The schedule of a presidential candidate is scripted down to the nanosecond, but every now and then, John Kerry goes AWOL. In Des Moines one sunny Saturday afternoon, he was given the keys to a staffer’s motorcycle—the plan was to make a dramatic entrance at the next event—and Kerry hopped on and took off the wrong way, heading toward the Iowa cornfields. Twenty minutes later, an anxious aide, standing on a downtown street corner, was overheard sending out an urgent SOS via cell phone: “We’ve lost the senator!” Kerry roared up moments later, his thick hair windswept, with a bad-boy grin.
That was July. In October, Kerry was riding in a van down a country road in New Hampshire, en route to give a speech, when he spied Fifield’s Military Surplus Store. “Do we have time to stop?” he asked an aide. “No,” came the reply, “but we’ll make time.” The blue van took a quick hard right; suddenly, six chase cars containing reporters and photographers careered off the road, nearly causing a wreck. “I forgot they were there,” said Kerry, looking startled and amused. As this entourage followed him into the small store, cameras and notepads poised to capture every move, Kerry quickly realized there was no way to have a relaxed chat with the proprietor or browse through the memorabilia, and retreated wistfully back to the van.
You have to feel John Kerry’s pain. No candidate had more going into this race: the strongest résumé, war-hero credentials, big-name backers, the most experienced campaign team—hell, he even looks like a president. But he’s been upstaged by two novices: antiwar bulldog Howard Dean, who’s become a populist hero to disenfranchised Democrats, and Wesley Clark, whose four stars overshadow Kerry’s military record. “If Kerry were losing ground to someone like Lieberman or Gephardt whom he respected,” says one close ally, “it would be one thing, but to be losing to Howard Dean is infuriating to him. Does he rant? No, but it gets to him.”
“Since when does it not matter that you have experience with things?” Kerry told voters acidly at a recent New Hampshire house party.
In an effort to jump-start his flagging campaign last week, Kerry took the radical step of firing his outspoken campaign manager, Jim Jordan, and replacing him with Mary Beth Cahill, the no-nonsense chief of staff for Ted Kennedy. “We needed a change in leadership,” says Kerry. “She knows all the players, all the people who are working with me.” Two other staffers walked out with Jordan. “I knew there would be fallout and a downside,” Kerry says, “but the upside is yet to come.” Cameron Kerry, the senator’s younger brother, said of Cahill, “She’s tough and she’s organized.”
The widely reported dissension within the campaign—described by an insider as “poisonous, with constant backstabbing”—has got to be wearing to Kerry, who’s known as a micromanager, operating from the front seat of his campaign van. Indeed, Jordan, in an interview in the campaign’s Washington office in a Capitol Hill townhouse just 48 hours before he was fired, described the senator’s mood by saying, “He’s tired. This is a draining thing.” But the perceived winner in last week’s power struggle—controversial veteran Washington media consultant Bob Shrum—had an upbeat spin last Tuesday. “Kerry is resolute, determined. He’s in a good mood,” insisted Shrum, adding that he had joked with the senator just that morning about being attacked in the New York Times for writing the senator’s lackluster campaign-announcement speech. “Kerry laughed and he said, ‘Better you than me.’ ”
It’s a make-or-break moment for Kerry. With the second largest bankroll and a national field operation, Kerry remains the most plausible alternative to the feisty Dean, as Democrats agonize over which candidate has the best shot to beat Bush. Since the racetrack touts have decreed that Iowa belongs to Dick Gephardt or Dean, Kerry doesn’t lose any ground if he comes in a respectable third. But New Hampshire’s a different story, since it’s the state in which Kerry has been a dominant media presence for nineteen years via the neighboring Boston TV airwaves. If he loses New Hampshire to Dean, it will be nearly impossible for the Massachusetts senator to recover.
What’s ironic is that Kerry has been tagged a wooden Al Gore clone when in truth he cannot mask his emotions. No matter how hard he tries to follow the dictates of stay-on-message discipline, it’s all out there. In the space of one single mid-October day of rolling interviews in New Hampshire, he went from the sound-bite banalities of robo-candidate (“There’s a real test here as to who can lead America to a better place”) to stunning bursts of candor. (“At the ripe old age of 11, I was sent to boarding school. Homesick? I cried for three weeks straight.”)
