The making of John Kerry

The senator from Massachusetts has spent a lifetime of steely determination readying himself to be president

Election 2004

The Democratic Convention

July 25, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

He had slaved over the speech for weeks. He had written and rewritten, consulted friends and professors. He wanted it perfect.

But as he stood before his Yale graduating class and thousands of others in 1966, critiquing American foreign policy and questioning U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in his most polished oratorical timbre, John Kerry had just one problem: He was a little too well-rehearsed.

"It was a political science student, policy wonk's speech. It was pretty analytical and dispassionate," recalled his brother, Cameron Kerry, who was listening that day.

Five years later, fresh off a harrowing and heroic stint commanding a patrol craft in Vietnam, Kerry delivered a strikingly different speech, a wrenching anti-war diatribe to a Senate committee that he concluded with a question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

"He became much more visceral," Cameron Kerry said of his brother, "and that made all the difference."

On Thursday, before the Democratic convention in Boston and a national TV audience, Kerry will deliver the most important address of his life: a prime-time speech that could be the best chance he gets to introduce himself to voters, defining what kind of man he is and what kind of president he would be.

Kerry's earlier speeches highlight the forces that have driven and dogged Kerry throughout his life: the restless ambition of a man infatuated even as a child with the notion of public service, a perfectionism that can make him seem aloof or even pompous, and a gutsy - although rarely glimpsed - fighting spirit that has emerged at key moments to fuel his political rise.

Now, as in the past, Kerry is striving to transform a lifetime of painstaking preparation into a vibrant message that captures the support of the public - something that has always been among his toughest challenges.

At several stages in his life - from his education at elite European and New England boarding schools and at Yale to his years in Massachusetts politics and as a U.S. senator - Kerry has struggled to connect with and inspire people.

John Forbes Kerry, 60, will accept the Democratic presidential nomination this week at the conclusion of a four-day convention designed to tell the nation his life story. It is the tale of a man who has spent a lifetime readying himself to be president, building up a sterling resume and a wealth of political experience, and who has compensated for his lack of affability with a steely determination to succeed.

Born on Dec. 11, 1943, he was surrounded by politics at an early age. His father was a State Department official who mixed with politicians and diplomats.

Kerry attended boarding schools in Switzerland and in New England, cycling through several schools without ever having one where he felt fully at ease - an experience friends say may explain his tendency to come off as distant.

As child, `he was intense'

At the prestigious St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., students and teachers remember him as a serious youngster, eager to debate world events when other boys were preoccupied with more mundane things.

"He was very solemn, serious. He was very much interested in what was going on in the world," said Herbert Church, who taught English at St. Paul's and remembers late-night discussions with Kerry - long after the other boys had gone to sleep - about politics and current events.

Kerry had friends, Church recalled, but he "was certainly not one of the club."

He joined the other boys playing hockey and lacrosse, but he also gravitated to more cerebral activities, joining the literary club and debate team, and starting an international affairs group. His earnestness set him apart from his mostly privileged classmates in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most of them were cultivating the blase, devil-may-care attitude of wealthy boys assured of their place in the world.

"The expected mode of behavior was to be a rag, to be casual ... and be very nonchalant about everything," said Daniel Barbiero, a friend of Kerry's since his junior year at St. Paul's and who roomed with him at Yale.

"John was completely the opposite of that - he was intense."

Transformed by JFK

Toward the end of his time at St. Paul's, Kerry found a role model who would be a driving force in his life and political career. In Boston Garden on Election Day 1960, Kerry saw presidential candidate John F. Kennedy speak for the first time.

That, said his brother Cameron, was when Kerry's "real political birth took place."

Clark Abbott, who lived in Kerry's freshman dorm, recalls asking his neighbor what he wanted to do with his life. "His response was, well, he wanted to be president of the United States," Abbott said.

Kerry quickly distinguished himself on the New Haven campus, joining the debate team and the Yale Political Union. The same traits that once set Kerry apart from the other boys at St. Paul's - his lanky stature, serious nature and relentless drive - would make him a minor celebrity at Yale.

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