John Kerry: Veteran politician

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They called themselves the winter soldiers.

In tattered Vietnam combat fatigues, the anti-war veterans marched through the small towns and strip malls of central New Jersey in September 1970.

Staging "guerrilla theater" re-enactments of the conflict raging overseas, they swept down on young actors dressed as peasants in coolie hats and black pajamas and spattered mock blood on shocked Main Street Americans.

At Palumbo's Pharmacy in Bernardsville, they took a "peasant" hostage and demanded the location of the community's weapons. A few miles down U.S. Route 202, a New Jersey farm boy raised a shotgun and told the re-enactors to go back to Russia.

Some 150 sweat-soaked members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War ended their three-day trek at Valley Forge, Pa., on Sept. 7, 1970. Huddled around a flatbed truck, they listened to remarks by Jane Fonda and a reading from Donald Sutherland.

Between the main acts came a floppy-haired former Navy lieutenant who had won a fistful of medals on the bloody canals of the Mekong Delta. Tall and self-assured, 27-year-old Yale graduate John Kerry read from a rumpled sheaf of papers in the ringing voice that had commanded men on gunships.

Condemning the tactics and morality of the war, Kerry was "brilliant," Fonda says today. He looked like Abe Lincoln and sounded like John F. Kennedy. "He was our ragtag commander at Valley Forge," says veterans organizer Joe Bangert.

Over the next 14 months, Kerry became the VVAW's spokesman and a key leader. With a knack for raising money and organizing people, able to straddle the divide between angry protesters and the nation's uncertain majority, he helped transform the motley band of anti-war veterans into a potent political force. In soaring, eloquent speeches, Kerry channeled the rage of returning soldiers, pled their case before Congress and captured the attention of a war-torn nation.

"We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that [Vietnam War] service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us," Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Kerry helped push the tide of public opinion against the war. But then he moved on -- fed up with his comrades' Maoist rhetoric, confrontational street theater and fuzzy, global goals -- to pursue the national political career he had been envisioning since his youth.

Today, as he seeks the presidency that long has been his ambition, Kerry is often flanked by Navy crewmates who fought alongside him in Vietnam. He stresses his mud-and-blood battle experience as the foundation for his standing on military and national security issues, the essence of his case for the Oval Office.

But the young Kerry's 14-month sojourn with Vietnam-era dissidents may best explain the man who would be Commander in Chief -- and the uncertainty many Democrats harbor about his candidacy.

It is the buried chapter of a remarkable public life.

In the dog-eat-dog democracy of the peace movement, the complexities of Kerry's character fell into stark relief. Appalled by the civilian casualties of war, he was ultimately willing to fight for change within a political system he called corrupt. Kerry defends his moral and intellectual position as essential to understanding the nuances of a vexingly complex world. Then, as now, his battle was for the middle ground.

As a young protest leader, Kerry showed the studied, even calculated resolve that makes allies skeptical and opponents nervous. Singled out by the Watergate dirty tricksters of the Nixon administration as well as by anarchists within his own ranks, he was a target of frequent attacks and developed the prickly skin he wears on the campaign trail today.

But now Kerry struggles to find the ringing voice he raised as a dissident patriot in 1970 and '71. Unable to gain traction on the crowded Democratic field, Kerry has fired his campaign manager and shaken up his staff. He announced he would opt out of public campaign financing -- and the spending limits that come with it. He may dip into his considerable personal fortune to compete with the cash-flush campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

But Kerry's candidacy founders on the perception that he is snippy and convoluted, a speechifying senator who insists on composing the perfect answer instead of simply saying what he feels. Indeed, at critical moments of his life, Kerry has resorted to embroidered explanations of black-and-white events. The most pressing example is his Senate vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq -- followed by his blistering critiques of White House policy ever since.

Kerry says he became a war critic after President Bush broke his pledge to build a broad international coalition and plan for the peace. It's not Kerry's logic that seems to bother Democrats so much as his scolding dismissal of those who don't understand it.