For a cerebral candidate burdened with the reputation of seeming aloof (“He’s deaf in one ear from Vietnam, and he doesn’t hear things as well as he might,” says his heiress wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry), the Massachusetts senator often seems almost desperate to connect. With his intimidating height and worry-of-the-world mien, he looks statesmanlike and standoffish, yet he’s a hands-on, give-them-a-bear-hug toucher. “Hey, man” or “Thanks, brother” or “Rock and roll” (that is, let’s get moving, staff) are his catchphrases. He’s a candidate who revels in referring to his Vietnam experience (partly because, aside from Clark, he’s the only Democrat with a war record) but who also gives the impression that only with fellow vets and longtime friends can he allow himself to relax. Unlike the doctor-knows-best persona of Dean, the elusively bland Clark, or the doggedly determined Gephardt, the 59-year-old Kerry is that rarity on the stage of presidential politics—a candidate who, try as he might, cannot avoid projecting emotional complexity. “John is not a machine,” says Chris Heinz, his stepson. “Things bother him, he’s sensitive, but he wants to be positive.”
Nothing is simple with Kerry. Especially not his sometimes infuriatingly nuanced, but consistent, explanations of why he voted for last year’s Iraqi war resolution yet vigorously opposes the way President Bush has conducted this go-it-alone war and mishandled the peace. Although his position is intellectually defensible—he interpreted his vote as authorizing Bush to go to the U.N. to both pressure Saddam and put together a coalition force—Kerry just can’t seem to sell it.
In fact, many Democrats can’t figure out what it is that he is selling in general—other than a well-bred, Yale-educated introvert struggling to turn himself into a man of the people. Aside from his long résumé, Kerry offers voters a set of positions that are very much within the Democratic mainstream—from his opposition to most, but not all, Bush tax cuts to his middle-ground position on health-care reform. This blurry persona might be acceptable if Kerry were atop the polls, but it presents more serious problems for a candidate who is no longer blessed with an aura of inevitability.
Within the Kerry campaign, battles raged for months over whether the senator should take the high road and campaign against Bush or go for Dean’s jugular, as Jordan and communications director Chris Lehane recommended. Kerry chose to virtually ignore his Democratic competitors for months, although now he hits back daily. “It’s no secret that Chris Lehane and I were on the same side,” said Jordan in the interview before he was fired; Lehane quit in September and joined the Clark campaign. “We wanted to get out there against Dean,” said Jordan, “not in a harsh way, but to point out the differences.”
Kerry’s team is now trying to position him as the Comeback Kid, pointing out that he’s recently cut Dean’s lead in some New Hampshire and Iowa polls. “Kerry’s much tighter now as a candidate,” media consultant Jim Margolis insists. “The TV ads are on; it feels like a campaign now.” Spinmaster Shrum adds, “I’ve been in politics a long time, and I’ve seen people get excited by candidates and take a second look. If we tell this guy’s very powerful story—and I’m not talking about autobiography, I’m talking about a long record of taking on special interests and what he wants to do as president—I think this will be powerfully appealing to voters.” That said, the Kerry image gurus will have to work hard to change the late-night-punch-line perceptions of the senator’s candidacy. When Kerry appeared on the Jay Leno show last week, he was preceded by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog puppet, who declared, “The poop I made in the dressing room has more heat than John Kerry.”
Not that Kerry was fazed. “I loved Triumph,” he said the next day. “I think Triumph is going to endorse me.”
At campaign events, Kerry can seem stiff because he is put off by the call to join in stagey theatrics he feels are phony. Midway through the recent Arizona debate, the men all doffed their jackets and then began, on camera, a sleeve roll-a-thon for that working-man look. By the end, Howard Dean had his sleeves above the elbows, and even Joe Lieberman and the crisply military Clark unbuttoned their cuffs, but only Kerry and Al Sharpton conspicuously maintained formality.
