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Clear vision lends to Kerry’s management style

When John Kerry has a clear vision of where he wants to go, he has used information and advice to become more focused and persuasive, colleagues and aides say. But in his presidential race, the approach has sometimes bogged down his campaign.
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Until his presidential campaign, the biggest enterprise Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) had run was a county district attorney's office in Massachusetts with 90 lawyers in the late 1970s. By all accounts, Kerry was a skilled manager, running the office for an old-line district attorney and swiftly transforming a sleepy, nepotistic organization of part-time prosecutors into one of the most high-powered and innovative in the northeast.

"I saw for the first time John's ability to take in huge amounts of information, reach out to experts, set a course and lead," said J. William Codinha, who succeeded Kerry in the Middlesex County district attorney's office and now heads the litigation department at Nixon Peabody in Boston.

Almost 25 years later, Kerry brought the same voracious appetite for information to his presidential campaign. He has three dozen domestic policy councils, two dozen foreign policy groups, an expanding corps of consultants, and many informal advisers he calls — about 15 per night — before going to bed.

But rather than "set a course and lead," as Codinha described, Kerry has lurched from course to course, periodically switching drivers and roadmaps — and messages — as he reacts to more and more information and advice. "His strength is that he listens," said a regular recipient of Kerry's late-night phone calls. "The problem is he's listening to too many people."

This is the paradox of Kerry as a manager. When he has a clear vision of where he wants to go — as he did in the prosecutor's office and in the signal achievement of his Senate career, investigating long-standing allegations that the Vietnamese had been holding American POWs and laying the groundwork for normalizing U.S. relations with Vietnam — he has used information and advice to become more focused and persuasive, according to colleagues and longtime aides.

But in his presidential race, the approach has bogged down his campaign in indecision or led to jarring changes in direction — even if the result, so far, is that Kerry remains in contention with President Bush. "Things you thought you resolved a week ago pop up again because he's had another four conversations," a former adviser said.

A different governing style
Kerry's mixed record as a manager is significant because, if elected, he would be the first president since John F. Kennedy to arrive at the White House from the Senate, with no major executive experience. Four of the past five presidents were governors, with long records of calling the shots. In Kerry's case, the strongest clues to how he would manage come from recurring themes in the way he has tackled being a prosecutor, a lieutenant governor, a senator and now a presidential candidate.

If Bush, a business school graduate, governs with a top-down, corporate style, Kerry's information-intensive model seems to spring from his days as a champion debater in high school and college. Before setting a course of action, he regularly engages aides and friends in long discussion and argument, often playing devil's advocate to probe for weaknesses and, if he finds them, insisting on more information until he believes he can argue all options equally well.

It is an approach that wears down even loyal lieutenants, particularly when choices seem obvious, but one they say is built into the way Kerry operates.

"Understanding each side from the other side — that plus his legal training as a litigator is his intellectual framework," said Paul Nace, a friend for more than 30 years. "It's simple to have gut reactions; it's more challenging to submit your gut reactions to the rigor of intellectual debate. If the president had submitted his gut reactions to intellectual debate, the nation would have been better served."

Indeed, Kerry and Bush have almost diametrically opposing management styles, and Kerry aides often defend their candidate by pointing out that Bush has the reverse approach — and that, in their view, it has not worked. For example, the Bush White House has clear lines of authority, with a small circle of deputies controlling access and the flow of information to the president. A Kerry organizational chart, by contrast, would have a thicket of pipelines and back channels to the top from throughout the enterprise — and from many friends and advisers far outside it.

Whatever the price in efficiency and discipline, the Democrat's aides insist that a President Kerry would not have been dependent on a few deputies, as was Bush, for information — which turned out to be faulty — on Iraq's weapons or the military force needed during and after the war. Nor, they say, would he have been as passive as Bush in response to a briefing memo on Aug. 6, 2001, titled, "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US."

Bush has said he did not demand follow-up on the memo or its mention of 70 active al Qaeda-related investigations by the FBI because: "Had they found something, I'm confident they would have reported back to me. That's the way the system works."

Frances Zwenig, who served as chief of staff in Kerry's Senate office, said: "That memo would've been the beginning of the inquiry in John Kerry's world, not the end of it. It would've been, 'What are they finding? I need to know now.' Sometimes it would make you very uncomfortable as a staffer because you'd try to anticipate all the questions and you'd give John your memo, and he had 20 more and you had to do more work, but that is how you see around corners and that is what I want in an executive."

Drilling into small matters
Kerry has a history of drilling into small matters, as well. In 1996, when he and his Republican opponent, then-Gov. William F. Weld, agreed to limit spending on advertising, and lawyers presented them with a draft agreement, "Weld decided to sign in an hour," said Chris Gregory, Kerry's political director at the time. "Two weeks later, Kerry is still finding problems: 'This word is wrong. They dropped a comma. We can't sign this.' " Ultimately, he signed. He also won the election.

Kerry's aversion to top-down management was clear almost 30 years ago when an ailing John Droney, district attorney of Middlesex County, Mass., tapped him to run the office as first assistant. With momentum building nationwide for criminal justice reform, Kerry and a team of fellow young prosecutors set about transforming an office whose case-management system consisted of a box of index cards and whose trial lawyers worked part time, often defending accused criminals in their off hours.

"I never felt he was my boss. That wasn't at all the impression he gave," said Codinha, whom Kerry named head of the criminal division. Codinha said he and other division chiefs built and ran their teams with autonomy. "He had weekly management meetings, 10 or more of us, and it was always collegial. A lot of us had more experience than he did, and he wanted ideas: What's going to make the biggest difference?"

