Losses and Lessons for Bush and Kerry
They lost at politics at an early age. Since then, they’ve rarely made the same campaign mistakes twice.
Sen. John F. Kerry takes nothing for granted. He doesn’t underestimate the power of the media. And he is ready for a fierce fight as an election nears, because he knows that politics generally saves the very worst for the very last.
President George W. Bush hasn’t let a rival beat him at being a man of the people for a quarter of a century. He’s learned to harness his famous family when it helps -- and distance himself when it doesn’t. And he will not meet a nasty charge from a political rival with civil silence.
They learned to fight, learned to lose, learned to get up and try again, all at the sharp knee of the same harsh teacher -- youthful, and unsuccessful, races for Congress.
The vestiges of their early defeats can be seen today as Bush and Kerry battle for the White House. The unremitting pace of this year’s campaign, its tough tone and the pattern of every charge answered by an often stronger comeback can all trace their roots, at least in part, to the two men’s first political failures.
Kerry stumbled in 1972, when he sought a House seat in Massachusetts’ 5th District, fresh from leading Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a role that had placed him firmly in the national spotlight.
Bush, as biographer Bill Minutaglio put it, was “blown out of the desert” in the 19th District in arid West Texas six years later, despite the efforts of his already well-known father to help him get elected.
Kerry is generally publicly mum about his first and only electoral loss. But historian Douglas Brinkley said the experience “devastated his psyche.”
Bush, for his part, rarely addressed a rally during the 2000 presidential campaign without mentioning that he “came in second in a two-man race” back in 1978, and how he realized that he had to directly ask for support.
The reference to his sole election defeat is absent from his current campaign speech, but its legacy lingers. As he did during a swing through Ohio this month, Bush often tells his audiences: “I think you have to ask for the vote, and that’s what I’m here doing.”
Said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas: “There’s a theory in our business: The first political success is huge. I would add to that the first defeat. Those who come back -- like these two men -- take to heart some very significant lessons.”
John Kerry at 28 had already won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts in Vietnam. He’d helped to galvanize the antiwar movement during demonstrations on Washington’s Capitol Mall and in televised testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Commit- tee.
He’d been the subject of national news coverage; one New York Post story called him “the man of the hour, a political star newborn out of the ferment of this season’s antiwar protest.”
But all that attention couldn’t help him with one fundamental problem when he sought a House seat in 1972: While Kerry’s family hailed from Massachusetts, he’d never spent much time there. He didn’t have a hometown, much less a political base.
Kerry had flirted briefly with running in the state’s 3rd District two years earlier. Then in February 1972, he and his wife, Julia, bought a house in Worcester so he could run in the 4th District. But a month later, the 5th District opened up. The couple moved to one of its communities, the working-class city of Lowell, and he announced his candidacy for the empty seat.
His opponents labeled him a carpetbagger, and a story in the Boston Herald Traveler sneered: “If he doesn’t stop house hunting soon, he’ll not only need a campaign manager, but a full-time real estate agent.”
Lowell itself was a problem for Kerry. A troubled mill town with 12% unemployment, it was a city of solid Irish and Italian enclaves where newcomers were eyed with suspicion.
In the primary, Kerry was running against nine other Democrats, most of whom had served in public office and knew the region well.
It helped that Kerry was able to raise money. But it would haunt him later that much of the funding came from the rich and famous who lived outside the area.
George Plimpton threw him a party, described in a Boston Globe column as all “girls with tawny, sun-streaked hair, marvelous high color, and the sound of money in their voices.” Filmmaker Otto Preminger, actor Robert Ryan, folk singer Peter Yarrow all gave.
Kerry had dozens of paid staff members who worked in a five-story campaign headquarters. Some 2,000 volunteers -- largely young, mostly antiwar, many also from outside of the district -- knocked on doors and telephoned voters.
“We were identifying antiwar votes in canvassing, mailing to them, calling them, getting them to the polls,” recalled Dan Payne, a communications consultant to the 1972 campaign. “It was sophisticated.”
