Early one evening in the fall of 1984, John F. Kerry was flying home from a campaign stop in western Massachusetts when his helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing.
An engine light signaled trouble, so the pilot touched down in an open field in Framingham just as Jerome Anderson was driving past. Anderson, a doctor, threw his yellow Volkswagen in reverse, backed up and called out, making sure none of the four passengers aboard the chopper was hurt.
FOR THE RECORD
Kerry profile — An article Sunday in Section A misstated the type of ship on which Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) served during one of his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War. He served as skipper of a patrol boat for one tour, rather than two. He previously served as an officer on a guided-missile frigate. In addition, the article gave Kerry's age incorrectly. He is 59, not 60.
The candidate, unshaken, strode across the grassy meadow, thrust out his hand and seized the opportunity. "John Kerry," he said, as if the two had just met on the midway of a county fair. "I'm running for U.S. Senate."
Kerry is known for his coolness under fire — along with his ambition. An oft-decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, he has thrived for more than 25 years in the close-quarters combat of Massachusetts politics, winning that first Senate contest and three more that followed, including a titanic 1996 struggle with the state's popular Republican governor, William Weld.
The bigger questions as Kerry seeks the White House are whether his military heroism can shield him from criticism that he is too liberal and whether his personality is too standoffish to connect with voters. Not that either is necessarily true.
Kerry, 60, has deviated enough from Democratic orthodoxy — supporting free trade, welfare reform and teacher accountability — to assert that the liberal label is not a perfect fit. And his easy banter with firefighters in small-town Iowa and his gusto in joining a patriotic singalong at a Des Moines VFW post suggest that the stodgy stereotype is also a bit dated.
"The aloof stuff came from his initial forays" in state politics, said Lou DiNatale, a longtime Kerry watcher and political science professor at the University of Massachusetts who has seen him loosen up considerably over time.
Still, the step up to a national campaign hasn't always gone well. Surgery in February for prostate cancer slowed Kerry for weeks, and his complicated position on Iraq — pro-war, anti-Bush — has fed a reputation for vacillation. Only now, after falling back into the pack despite his early anointment as the front-runner, does Kerry sense he has hit his stride.
"You have to feel it to understand it," he said of the "pace and intensity" of running for president. "The country kind of gets bigger not smaller as the days go by."
For a man with blue blood in his veins, homes in ritzy Georgetown and Beacon Hill, and a wife worth hundreds of millions of dollars — she is the widow of Sen. John Heinz, heir to the food fortune — Kerry comes across as a pretty regular guy. He windsurfs, roller-blades, uses four-letter words, loves cold beer and ice cream, rides a Harley and plays ice hockey — details his staff is eager to highlight, save for the swearing, to take a bit of starch out of Kerry's collar.
His long face and deep-set eyes lend a certain gravity to Kerry's remarks, whatever the subject. He talks too long, aides fret, and too often favors the windy speaking style that passes for great oratory on the Senate floor. But a sly, goofy side peeks through when the 6-foot-4 candidate clambers aboard playground equipment to amuse his staffers between campaign stops or hunts down a reporter who gets lost on the way to a news conference, posing on a cellphone as a detective from the missing persons bureau.
Kerry himself cedes nothing to Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (the son of a milkman) or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (the son of a millworker) in the man-of-the-people department. If a patrician background were a disqualifier for the White House, "we would have lost some of our great presidents," Kerry says, citing Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy during a lengthy interview this month. "There is no cookie-cutter formula that says just because you were born here or there you ought to be president. It's not important where you come from, it's what you fight for and where you stand on the issues that people are looking at."
That said, Kerry may be the one Democratic presidential hopeful with the most riding on his biography. A product of the Boston Brahmin Forbes family and exclusive prep schools, Kerry volunteered for the Navy and requested service in Vietnam after graduating from Yale University in 1966. It was a sense of duty that motivated him, Kerry later said, along with the idealism of the times. He served two combat tours as a patrol boat skipper, earning a Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.
Kerry returned from the war disillusioned and became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, making him a national figure before he was 30.
His first try for political office, however, hardly boded well.
After shopping for a place to run, Kerry moved to Lowell, Mass., and launched a disastrous 1972 bid for Congress, losing to a Republican in a district carried by George McGovern. Even more damaging, he established a reputation for opportunism that persists to this day. "Just a bunch of ambition running around looking for an office" was how DiNatale described it. "Brash" is the word Kerry uses.