Asked by debate moderator Gwen Ifill about his seeming inability to connect, he quipped, “Wait until you see my video, ‘Kerry Gone Wild.’ ” He told me, “If we ever go out for a few drinks, I’ll give you Samurai Senator,” a reference to the old Saturday Night Live skit. When I inquired what other journalists have missed in profiling him, he shot back, “How much fun I am.”
“If Kerry were losing ground to someone like Lieberman or Gephardt whom he respected, it would be one thing, but to be losing to Howard Dean is infuriating to him. Does he rant? No, but it gets to him.”
It’s been hard for Kerry to play the happy warrior during a year in which he has suffered a series of personal blows. His mother, Rosemary Forbes Kerry, a descendent of the aristocratic Boston Forbes family, died a year ago in November after a lingering illness. His father, Richard, the American-born son of Austrian immigrants, was a foreign-service officer who was stationed during Kerry’s childhood in Oslo and Berlin. John, the second of four children, grew up in a family with a distinguished pedigree, a dwindling fortune, and a wealth of overseas experience. When Kerry refers to his childhood in speeches, he often says, “I rode my bike as a 12-year-old around East Berlin,” past Hitler’s bombed-out headquarters—a stark contrast to John Edwards’s small-town-son-of-a-mill-worker life story.
From boarding school in Switzerland to St. Paul’s prep school in New Hampshire—Kerry points out the van window at the school’s boathouse as we drive by—to Yale to military service in Vietnam, Kerry has followed what has seemed a predestined path toward the White House. His daughter Vanessa, 26, a Harvard-med-school student, recalls a poignant family scene from last fall as her grandmother was ailing: “When my father told her, ‘Mom, I think I’m going to run for president,’ she smiled and said, ‘It’s about time.’ ”
Just weeks after his mother’s funeral last fall, Kerry was, as he puts it, “whacked again,” this time with the news that he had prostate cancer, the disease that killed his father in 2000. Right before undergoing surgery in mid-February, Kerry gave a press conference, joking that the doctors had promised to remove his “aloof gland,” too. But he now admits he was in a much darker mood when he first got the news. “I was pissed off. I thought, ‘Fuck this, why now?’ ” Kerry says, adding, “I thought of it as more of a real drag on what I was trying to do, not God, I’m going to kick the bucket.”
For the macho Kerry, who windsurfs and kite-boards and plays ice hockey with a daredevil’s abandon, to be physically sidelined this year was an insult to his hyperenergetic image. And he still wonders how much the timing of the diagnosis and surgery hurt his candidacy. “I think some of the dynamics of this thing would have been different otherwise,” he says. “It took me off the trail at a critical moment, created uncertainty. I was out for two weeks, but I should have been out for six weeks.”
On the campaign trail, Kerry always makes a special point of trying to connect with fellow veterans, and in Iowa he often introduces his local “brother,” Gene Thorson; the two men served together on a gunboat in Vietnam. Thorson, now a cement mason, says, “We made fun of him; he was this East Coast college guy. But you knew you could count on him.” Thorson adds, with a laugh, “Before we’d go on missions, he’d play his rock and roll loud, and then turn it off and say, ‘Okay, tigers, it’s time to go.’ ”
Kerry received the Purple Heart three times and a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for heroism during his four years (1966–1970) of active duty in the Navy. In one exploit, he jumped off his boat to chase down and kill a Vietcong who had fired at his crew with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. When campaigning, Kerry relishes pointing out that he “knows more about aircraft carriers” than Bush, but doesn’t mention his medals. Instead, he emphasizes his transformation from Vietnam vet to a national leader of the antiwar movement, bragging proudly that “I was named to Richard Nixon’s enemies list at the age of 29.”