On Sept. 19, Kerry won the Democratic primary and faced off against Republican Paul Cronin, a former state representative, and Roger Durkin, a conservative Democrat running as an independent.
But the day before the primary vote, Kerry’s brother, Cameron, and the campaign’s field organizer, Thomas Vallely, both 22, had been arrested in the basement of the building next to the Lowell headquarters, charged with breaking and entering.
Kerry campaign aides said at the time that they had been worried that their office phone lines, in the basement of the building next door, could be tampered with, crippling their ability to get out the vote.
Their fears seemed justified, they said, when the headquarters got an anonymous phone call: “Someone’s down there now.”
“I’m out of Vietnam about two years,” said Vallely, a former Marine who now heads the Vietnam program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “I’m crazy. I’m gonna kill that guy. I go down there and kick down the door and try to find him.”
Only there was no “him.” Moments later the building was surrounded with police.
“Kerry Brother Arrested in Lowell ‘Watergate,’ ” headlined the Lowell Sun.
Charges were later dropped, but it was not the last of the problems that would plague the Kerry camp as it geared up for the general election.
George W. Bush had spent much of his childhood riding his bike around dusty West Texas. But politically, he still suffered from a congenital problem -- he was born in Connecticut instead of the oil-rich Permian Basin. And the East remained an essential part of his upbringing.
Sure, he’d attended Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland. But in 1961, Barbara and George H.W. Bush shipped their eldest son off to prep school at Andover. Then he went to Yale. Business school at Harvard followed.
It wasn’t until 1975 that he packed up his Oldsmobile Cutlass, turned his back on New England and headed to Midland to settle down. All of this mattered when he ran for Congress.
Two years after Bush returned to Texas, Rep. George Mahon, a Democrat who’d served 44 years in the House, decided to retire. That July, Bush threw his hat in the ring to replace him in the 19th District. That November, he married Midland native Laura Welch and they hit the campaign trail.
These days, Laura Bush uses the race as a laugh line: “Newly married, we spent most of our time in the car,” she said at a mid-July fundraiser in Washington. “The race didn’t turn out quite as we hoped, but we had a great time.”
But even marrying a local girl couldn’t dispel the aura of East Coast interloper. Bush ran in the primary and in a subsequent Republican runoff against former Odessa Mayor Jim Reese, who had lived in the area for more than 20 years. Reese recalls a candidate forum in the farming town of Dimmitt.
Bush spoke first: “You know, I really enjoyed being up here in Dimmitt. I’ve never been on a real farm before.”
Reese recalled: “Then it was my turn to talk, and the first thing I said was, ‘Let me make one thing clear: This is not the first time I’ve been on a farm.’ Everyone laughed. He never made that mistake twice.”
But like Kerry, whose House race became in part a referendum on the Vietnam War, Bush’s race for Congress was in some ways a proxy for another national battle: the competition between his father and Ronald Reagan for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination.
Reagan had backed Reese in the primary. The day before the runoff, the Odessa American newspaper described the race as a “power struggle” between Reagan and the elder Bush.
“Obviously I want to win for my own good, but it would be a nice dividend for my father,” Bush said at the time.
Bush beat Reese and went on to face Democrat Kent Hance, a state senator, in a pricey general election contest that would showcase Bush’s outsider status in everything from assets to accents.
When John Kerry headed into his general election fight, his biggest problem was the Lowell Sun.
Like some small newspapers, said Lou DiNatale, senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts, at the Sun, “if they don’t like you, they ... beat your brains out.”
The Sun “appealed to the basic, hard-core, blue-collar guy and told them why they should be upset with this guy thinking he could own the district,” said Kendall Wallace, then the newspaper’s city editor and now its publisher. “Carpetbagger. Who does he think he is? It branded him.”
The Sun’s editorials were especially negative, calling into question Kerry’s patriotism and fitness for office.
