release from the Navy to run for Congress as an anti-war candidate. His candidacy fizzled because a more prominent anti-war figure was already in the race. But as a decorated veteran, Kerry quickly emerged as an eloquent spokesman against the war.

The moderate approach
Bob Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation and a friend who has known Kerry since their war-protester days, says Kerry was the one who “put a good face on us,” who tamped down the movement’s extremes and offered a more moderate face of dissent.

“John has always been able to do an override on the emotions,” Muller said, “to be pragmatic and to be effective.”

Muller sees a “duality” to Kerry both in the way he’s advanced his political career and in how he’s perceived personally.

As a politician, says Muller, “He does have those passionate values and concerns, but at the same time he’s a tactician.”

As a person, Muller adds, “He can be elite and standoffish, and he can be vulnerable and engaging and passionate.”

“He’s always had a little bit of a removed persona,” says Muller, “but at the same time, it’s weird, because there really is this stunning ability to connect and maintain a connection with friends.”

Kerry is known for his energy and curiosity — he’s joked that maybe his mother gave him a “permanent dose of hyperactivity.”

Leiter, who served on Kerry’s Senate staff, remembers how he and the senator would work until about two minutes before 11 p.m., when the nearest exits to his office building were locked, and then dash out the doors. Later, Kerry would call Leiter at home to resume their conversation.

“He has a hunger for information,” said Leiter.

Kerry, says Bob Kerrey, “has observations about life that I find to be quite worth hearing.”

“We get so busy we need every now and then to say the world isn’t quite like we thought it was, there’s something else going on that we haven’t seen,” Kerrey said. “He does do that.”

Dinner with Kerry: 'It's so fun'
Wren Wirth, a longtime friend whose husband Tim served in the Senate with Kerry, says dinner conversation with him covers “everything, everything, everything. That’s why it’s so fun.”

Wirth says she’s seen an “openness” blossom in Kerry since his 1995 marriage to Teresa Heinz, known for her quick wit, verve and fabulous wealth as the heiress of the Heinz ketchup fortune. Kerry’s first marriage ended in divorce.

Kerry also has a hunger for sport — be it hockey, skiing, biking, “silly things like roofball,” windsurfing or, most recently, kiteboarding. His idea of relaxation usually involves producing adrenaline.

“These board sports have taken over his life,” sighs Alex Kerry.

Says her father, “I call it hacking around. ... It’s an important part of just sort of being free.”

Not one to sit still, Kerry tosses around a football on the airport tarmac during campaign stops, or commandeers a motorcycle from one of the police officers on duty. During a 1991 visit to Israel, the senator, who trained as a pilot in his college days, persuaded an Israeli colonel to take him up in an Air Force jet and to let him take the controls and do “a little aerobatics.”

“So I went up to 12,000 feet and proceeded to go in and do a loop,” Kerry recounted recently. Not standard fare for a congressional fact-finding tour.

'Creative city driving'
On the ground, Kerry chafes at getting stuck in traffic, preferring “creative city driving.” As he explains the technique, “it’s like broken-field running in football, you look for a hole and go for it.”

Nevin Sayre, a wind-surfing buddy and former U.S. champion in the sport, remembers the first time he was scheduled to go out with Kerry. A rainy gale developed and Sayre assumed the outing was off. “But John calls up and says ’Where are you? It’s windy. Let’s go.”’

“Within the first 10 minutes, he’s flying off his board and being catapulted, but each time he’s loving the challenge and getting torn around and pushed around and pummeled,” Sayre recalls.

It’s not unlike politics. As Kerry once said of the sport, “A lot of things are out of your control that lift you up and kick you down.”