John Kerry: The ideal presidential candidate - or another Al Gore?

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The Independent Online

Construct your identikit Democratic Presidential candidate and you would come up with someone pretty much like John Forbes Kerry. Handsome, tall and intelligent. Jutting jaw and gravitas by the bucketful. A Vietnam war hero who devoted his career to public life, including almost two decades of distinguished service in the Senate. This sort of résumé is to die for.

True, opponents might bestow upon him that damning label of "Massachusetts liberal". But his particular specimen is no wimp. He owns a Harley-Davidson and indulges in macho sports such as ice hockey and wind-surfing. And not only are his initials the stuff of American political myth. He also owns the most perfectly sculpted thatch of hair of any Democrat since the first JFK inhabited the White House.

But something has gone horribly wrong. When the field of challengers to George W Bush first took shape early this year, John Kerry was swiftly designated favourite, on the strength of those very credentials listed above. He was the favourite of the party establishment. He attracted the early money, the smartest advisers, and prized endorsements by the dozen.

But when Kerry travelled to South Carolina this week to formally announce his candidacy, it was not to "launch" a campaign that is already nine months old. His purpose was to revive one that risks being swamped by the astonishing insurgency of Howard Dean, Kerry's fellow New Englander, his natural rival and now his potential nemesis.

These are early days; the Iowa caucuses which kick off the primary season are more than four months away, and Thursday's debate for the nine declared contenders was only the first of six before the end of the year. Dean may self-destruct, another candidate may gain the priceless "buzz", while Kerry could gain a second wind. But at the moment he is a depressing reminder of Al Gore in 2000.

As politicians they are oddly similar, admired but unloved. In private both are funny, relaxed and thoroughly unpompous. But for all their talents, both have difficulty connecting with the public. "Stiff" was the epithet applied to Gore, in Kerry's case it is "aloof". Both assembled imposing teams, perhaps too imposing. Like Gore before him, Kerry, 59, appears over-managed and over-cautious, tailoring every word and gesture to avoid giving offence. Nothing seems to be spontaneous or real.

Take the other day in New Hampshire, whose primary on 20 January will be a New Englanders' showdown. Kerry's eyes misted with tears as an unemployed woman told him of her plight and her determination to do any job to send her two children to college. The scene was recorded by scores of cameramen and reporters. But was it a sudden rush of human sympathy or a carefully packaged moment, designed by his handlers to dispel the A-word?

His campaign launch in front of a Vietnam-era aircraft carrier was an equally unedifying occasion. Kerry's Vietnam record is a huge asset, giving him the national security and defence credentials Bush lacks. But does it have to be mentioned three times in a speech, in the first person? Real heroes don't boast. The effect is politics as usual, Washington-style and Howard Dean, a genuine outsider, is feasting off it.

So who is the real John Forbes Kerry? The answer is surprisingly complex. Take, for a start, his name. The Forbes comes from his mother, scion of one of New England's oldest dynasties. The Kerry, you would assume, is plain old Boston Irish-Catholic. But Kerry's paternal grandfather was an Austrian Jew, born in what is now the Czech Republic. Only when he arrived in America in 1905 did he change his name from Fritz Kohn to Frederick Kerry.

Kerry's youth had the trappings of affluence and lofty Boston connections, complete with a spell in Swiss boarding schools while his father worked as a lawyer/diplomat on the American mission in post-war West Berlin. The money, however, was always less than it appeared. Richard Kerry had to live off a federal government salary and allowances. Today his son is the personification of the Boston Brahmin, arguably the richest man in the US Senate, with family homes in Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, Idaho and Nantucket. But the wealth represents the $600m (£380m) fortune of his second wife Teresa, widow of the ketchup magnate and Republican Senator John Heinz, who died in a plane crash in 1991. The marriage too is not what you would have expected. Teresa has the uncaring frankness of the very, very rich. On occasion she can be openly contemptuous of politics. She is, in other words, and to the scarcely veiled concern of her husband's staffers, anything but the identikit candidate's wife. But opposites attract. Teresa, friends say, is proof of the thrill-seeking side of his life. A man drawn to danger throughout his life, Kerry finds it today in sport and the woman he married.

Never was danger greater than in Vietnam but even that defining experience of his life is less straightforward than it seemed. As lieutenant in command of a Navy "swift boat" in the Mekong delta, Kerry was a true hero, displaying courage verging on recklessness. His superior officer wondered if he deserved "a citation or a court martial" for the action on 28 February 1969 for which he was awarded the Silver Star.