Similarly, Kerry has brusquely fielded questions about his leadership of the veterans' protest organization. In his runs for public office since the 1980s, he has stressed instead his career after resigning from the group's national steering committee in November 1971.

"Kerry at a certain point decided that he is not going to talk about VVAW," said University of Waterloo assistant professor of history Andrew E. Hunt, who tried unsuccessfully to interview Kerry for his 1999 book, "The Turning."

He is more comfortable discussing the political career he went on to build in deliberate steps: He earned a law degree, then a reputation as a tough-on-crime prosecutor in Middlesex County, Mass. He rose to become a Massachusetts lieutenant governor known for taking on acid rain polluters. Kerry won his U.S. Senate seat in 1984.

Today, Kerry hopes Democrats will be drawn by the crosscurrents of a uniquely American life: the battle-decorated officer who became an ardent peace activist and now appeals to voters dismayed by the Iraq war but still rattled enough by terrorism to want a president with combat instincts.

Although he offers tortuous explanations of some of his life's defining moments, Kerry wants this election to be about character and biography. Above all, he is aching to match his life story against that of another Yale graduate, President George Bush.

Privileged kids from elite New England prep schools, both were inducted into the Skull & Bones Society at Yale, where they met only in passing -- Bush graduated two years after Kerry. But while Kerry was a standout scholar and soccer player, Bush was an academic scrub -- a cheerleader at Andover and fraternity president at Yale.

Taking a different path

In the Vietnam War that so divided their generation, Kerry also took a decidedly different path. He volunteered for battlefield command and earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with a Combat V and three Purple Hearts. Bush opted for a stateside stint with the Texas Air National Guard.

Kerry's campaign portfolio bulges with photos and news stories that celebrate the daredevil in him. He has pulled barrel rolls in stunt planes, windsurfed squalls off Nantucket Island and run with the bulls at Pamplona. A motorcycle rider since the age of 14, the 59-year-old senator cruises to photo shoots on his monster V-twin Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide chopper.

He prowls the stage at an Iowa rally, his toes hanging over the edge of a makeshift wooden platform, and pumps his fist as he exhorts the crowd to "stand up against the creed of greed."

During his nearly 20 years in the Senate, Kerry made an early mark with maverick investigations into government corruption, exposing the role of powerful Democratic lobbyist Clark Clifford in the BCCI banking scandal. He helped to unmask the covert arrangements between the U.S. government and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. With Sen. John McCain, Kerry forced the military to declassify hundreds of thousands of pages of records on Vietnam War POW-MIAs, paving the way for reconciliation with Vietnam.

Kerry says those efforts to hold government accountable were an outgrowth of his experience in Vietnam, "where people lied to us." The hearings "kept faith with what we expect from government," he says. "It's not directly providing a job, but it's safeguarding the country."

Yet as Kerry delved into international scandals such as BCCI, his support softened in Massachusetts mill towns. In 1996, he faced a formidable challenge from William Weld, the popular moderate Republican former governor. After squeaking to victory in a bruising campaign, Kerry put more emphasis on legislation that affects the lives of ordinary people.

Though he still is rated among the greenest senators on environmental issues, he is now more apt to showcase his achievements on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. He says it is "unacceptable for the Democratic Party to run around saying we love jobs and then hate the people and harass the people who create them." He hasn't joined other Democratic candidates in calling for a wholesale repeal of the Bush tax cuts, arguing that the middle class would take an unfair hit.

On the Iowa rally's crisp fall afternoon, Kerry wades into the crowd, a beacon of expertly feathered silver-and-black hair, and loops long arms around supporters' shoulders. With his steep, craggy face and sparkling, deep-set eyes, Kerry is at once Hollywood handsome and a political cartoonist's dream. His eyebrows level as he fields an impromptu question, then open like a drawbridge when he smiles.

His ease on the campaign trail is due in no small part to the second chance he got in love, friends and family say.

Kerry's first marriage to writer Julia Thorne ended in a 1988 divorce after six years of separation. For a few years, Kerry topped Washington eligible bachelors lists and dated socialites and actresses such as Morgan Fairchild and Michelle Phillips. But the senator was unhappily single and bristled at the media attention. "It was a pretty rootless existence, and John was looking for roots," brother Cameron Kerry says.