Vietnam always seems to be with him. Over a late-night dinner in Des Moines, I asked whether he still had bad dreams about Vietnam. “I haven’t had a nightmare in quite a while,” he said, then mused: “Sometimes, if you’ve been going 90 miles an hour all day and you try to go to sleep, your subconscious mind doesn’t shut down. It fools you into thinking that you’re in danger when you’re not, that something’s gone wrong. That you’re seeing things out of the corner of your eye that are moving.” Earlier this year, the Boston Globe hired a genealogist who discovered that his grandfather, Frederick Kerry, had been born Fritz Kohn to Jewish parents in what is now the Czech Republic before converting to Catholicism and changing his name. (Kerry had long known that his paternal grandmother was a Jew turned devout Catholic.) But the more stunning news to Kerry was learning from the Globe this February that his grandfather had committed suicide in 1921 at the Copley Plaza Hotel, shooting himself in the head in the men’s room; Kerry’s dad was 4. The cause of death had never been discussed in the family. “It was a shock to be confronted with the circumstances,” says Cameron Kerry. “And it happened in a place where we’ve been frequently. John has had fund-raisers there.”
This is the kind of information that makes one rethink family history, perhaps explaining Kerry’s father’s gruff-love nature. “My father never knew his father,” says Kerry. “I learned sixteen years ago that my grandmother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism … Why did my grandfather kill himself? Obviously, I have asked myself what on earth went on in his head.”
Turning to Kerry’s immigrant Jewish roots, I mention that my grandfather’s name was changed at Ellis Island, and that we could be Gorodnichey interviewing Kohn. “Could have been, should have been, I can’t worry about this stuff at this stage of my life,” he snapped. Then his voice softened, “I wish I had answers to a lot of questions. It’s ironic that my father died three years ago. I’m an orphan. there’s no one to talk to.”
As he got up to leave the restaurant a few minutes later, Kerry was stopped repeatedly by well-wishers. The introspective mood lifted and he smiled, delighted by the adulation. Shaking hands with an elderly white-haired woman at the door, he asked her to vote for him in the Iowa caucus. “I’m a Republican,” she replied. Undeterred, Kerry said, “My wife is a Republican, and she’s become a Democrat and she’s voting for me.” The woman said, “She has to, she’s your wife.” Kerry burst out laughing, saying, “You don’t know my wife.”
No candidate’s wife has gotten as much press attention, most of it negative, as Teresa Heinz, who just this year adopted the last name Kerry for the campaign. As the widow of former Pennsylvania Republican senator John Heinz, killed in a plane crash in 1991, she has a ketchup fortune estimated at more than a half-billion dollars; as a philanthropist, she has given away tens of millions of charitable dollars, with special attention to the environment and women’s-health issues. Married to Kerry in 1995, she has five homes (Georgetown, Nantucket, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Idaho), an exotically lilting accent (a residue of her childhood in Mozambique, the daughter of a Portuguese physician father and European mother), and a tendency to speak her mind with minimal editing. A damaging Washington Post profile in June 2002 portrayed her as an outspoken, needy diva and her husband as a stoic wimp; an Elle story this spring revealed that she uses Botox and insisted Kerry sign a prenup.
“I’m more of a personality than a person to some people,” she tells me during a September interview at the Grand Hyatt Hotel near Grand Central. “I just have to be myself, and if it’s not good enough … ” She pauses, laughs, and then gives the punch line: “I get my freedom back.”
What’s appealing about Teresa, and what gets her into trouble, is her honesty. Ask her about the challenges of a second marriage and she replies, “It’s harder to adapt. When you marry at a later stage, you inherit their friends, their good habits, and their bad habits, and they do yours.” Inquire why she thinks Kerry has the reputation of being aloof, and she theorizes that his withdrawn nature stems from being shipped off to boarding school at a young age. “He had great affection from his mom. His dad was not the same kind of sweet personality, but very brilliant, with high standards. John lived away from his parents a lot. It sets you free in some ways, makes you independent, but robs you of some things.”
Teresa first met Kerry at an Earth Day event in Washington in 1990; they were introduced by John Heinz. Two years later, by then a widow with three sons, she ran into Kerry again at the Earth Summit in Rio. “It’s tough to be a single mom of boys,” she says. “They shouldn’t become your source of emotional support. They’re not your husband, they’re not your boyfriend, they’re not an adult, they’re needy. I needed a husband and a friend. I was aware of that pretty quickly.” For a very wealthy and good-looking woman who was widowed at the age of 52, she then makes a comment that is remarkably insecure. “First of all, how many men in Washington are there of my age who would want to date me? I don’t know. I never saw any. That’s why I ended up marrying someone in the mutual field of work”—environmental issues.