In the end he received a citation, but the language leaves no doubt of the risks Kerry took. "With utter disregard for his own safety and the enemy rockets," it reads, Kerry "again ordered a charge on the enemy, beached his boat only 10ft from the Viet Cong rocket position and personally led a landing party ashore in pursuit of the enemy ... His extraordinary daring and personal courage in attacking a numerically superior force in the face of intense fire were responsible for the highly successful mission."

By then Kerry was convinced that a war in which half a dozen of his closest friends had been killed, was wrong and futile. Having been wounded in action three times, he was entitled to a transfer back to the US, which Kerry requested and was granted. A hero returned to become one of the war's highest profile critics, as organiser of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement.

An appearance in 1971 before the Senate foreign relations committee, chaired by the ferociously anti-war William Fulbright, made him a national celebrity. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" Kerry testified. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" The sound bite resonated across America. Afterwards, one member of the panel expressed the hope that Kerry one day would return to Capitol Hill, this time as a Senator. That same year a television interviewer asked Kerry, aged 27, if he wanted to be president. The answer - then at least - was no.

In 1984, after stints as a state prosecutor and then as lieutenant governor to Michael Dukakis (a prototype "Massachusetts liberal" who would lose the 1988 election to George Bush senior) Kerry was elected the state's junior Senator. By then, almost certainly, he had made up his mind that one day he would run for the White House.

Over three terms, he has compiled a decent legislative record, acquiring real authority on foreign affairs and education issues. But his finest moment was when he turned prosecutor again, as chairman of the Senate foreign relations sub-committee on drugs and terrorism. whose investigation did much to expose the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) scandal in 1991. But Kerry's every move, no-one doubted, was geared towards a Presidential bid. He passed on challenging George Bush the father in 1992, while in 2000 the nomination was Al Gore's to lose. Against the son however, his hour has come.

For all the success of Dean, Kerry is the man in the current Democratic field that Bush strategists fear. They do not relish the prospect of televised Presidential debates pitting the relatively short and semi-articulate Bush, the swaggering chicken-hawk, against a tall, polished and thoroughly knowledgeable opponent who fought courageously in the war Bush pulled family strings to avoid. First though Kerry must win the Democratic primaries - and with the party's base in its current mood, his Vietnam record could be irrelevant.

Kerry has two problems. One is the patrician's difficulty in connecting with working-class Democrats and the union wing of the party. But his far bigger difficulty now is America's war in Iraq. Dean, who spoke out against the conflict before it started, has tapped into the visceral loathing of Democratic activists for Bush, and their overwhelming opposition to the invasion.

As the post-war mess has worsened, Kerry has sharpened his attacks on the administration's Iraq policy. But he supported the October 2002 Congressional resolution giving the President authority to attack Saddam Hussein. Try as he may, his efforts to square that vote with his criticism today come across as hair-splitting waffle. Dean crystallised the Kerry dilemma in a speech to Iowa Democrats: "What we can't have is somebody who says to you in Iowa the Iraq war is bad, goes back [to Washington] and votes in favour of the resolution and then comes back and tells you at your county dinners why it's not a good thing."

And so the former Vermont governor has become the acknowledged favourite for the nomination. He is eating into Kerry's natural constituency of liberals and educated professionals, and draining the fundraising pool at which every candidate must drink. With a politician's practised insouciance, Kerry says he expected such a challenge all along. In fact Dean was never in the script. Nor, it should be added, was Wesley Clark, the former Nato commander and Vietnam veteran, who would steal Kerry's best issue if, as many expect, he enters the Democratic race later this month.

Once it seemed so easy. But in the next few months John Kerry will face his toughest fight since Vietnam. To prevail he must get natural, get passionate - and somehow turn politics into the daring, risk-taking business at which he is best.


Born: John Forbes Kerry 11 December 1943, to Richard Kerry and Rosemary Forbes Kerry

Family: Kerry and his first wife Julia Thorne were divorced in 1988. They have two daughters. In 1995 he married Teresa Heinz, widow of the former Senator John Heinz

Education: Graduated from Yale University with a BA in 1966

Military career: US Navy, Vietnam 1967-69

Decorations: Silver Star, Bronze Star with oak leaves cluster, three Purple Hearts.

Political career: National co-ordinator, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 1969-71; Lt Governor, Massachusetts 1982-84; elected Democratic Senator for Massachusetts in 1984 (re-elected in 1990, 1996 and 2002.)

He says: "I know George Bush. He was two years behind me at Yale, and I knew him, and he is still the same guy."

They say: "Kerry just hasn't found a focus yet. He is all nuances. He can give you competing arguments on all the major issues and have you walk away and say, 'Yeah, but where does he stand?' - John Zogby, pollster

"My dad has a knack of coming off as stiff and insincere. Sometimes I see him speaking in that uptight way and I think, who is this guy?" - Vanessa Kerry, daughter