Helping to raise two teenage daughters at the time -- Alexandra, now 30, is a filmmaker and Vanessa, 26, a medical student -- he shuttled between apartments in Washington and Boston, shunning Georgetown's salons to attend the girls' high school lacrosse and field hockey matches. A practicing Catholic, the combative senator found a haven in his faith.

Kerry's second marriage, to philanthropist Teresa Heinz in 1995, made him the richest man in the Senate -- and a calmer, more grounded person, his friends and colleagues say.

The Mozambique-born daughter of a Portuguese doctor, she is an outspoken public figure in her own right whose blunt comments have kindled support for Kerry while unnerving his campaign handlers. When she befriended Kerry in 1993, she was grieving the loss of her husband, John Heinz III, the progressive Republican Pennsylvania senator and sole heir to the food company fortune. She had been a stay-at-home mother of their three sons until her husband died in a 1991 plane crash. The tragedy thrust her to the helm of the Heinz family's billion-dollar philanthropies and forced a reinvention. She redirected the money to support women's health, environmental protection and the arts.

Confident and blunt, Heinz leavens Kerry's reflexive self-editing. Almost against his will, she has dragged the carefully constructed public figure into the light of everyday life. In one 1996 interview, she revealed that Kerry had been gripped by Vietnam nightmares in which he leapt from bed hollering about saving women and children. Beltway gossips buzzed. But, Heinz says, from mid-America, the wives of veterans contacted her to say, "Thank you for saying that because my husband didn't want to talk about it [and] now he can."

A family secret

Kerry's role in the anti-war movement and his harrowing, heroic combat experience almost -- but don't quite -- overshadow the importance of his first 27 years. Family secrets haunted Kerry's childhood, turning his father into a remote and sometimes bitter figure. A U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who rose through the ranks of the Foreign Service, the elder Kerry moved his family from Washington to London, Oslo and Berlin.

Kerry's Irish-sounding name has been an advantage in Massachusetts politics, but his background isn't Irish: Kerry's paternal grandfather, Frederick A. Kerry, was actually born Fritz Kohn in a small Czech town then part of the Austrian empire. Kohn chose an Irish name and he and his wife, who was also Jewish, converted to Catholicism before they immigrated to the U.S. in 1905. In Chicago and Boston, Kohn carved out a career as a shoe wholesaler and business consultant.

When Kerry's father was dying of cancer in 2000, he revealed to Kerry that Kohn had committed suicide. But it was not until this year, during a Boston Globe interview, that Kerry first learned details of the highly public tragedy his family had hidden: On a November morning in 1921, Kohn strode into the men's room of a fashionable Boston hotel and dispatched himself with a handgun in front of stunned guests.

Seeing the 1921 headlines, Kerry said, helped him understand his father's emotional distance.

As his family traveled, Kerry was sent to the best boarding schools in Europe and America. At age 16, he was one of the few Democrat Catholics in the WASP stronghold of St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., where he was a standout student and a hockey player. In an early harbinger of his political savvy, he founded the John Winant Society, which still exists as a forum in which students debate the issues of the day.

In 1960, the St. Paul boy saw then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy speak at a Boston rally and was captivated. Two years later, as Kerry was entering Yale, he handed out leaflets for Sen. Edward Kennedy's first senate campaign. That summer, Kerry dated Janet Auchincloss, the half-sister of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. At her family's Rhode Island estate, he met President Kennedy and sailed with him in a Coast Guard yawl in Narragansett Bay. A black-and-white snapshot of the event graces Kerry's current campaign portfolio.

At Yale, where Kerry served in student government starting as a freshman, he was outspoken about his goal to hold national office and his admiration for the Kennedys. In late-night, caffeine-fueled discussions with classmates, he defended the "domino theory" rationale for sending advisers and troops to Vietnam.