Kerry separated from his first wife, Julia Thorne, in 1983, and they finalized their divorce in 1988. Thorne, who has since remarried an architect, has written an affecting book about depression, You Are Not Alone, which describes her breakdown in 1980 while married to Kerry: “My mind ravaged by corroding voices, my body defeated by bone-rattling panics, I sat on the edge of my bed minutes from taking my life.” After the divorce, the couple’s two daughters (Alexandra, 29, is an actress and film student based in L.A.) stayed in Boston with their mother, who in her book credits her recovery to therapy and antidepressants. Meanwhile, Kerry commuted weekly from Washington to be with the girls.
Kerry, who played the eligible-Washington-bachelor game for many years, says he wasn’t eager to remarry because he felt protective of his daughters and the failure of his first marriage made him unwilling to commit again. “I was feeling a little burned and a little wary,” he says, describing his state of mind when he met Teresa. “I wasn’t sure how it would all work. But then we spent time together and it grew.” Kerry has become particularly close to Teresa’s motorcycle-loving youngest son, Chris, 30, a Harvard M.B.A. who left a private equity firm to join the campaign. “I hope people understand that it’s not a slam-dunk to work for your stepfather after losing your dad,” says Heinz. “I really love the guy and believe in him, and I’m happy to help.”
The combination of Teresa Heinz’s money and Kerry’s long-simmering presidential ambitions has led to much skepticism and gossiping in Washington about their relationship. “She’s a powerful, wealthy woman, and we live in a country where people are often measured by what they have, not who they are,” Kerry says. Then he laughs wryly, adding, “Both of us have really learned not to worry about other people. She’s a very nurturing, grounded person with a lot of practical intelligence.”
Those qualities were invaluable to Kerry during this past year; it was his wife, not his doctor, who diagnosed his prostate cancer. Kerry had a physical examination last fall and came home crowing about his low cholesterol count. Teresa is a doctor’s daughter who reads up on cancer. She asked Kerry for his PSA test—“It was a lowish number but too high compared to where it had been. I remembered the two before”—and insisted he alert his doctor. “John was stunned at first,” she says, “since he didn’t feel anything was wrong.”
Kerry may not be rolling up his sleeves for this battle, but he seems, if anything, invigorated by his new role as underdog. He’s amping up his rhetoric, and he gleefully joined the seven-to-one attack on Dean for his poorly phrased Confederate-flag remarks. “You never like to be behind,” says John Hurley, a Boston lawyer and longtime friend now organizing veterans to back Kerry, “but the election doesn’t ride on polls taken now, when people are just starting to pay attention.”
For all the candidates but Dean, raising money has become tough; one well-placed New York socialite lamented recently that her friends kept turning down her requests for Kerry donations, saying they didn’t want to invest in Kerry because he didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Now that Dean has chosen to opt out of campaign-spending restrictions—using his Internet largesse rather than take federal matching funds—Kerry is widely expected to follow suit in order to remain competitive.
“He’s hurt by these stories, but he’s going to soldier on,” says new campaign manager Cahill. The campaign purge may quell some of the infighting. “We are certainly sad and upset that Jim left,” said one Jordan partisan who’s staying on, “but we don’t have time to wallow in it. It’s done.” Cahill is expected to be a calming force, “I don’t feel like I have to be a peacemaker,” she says, “We have a lot of people working their hearts out.”
Many Democrats worry that the fiery Dean can’t beat cool-hand Bush, and Clark has lost some of his momentum thanks to early stumbles. After Dean, Kerry has raised the most money, he’s running a national campaign and has popular former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen onboard. A Kerry strategist notes that when supporters of other candidates are asked for their second choice, “Kerry is everyone’s No. 2.” And there are moments when it all seems doable. At an outdoor speech in front of a bookstore in Warner, New Hampshire, Kerry beamed at the sight of a supporter waving a bumper sticker that read DATED DEAN, MARRIED KERRY. “That sentiment really describes what’s going on now,” he enthused. Well, not entirely, but he does have real, committed fans. Now all Kerry’s got to do is get the rest of the country to fall in love with him, and, better yet, stay faithful until next November.