Humbled, he went to law school and became a Middlesex County prosecutor, specializing in drug and domestic-abuse cases. In 1982, Kerry renewed his political pursuit, challenging the state's Democratic establishment by running for lieutenant governor and elbowing his way onto the ticket alongside gubernatorial hopeful Michael S. Dukakis. Both won, and two years later Kerry again defied party bosses by running for the U.S. Senate. He beat the establishment favorite in the primary and went on to win the seat he has held ever since.
In Congress, Kerry brought a district attorney's zeal, and an appetite for headlines, to scandals involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the drug-dealing of Panamanian President Manuel A. Noriega and the issue of American soldiers missing in Southeast Asia. Along with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Kerry played a crucial role in 1995 in pushing for normalized U.S. relations with Vietnam.
There is much more to Kerry's life and political career than Vietnam, of course. He has a strong record in support of gay civil rights, small business, environmental causes and campaign-finance reform. In the presidential race he has outlined programs to promote public service, boost alternative energy and expand medical coverage while seeking to contain health-care costs. He calls for repealing Bush's upper-income tax cuts in favor of a payroll tax "holiday" that would give more money to low- and middle-income earners and, Kerry says, put more than 1 million people back to work overnight.
But Vietnam is what sets Kerry apart, much as it did McCain, another war hero who ran for president chiefly on his resume.
Kerry weaves it into casual conversation — "I haven't seen things this screwed up since I got back from Vietnam," he says, kicking it around with the boys at the firehouse in Ottumwa, Iowa — and trumpets it from the stage at town hall meetings. "I can bring a voice to our party that is different from any other candidate," he tells a Friday night crowd of 200 in nearby Burlington, "because I know what it means to fight in a war."
The implicit message is that only a Democrat with unquestioned military credentials can hope to beat the nation's terrorist-fighting commander in chief. Or as Kerry puts it, less subtly, "It takes more than landing on an aircraft carrier with a Navy pilot to make up for a failed economic policy." He knows a few things about such landings, Kerry says to partisan whoops, "having worked with aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin." (His quip in April calling for "regime change" in Washington struck many as less amusing.)
Kerry is no hawk, although he has been less shy than many Democrats about promoting a muscular foreign policy. He voted to support the war against Iraq, but he says it should have been a last resort after a more intensive diplomatic effort. To critics, that is having it both ways, another of the charges that has dogged Kerry throughout his political career.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Kerry's chief tormentor on the campaign trail, asks how the senator can carry the banner against Bush in 2004 when he has voted to back the president on Iraq and supported the USA Patriot Act and Bush's education program.
Before an appearance in Chicago, feet on a hotel coffee table, Kerry ticks off his responses: Bush bungled the diplomacy leading to the war. He reneged on the education funding he promised Democrats. The parts of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act that most offend civil libertarians will expire in a year.
Kerry's irritation with Dean is barely suppressed. He speaks of the compromises forced by the legislative process and how nuance gets lost in the "blam, blam simplicity of American politics."
"One of the reasons I am running for president is precisely to hold this president accountable" on issues like education, Kerry says.
If he reaches the White House, he will have to do so without the help of his rescuer back in Framingham, Mass.
After spotting Kerry and his fellow helicopter passengers, Jerome Anderson recalled in a recent interview, he drove them to his home and served drinks while they waited for a cab back to Boston. Kerry sent "a lovely note" of gratitude, said the doctor's wife, Susan, who saved it, thinking someday he might be president. She's a Democrat. Her husband is a Republican. He's backing Bush.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
John Forbes Kerry
Born: Dec. 11, 1943, in Denver.
Parents: Richard J. Kerry, Army Air Corps pilot and Foreign Service officer, and Rosemary F. Kerry, volunteer and homemaker.
Education: Yale, B.A., 1966; Boston College, J.D., 1976.
Spouse: Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Children: Two daughters, Alexandra, 29, and Vanessa, 26; three stepsons, John, 37, Andre, 34, and Christopher, 30.
Residences: Boston and Washington, D.C.
Current job: U.S. senator.
Previous jobs: Lieutenant governor of Massachusetts; prosecutor, Middlesex County, Mass.; lawyer.
Military service: Skipper of Navy patrol boat; two tours of duty in Vietnam; received Silver Star, Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts.
Source: Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles TimesCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times