In his senior year at Yale, Kerry enlisted in the Navy and cut classes to take flying lessons. At his graduation, he delivered a speech that has often been misinterpreted as a condemnation of the budding Vietnam conflict. "We have not really lost the desire to serve," he said of his generation, "we question the very roots of what we are serving."

But as the speech shows and Kerry points out today: "I wasn't opposed to the war, I was questioning our overall policy" of America serving as the world's policeman. "We were the last vestige of the Cold War generation that came out of our parents' views" about standing up to communism, he says.

A few weeks later, he was ordered into active duty as an officer candidate. Kerry's campaign video shows him toting a rifle through the perilous green jungles of Vietnam, where he spent five months of his four-year war service. Before he got there, the junior lieutenant spent a year aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Gridley as it protected aircraft carriers in the China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin.

In interviews and e-mails, six Gridley shipmates recall Kerry as unpretentious and unafraid of engine grease, rain or rough seas. He issued loudspeaker commands in what his captain called "a great radio voice." The boatswains mates nicknamed him "The Beatle" because of his bangs.

Kerry confided to his Gridley roommate, then-Lt. James R. Onorato, that one day he hoped to lead the nation. "He said his primary goal was to be a senator and then go for the big shot, the presidency," Onorato said. "He wanted to be top dog."

Standing midnight watch over the moonlit waves, Kerry debated the war with radioman Philip W. Carter -- who says he was then a "jaded" sailor midway through his third tour. "We had different attitudes," Carter says today. "He was an eager-beaver young officer."Kerry's superiors rated him one of the gunboat's most effective officers. In 1968, following the example of his hero, President Kennedy, he volunteered to skipper one of the 50-foot-long Navy "SWIFT boats" then patrolling the Vietnam coast.

When Kerry took command of his first boat in November 1968, a battle-seasoned officer walked him to the fantail and grilled Kerry privately about his motives for volunteering. "I wanted to find out, was he out there hunting medals," petty officer Delbert Sandusky says today.

Kerry, who had already lost a close friend to battle, said he wanted "to make a difference and nail Charlie," Sandusky says.

"And he proved it."

In the heart of the battle

Kerry's first command came as the Navy was launching Operation Sea Lord to control the maze of narrow canals through which the Viet Cong moved weapons and fighters to the country's southernmost tip.

Weighted down with as much ammo as they could carry, sometimes blaring propaganda tapes (or Kerry's choice: Jim Morrison and The Doors), the noisy aluminum SWIFT boats motored three, four and five in a row like metal ducks past the mouths of jagged foliage where enemy gunners hid.

Firefights were frequent and casualties high, according to Tribune interviews and e-mails from five of Kerry's crewmates, as well as military records and published histories. In one incident, patrolling the Bay Hap River in 1969, five Sea Lord boats encountered a nest of mines.

The concussive force knocked Kerry into his boat's pilothouse and injured his right arm. Then the river banks exploded with sniper fire. Someone spotted a Green Beret floundering in the bullet-strafed water behind them. With a gun in one hand and a radio in the other, shooting and shouting orders, Kerry maneuvered his boat back. Although wounded, he stretched over its rail, exposing himself to enemy fire as he pulled the soldier to safety.

Kerry says he and several other skippers openly questioned whether their heavy gunfire advanced America's war aims. To quell their concerns, the young officers of two Delta divisions were flown to Saigon and briefed by the Admiral of the Navy and the military's supreme commander, Gen. Creighton Abrams. "We told [them] it was wrong to just go up a river just shooting at random at villagers, that this wasn't the way to win the hearts and minds of the people," Kerry told "60 Minutes" in 1971. "In the months I was there, we never found one supply, really. . . . We thought it was absurd."

Today, many military scholars disagree with Kerry's assessment. "I would say emphatically that most historians see Operation Sea Lord as a whopping success. It did curtail enemy infiltration," said R. Blake Dunnavent, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

Kerry is unmoved. He had seen enough of the war to conclude it was mismanaged and immoral. In March 1969, he cited a military regulation that lets a serviceman with three Purple Hearts return to home base, and ended his Vietnam tour.