“His reputation as a valiant naval officer was tarnished in the process of his becoming widely known as a radical protester against the war,” Sun editor Clement C. Costello wrote on Oct. 30, 1972.
Polls that had shown Kerry leading Cronin by as much as 26 percentage points found that his advantage had shrunk to 10. Then Durkin, the independent, dropped out of the race just before election day and endorsed Cronin.
“I threw myself on a grenade,” is how Durkin described it in a recent interview. “I said the most important thing is to stop a guy who isn’t a local person running for office.”
Vallely, the campaign field organizer, remembers election night as if it was yesterday.
Kerry laid into the Sun during his concession speech, recalled Vallely, saying, “ ‘Lookit, I want to tell Clem Costello one thing: If I had it to do all over again, I’d be on the Mall with the veterans tomorrow.’ ... The place went crazy. That’s the real tough side of Kerry.”
After the crowds went away and the loss sunk in, said biographer Brinkley, Kerry holed up in his Lowell home and put together model airplanes and ships. He read novels. Over the next few years, he went to law school and became a prosecutor, winning praise even from the Sun. It took a full decade for him to get back into politics with a successful run for lieutenant governor in 1982.
What Kerry learned in the House race, DiNatale said, was that “the time to be on guard, be at your best, throw the punch, is at the end. He wasn’t ready to fight tough enough at the end, and he decided never to let that happen to him again.”
He also learned not to let up before an election is over, said David Thorne, Kerry’s then-brother-in-law and still his best friend. After the primary victory, Thorne said, Kerry should have reached out and strengthened his political base.
“You never take anything for granted. You make political friends. Those are the lessons,” said Thorne, who managed the House campaign. “The other lesson is that you can lose and rise again.”
A product of Dimmitt High, Texas Tech and the University of Texas Law School, Kent Hance loved to portray himself as more of a Texan than George W. Bush. And at forum after forum, he would stand by Bush and tell his favorite story about the time he’d worked one summer on a ranch.
“A guy stopped in a car and asked me how to find a certain ranch,” Hance would say. “I told him you go five miles east and then take a right .... And you come to a cattle guard. Turn left, go a mile, and you’ll be at the ranch.”
The driver would roll up his window and head off in “a great, big, beautiful Mercedes, with Connecticut tags,” Hance would continue.
“George, you were in Connecticut, right? In fact, you were born there. A while later, the young man came back, rolled down his window and said, ‘Excuse me, but what color uniform did the cattle guard have on?’ ”
Hance also hammered Bush for raising most of his money from “Northeastern, Rockefeller-type Republicans who have always wanted West Texas oil and gas.”
The elder Bush hosted fundraisers for his son. Contributors included William C. Ford, vice chairman of the Ford Motor Co. and President Ford. Bowie Kuhn, former commissioner of baseball, donated, and so did Donald H. Rumsfeld, former secretary of Defense.
The money, in part, went for intensive television advertising, which helped make the battle relatively close.
But the final blow for Bush came near the race’s end. His supporters arranged a Bush Bash, complete with free beer, and advertised the event in the local paper. One of Hance’s men, a member of the Church of Christ, copied the ad and mailed it out to 4,000 voters of the same denomination.
Hance played it pretty low key -- “It just shows the campaign is not in touch with our values in West Texas” was about all he’d say.
Bush chose not to fight back. He might have attacked Hance for owning a building that housed a college beer joint, but he didn’t.
Hance won, with about 53% of the vote.
“The main thing Bush learned in that race ... was not to be outdone as a populist,” said Buchanan, the University of Texas political scientist. “He resolved never again to be out-hustled as a friend of the people.”
Hance eventually switched parties, ran for railroad commissioner and became a stalwart Bush friend, ally and fundraiser. Bush stayed out of politics until 1994, when he beat incumbent Ann Richards to become governor of Texas.
“I learned,” he said while campaigning in 2000, that “I need to respond. I let a half-truth go unanswered. While I abhor the politics of tearing people down, I understand the need to counterpunch.”
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.