New kids on the stump

Times Staff Writer

They say teach your children well. And so the father schooled his daughters: Be your own person. Pursue your passion. Don’t stand in someone else’s shadow.

The two girls learned. They grew into women and, by all accounts, they thrived. But just as they seemed poised to blossom in their own careers, something happened. The teacher, himself, cast the shadow. And it was wide.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 3, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 03, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Kerry stepson -- The caption for a photo of Sen. John F. Kerry, his wife and three of their children that appeared in Friday’s Calendar section with an article about the presidential candidate’s two daughters misidentified Kerry’s stepson, Chris Heinz, as Alexander Heinz.

Their short life stories would suggest that Alexandra and Vanessa Kerry will figure this one out: how to campaign to make their father president of the United States and still proceed with their own lives.

That’s become the day-by-day challenge for the two driven young women whose dad is another high achiever, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.


The style and verve that the two young women -- teamed with the steadfast support of their father’s old Vietnam War buddies -- brought to the living rooms and meeting halls of Iowa lent a human touch that helped revive Kerry’s seemingly moribund campaign early this year.

Alex and Nessie, as some family members call them, plan to continue campaigning for the presumed Democratic presidential nominee while trying not to sidetrack their personal aspirations.

And quite substantial aspirations they are: Vanessa, a 27-year-old student at Harvard Medical School, is scheduled to travel to London later this year to begin work on a master’s degree in international public health. Alex, 30, has just a few months remaining in the rigorous directing program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. She’s also an actor, with a sultry bit role alongside Val Kilmer in a recently released movie.

“I am very proud because I feel there is this tremendous excitement in the air about my father,” Alex Kerry said in an interview at the AFI campus in Los Feliz. “But what comes with that is the fear of opening a Pandora’s box. It’s very difficult to do this without [your entire life] being public. And negotiating those lines is a challenge.”

Her younger sister acknowledges a certain wistfulness for a time when she was just “Vanessa, the third-year med student.”

“We don’t want to be treated any differently, and we want to continue with our lives and our careers,” she said after speaking last month to students at Pepperdine University in Malibu. “To think of sacrificing that is very scary. But there is a responsibility too, because this campaign is so important.”

Their father’s presidential bid did not come as a shock. By the time Alexandra was born, in 1973, Kerry had already become a national spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. His public profile grew as he advanced through stints as a prosecutor, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and then -- with the girls still in grade school -- member of the U.S. Senate.

But even these seasoned political children could not be prepared for the tempest of presidential politics.


Top newspaper and magazine editors want to have lunch. Reporters ask to follow Vanessa on her hospital rounds. (She demurs.) Alex attends the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Colleagues who once merely smiled now gush. Since it became clear that their father would be President Bush’s opponent in the general election, requests for interviews have quadrupled.

Minimal defensive measures -- Vanessa opts to wear another surname on her white doctor’s jacket -- no longer distract a public curious about the potential first daughters.

“I was in the ICU and this doctor comes up to me and he’s tilting his head and staring at my chest. I’m thinking, ‘What is happening?’ ” recalls Vanessa. She laughs. “It turns out he was looking at my ID.... And he’s like, ‘I saw you on CNN.’ Aaaargh! This is surreal because I think of those two worlds as very separate.”

Should her father win in November, she said, “I am not about to quit my day job and become first daughter full time. I don’t even know what that would be. At the end of the day, I want to be seen for things that I have done.”


Kerry himself said, “One of the great things about both of them


Parents divorced in 1988

Those close to the family resist comparing the daughters to one parent more than another. Their mother, Julia Thorne, primarily raised both when she and Kerry separated in the mid-1980s. They divorced in 1988 after 18 years of marriage but remained friendly. Kerry visited his daughters on weekends, attended their lacrosse and field hockey games and spoke to them on the phone nearly every day.


Some see the creative touch of Thorne, a writer who lives in Montana, in Alex and her filmmaking. Vanessa has a degree from Yale University, like her father, and a hint of his epic jawline.

Both attended the liberal-minded Park School in Brookline, Mass., where public service was required. Vanessa, as a ninth-grader, became student leader of the Helping Hand program, which sponsored a student in Gambia, collected clothing for children in Latvia and served meals to Boston’s poor.

At Yale, she was an “all-arounder” -- a top player on the lacrosse team and summa cum laude scholar who found time to teach biology to poor fifth-graders at a public school in New Haven, Conn.

A trip to Vietnam with her father and sister in 1991 (he was investigating Americans unaccounted for following the war there) fired Vanessa’s imagination about the world.


A year after Yale, she traveled for five months “on $5 a day, two T-shirts and two pairs of pants,” which, in turn, inspired her to try a medical school project in Ghana. For six weeks she coordinated interviews of poor Africans, researching the viability of a program that delivers five childhood vaccines in a single shot.