Given light duty as an admiral's aide in Brooklyn, he explored a congressional campaign as an anti-war candidate. "I came back angry about the war," Kerry said in an interview. "I came back purposefully to try to contribute to ending it."

His first run for Congress flopped. Immigrant and blue-collar voters in eastern Massachusetts were bewildered by the eloquent preppie, and Kerry soon threw his support behind Boston Law School Jesuit priest Robert Drinan, who won and served five terms in Congress.

But members of the protest group Vietnam Veterans Against the War saw Kerry on "The Dick Cavett Show," and invited him to speak at the group's biggest rally to date: the 86-mile protest march through Revolutionary War sites from Morristown, N.J., to Valley Forge.

Taking charge

The veterans Kerry led set themselves somewhat apart from the broad mass of anti-war protesters. They brought a formidable, martial presence to the movement.

The group claimed only about 600 members in 1970 -- almost all were male, and most had enlisted from blue-collar neighborhoods and small farming towns, accounts show. But while Americans found it easy to dismiss college protesters as spoiled kids, the veterans carried the force of combat experience behind their pleas for peace.

"We went overseas thinking we were John Waynes and came home feeling like Nazis," said organizer Barry Romo. "But we didn't just sink into a bar someplace. We wanted to bring our brothers home."

Kerry played only a tentative, behind-the-scenes role in the organization's first big pitch for public attention after the march to Valley Forge: a three-day panel discussion on war crimes held in a Detroit Howard Johnson motel.

The press and nation paid little attention to the speakers, who spent much of their time rambling angrily about racism in America. At the group's next steering committee meeting, the mood was ugly. Kerry stepped in to rally the dispirited soldiers.

"I have a clear picture of John standing up, introducing himself and saying: I propose we take our message to Washington," said veterans organizer Jan Barry. "He made a very articulate case to a bunch of very angry people. On his feet, he convinced us to take the next step."

Kerry's proposed march on the nation's capital soon was mired in conflict over questions of choreography.

Kerry wanted veterans to lobby their congressmen with low-volume, reasoned appeals. But VVAW's steering committee included radicals and infantry grunts who were fed up with elected officials and wanted to take their message to the street.

At the end of an exhausting, dayslong meeting, the radicals and Kerry compromised, and agreed to lobby but also to stage guerrilla theater demonstrations.

As Kerry called reporters and public figures to build support for the event, resentment grew over his ease with the spotlight, prep school pedigree and officer's rank. But no one could state the veterans' case more forcefully than the earnest, combat-decorated Yalie.

"People thought he was a glory-hunter who was highballing us and was going to use us for his own advancement in the future," said veterans organizer Joe Bangert. "I said, why not?"

Making compromises

On a cloudless Sunday in April 1971, the first of 2,000 veterans trickled into Washington to begin a five-day series of showdowns with the Nixon administration. At each step, Kerry played a defining role.

In a series of expedited hearings that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, the administration secured an injunction barring the demonstrators from camping in The Mall in Washington. The roughly 900 VVAW members in attendance faced an unexpected choice and a court-ordered 90-minute deadline: They would be arrested if they slept; they could remain on The Mall only if they stayed awake.

Taking the microphone in turns, Kerry and a few other leaders made short, unadorned speeches about whether to risk arrest and sleep that night.

According to Tribune interviews and historical accounts, Kerry argued that a mass arrest would marginalize the veterans, making them indistinguishable from the broad mass of war protesters. The other leaders said, in effect: We slept in the mud in Vietnam, so no one can tell us not to lie down here.

The vote was close: 400 veterans wanted to join Kerry and stay awake, but 480 chose to defy the Supreme Court and sleep.

The Nixon administration backed down, but so did Kerry: Although he lost the vote, Kerry urged his losing minority to obey the outcome. That would be only the first of several compromises he would make as the energy of the march built.