The relentless questioner was also there from the beginning. "John wanted so much information, it would annoy people who had an agenda for where to go," Codinha said. "They'd give him three proposals, and he'd want 25 or 50 before he made a decision."

But no one called him indecisive. Within a year, the part-time prosecutors all went full time or left, and new divisions were opened in organized crime, victim-witness support and priority prosecution for repeat felons.

"I've asked myself why," said another senior member of Kerry's team, remarking on the contrast between Kerry's clear direction as prosecutor and his indecisiveness and second-guessing as a candidate. "One difference is that everything we did was popular. We got nothing but great press," said the lawyer, who asked not to be named. "There was real consensus this was needed."

Another recurring theme in Kerry's executive style is that he almost always believes consensus is possible if he knows enough about an issue and the concerns of all those affected. "He thinks he wins because he knows the most," said a longtime friend and aide. Indeed, his legislative achievements — in such areas as acid-rain control, fisheries protection and foreign policy — have resulted largely from patient behind-the-scenes diplomacy with members of both parties, and with little public controversy.

Perhaps the strongest case for Kerry's fact-finding and consensus-building was his work to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. It began when Kerry agreed to lead a voluminous congressional investigation into the fate of more than 2,200 Americans missing since the Vietnam War -- an effort his advisers unanimously warned him against, calling it a quagmire. But Zwenig, chief of staff to the select committee, said Kerry "had a point of view and sense of mission from the beginning. He trusted his gut and he trusted his head."

The panel took more than 200 depositions, questioning every living secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had served since the Vietnam War began, said Codinha, who was the committee's chief counsel. They traveled to Vietnam, Laos and Russia, questioning officials, searching prisons and combing through records.

Anguished families packed every hearing. Kerry, other Democrats and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) concluded no Americans remained in captivity; panel vice chairman Robert Smith (N.H.) and some other Republicans insisted there were too many unanswered questions. Codinha remembered seeing no hope of consensus.

"I remember taking a break at noon one day near the end, and saying to John: We'll never persuade these guys," Codinha said. "And he said, {grv}'We're gonna persuade them because we're right on this, and the evidence is there.' "

McCain said Kerry walked the committee through the evidence like a courtroom lawyer, ultimately winning unanimous approval for the conclusion, "There is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." That consensus removed the biggest roadblock to U.S. reconciliation with Vietnam, which came about after two more years of work behind the scenes by Kerry and McCain.

"It wouldn't have happened without his very hard and active work," McCain said.

Kerry's presidential campaign is a study in how his management style works when his direction is unclear or changing with events: in a word, chaotically.

While Bush has kept the same campaign team and, despite shifting public opinion, the same message from the beginning — as he did in 2000 — Kerry is now on his third management team.

After multiple shifts, the campaign has few top managers who are close to Kerry. That, along with Kerry's habit of running ideas by dozens of friends and informal advisers, means that some of the most influential people in the Kerry campaign are actually outside it.

"He's never going to be someone who wants a Karl Rove pulling all the strings," said David Wade, a spokesman and longtime aide who travels with Kerry. "He wants a strong team of feisty, independent people who push and challenge and who he can push and challenge right back."

While Kerry is unusually attentive to words — what to say and how and when to say it on Iraq, the economy and other issues — aides say he is surprisingly uninvolved in strategic decisions that most politicians monitor with a passion, such as which states to target, which ads to run, even the exact content of ads that will shape his image for millions of Americans.

"He's not a micromanager," said Tad Devine, one of a team of officials making these decisions. "He does not have much of an appetite" for the mechanics of strategy.

In the primary campaign, Kerry sank from front-runner to an asterisk before replacing Jim Jordan. Similarly, amid urgent warnings from former president Bill Clinton and many others that Bush's attacks were drawing blood over the summer, Kerry stood by his chief strategist, Robert Shrum, and campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, until his poll numbers sank in August. This led to another shakeup, with Massachusetts strategist John Sasso and former Clinton aides Joe Lockhart and Michael McCurry joining the campaign, and Shrum and Cahill losing influence.

"When he has seen problems, he has addressed them," Cahill said.

In his Senate office as well, Kerry was known for not firing staff members who disappointed him. "He'd just stop relying on them, and they'd be marginalized, and it'd be the chief of staff's problem," a longtime aide said.

Kerry's staff was known for its policy expertise, and aides said one reason for the low turnover was that he gave them unusual freedom to grow. "Every day, I felt this was the most intellectually stimulating job I could have," said Jim Jones, Kerry's former policy director and now a vice president of the Children's Defense Fund.

If the organization sounds unwieldy, aides insist it is more streamlined than it looks, with small circles of trusted Kerry associates overseeing specific areas — Senate chief of staff and close friend David McKean for policy and communications; longtime Kerry strategist Michael Whouley for political decisions.

"If he wins in November, the revisionist theory will be that he kept working until he got it right," a Kerry adviser said.

But Charles O. Jones, a Brookings Institution scholar on governance, said that despite Kerry's preference for information-based decisions, his campaign has given voters little reassurance that he would lead effectively in a world of uncertainty.

"The campaign structure and strategy either fail to offer evidence of how Kerry would govern or raise warning flags," Jones said. "Such a review by no means dooms a Kerry presidency. But he's put a heavy burden on the American people to decide how he would govern."

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.