Both in Africa and her other work with the poor and dispossessed, Vanessa demonstrated an uncommon common touch, those around her say.

“Sometimes there is a gulf between our students and people who have trouble paying the rent or are victims of domestic abuse,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, her medical school advisor. “But Vanessa bridges that with remarkable ease.”

Vanessa said the trip to Ghana “revolutionized” her worldview. “It reminded me how fortunate I am and how fortunate so many people in this country are,” she said. “I was exposed to how the majority of this world lives.”


After graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island, older sister Alex first tried journalism but grew disillusioned. She turned to acting, much of it in regional theater and experimental films. Her most prominent credits come from two David Mamet films: the 2000 comedy “State and Main,” in which she portrayed a frenetic producer, and last month’s “Spartan.”

In “Spartan,” Alex plays a bartender who exchanges six cryptic lines with Val Kilmer, an operative for a shadowy government agency. He is looking for the kidnapped daughter of the president of the United States.

Friends laugh off a gossip column’s implication that Alex, tall like her father and dark like her mother, carried on a flirtation with Kilmer during the filming.

Most of Alex’s passion in recent months has been trained on her AFI thesis film, a 15-minute drama about a little girl waiting for her father to return from the Vietnam War. The budding director said she knows that the theme will undoubtedly invite psychoanalysis, given her father’s service in Vietnam.


“There’s no way around it,” Alex said, noting that two of her uncles also served in the war. “But I’m a writer and director, so I can’t imagine not using personal experience.”

Some fellows at AFI assumed the politician’s daughter must have won admission because of her connections. But colleague and friend Sam Esmail said Alex’s film, “The Last Full Measure,” has been so well received at AFI that it has helped squelch some lingering jealousies.

“Alex is a master of tone; I would definitely say that about her,” Esmail said. “That is her biggest strength as a filmmaker, and what she did is make a tone poem.”

She expects her father and other family members to be in Los Angeles in early June for the movie’s official unveiling, just before she completes her master’s degree.



Humanizing the candidate

Both daughters say their father would never tell them to come out on the campaign trail; those early lessons about independence live on. But the candidate and his staff clearly enjoy it when the Kerry girls ride along.

Alex has lightened more than one staff gathering with her humor. Vanessa can strike a subversive note -- as with the $2.64 green halter dress she wore this week to a fundraiser with Hollywood’s elite. Purveyor: Salvation Army of Boston.


“Like any parent, when my kids are around there is a smile on my face,” Kerry said this week.

Their value to the candidate became particularly clear in January’s Iowa caucuses, where Kerry claimed the momentum that would power him to the brink of the Democratic nomination.

Criticized for coming across as aloof and too much of a Washington insider on the stump, their presence helped Kerry shed his persona as the gray Senate eminence and turn him into the “goofy” dad, laughing along as his girls described him botching Sunday morning pancakes.

The tale of their tall, rangy father hunched over, giving chest compressions, to revive the family hamster from a near drowning delighted more than one audience, as much as their father’s clear joy in having them around.


When some college boys howled at Vanessa -- who has a mane of thick, blond hair and an athlete’s physique -- her dad smiled: “Now wait a minute, guys, you’re going to have to go through me first.”

“In a way, they soften him,” said David Thorne, the girls’ uncle and Kerry’s best friend for decades

President Bush’s twin daughters, at 22, have been less involved in their father’s political career and, as their college graduations loom, show no signs yet of following three generations of Bushes into public service.

Vanessa Kerry, despite her negative words for the president, displays only empathy for his two daughters. She said Barbara and Jenna Bush received unduly harsh attention for their bouts with underage drinking.


“I can’t imagine the shock of being 19 years old, going to college and having your father elected president,” said Vanessa. “I think there has to be some room for young people to make their successes and their stumbles.”

As the Kerry daughters have become more involved with their father’s campaign, they have learned that kind of criticism can be hard to avoid.

E-mail critics savaged Vanessa this month when she told a gathering in New York that the Bush administration’s inaction “helped overthrow” the democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Days earlier, she failed to notice as several Pepperdine University students squirmed in their seats over the issue of gay marriage. She told them she would do more to push her father to support the unions, the opposite of what they wanted to hear.

More common was the reception that same night at UCLA, where Vanessa easily handled about 20 questions and was particularly deft on the topics of world hunger and AIDS.


When she worried aloud that she didn’t know her dad’s policies well enough, one voter called out, “You’re great!”

In the front row, a slight man with a large head and bushy eyebrows seemed to agree.

Michael S. Dukakis nudged his wife, Kitty, with an elbow. The 1988 Democratic nominee asked: “Do you remember, were our kids this good?”