Kerry had turned down offers of support from a gypsylike group of cooks called the "Raintree Tribe" because he didn't want the veterans to be associated with flower-power radicals. The march committee assented with Kerry's decision -- then went behind his back, recalled John J. O'Connor, who infiltrated the veterans group as an undercover officer for the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. Kerry stood with his hands on his hips as the tribe adroitly set up kitchen tents and began feeding protesters, then his frown broke into a grin. "I stand corrected," Kerry said, according to O'Connor.

Sens. George McGovern and Philip Hart opened their homes to the veterans, offering showers and food. Veteran activist Scott Camil said he watched as a few rowdy veterans stole liquor from Sen. Hart's home. Kerry chanced upon them and "went berserk," Camil said. "He shouted, `Our credibility is on the line!'" Kerry made the would-be thieves return the booze to Hart's wife and apologize to her.

"It's things like that about John that made me like him," Camil said.

On a Thursday afternoon, between adrenaline-pumped marches, speeches and spectacles of mourning and rage, Kerry bent his angular frame into a witness chair in the wood-paneled hearing room of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and delivered the final draft of the speech he had been giving since Valley Forge.

Called an "Open Letter to America," Kerry had tried out versions on civic clubs and church groups. He showed early drafts to several veterans, Kennedy speechwriter Adam Walinsky and to journalist Pete Hamill at the Lion's Head tavern in New York City's Greenwich Village. But in the end, say those who helped Kerry, the words were his.

America's "barbaric war" was shredding the Geneva Convention, Kerry told the panel. "Search and destroy missions, the bombings, the torture of prisoners, all accepted policy by many units in South Vietnam." He said: "We think this thing has to end."

The speech won Kerry a New York Times profile and riveted the White House. Over the next months, the Nixon administration would launch a covert effort to discredit Kerry and to infiltrate and disrupt VVAW. Orchestrating the campaign, White House counsel Charles Colson fed gossip to a Detroit reporter who wrote a syndicated article smearing Kerry as a "silver spoon" elitist. Colson helped launch a pro-administration group called "Veterans for a Just Peace." And federal authorities infiltrated VVAW's local chapters with operatives who offered the veterans explosives and tried to incite members to violence, historical accounts and interviews show.

On the day after Kerry's speech, a worried White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman told Nixon that Kerry "did a superb job on it at the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. A Kennedy-type guy, he looks like a Kennedy, and he, he talks exactly like a Kennedy."

A mass of medals

The next afternoon, the veterans gave back their combat decorations.

The most radical proposed dumping the badges into trash cans filled with fake human blood. Others suggested delivering the tokens to Congress in body bags.

Kerry felt the peace movement was stalling because Americans were turned off by its angry rhetoric. He proposed instead that veterans place their medals on a table draped with white cloth.

Again, he was overruled. The veterans decided to fling their decorations into a heap on the steps of the Capitol.

In interviews, Kerry has criticized the decision. But Americans were captivated by the tear-stained faces of the young men and women who filed up to the 6-foot chain-link, crowd-retaining fence that had been erected around the Capitol, and lobbed medals, orders of honor, ribbons, battle commendations, presentation cases and commemorative photographs.

One soldier hurled his cane like a javelin. Another chucked his military-issue prosthetic leg.

As the march leader and last person in line, Kerry tossed a glittering bouquet of war decorations. But only the ribbons were his. Today, he keeps his medals framed in a drawer in his Senate office. The ones he threw belonged to two veterans who couldn't attend the protest and asked him to do so on their behalf, he says.

Kerry's critics say the incident shows him to be a phony who left the mistaken impression that he tossed his medals. Kerry says he never falsely claimed he threw his medals or hid the fact that he was tossing others'.

His right to make such a private choice is supported by many veterans who also kept their medals and junked other war paraphernalia, or gave their medals to others to toss. "That was a tough decision," said veterans organizer Craig Scott Moore. "Soldiers bleed and see people die, and we give them medals to help ease that pain."

On the campaign trail today, the man who would be president wears a simple ball-chain necklace holding a medallion of St. Christopher, the patron saint of sailors and travelers. John Kerry put away his peace buttons long ago. When he has to give a big speech and needs good luck, he carries a precious talisman: his time-worn Navy dog tag.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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