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Swept to Senate via Vietnam, Kerry takes on US policy

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 1985


OUTSIDE, the rain pours down in silver splinters. Inside, United Press International is phoning for Sen. John Kerry's reaction to a speech by Secretary of State George Shultz this morning. The Washington Post is not far behind. Why is this Massachusetts Democrat, a freshman senator who until six months ago had never held national office, a quotable authority on United States policy in Central America? The answer lies in the Irish chutzpah of John Forbes Kerry.

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In less than three months in the Senate, he not only landed a seat on the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but has become a large thorn in the paw of the Reagan administration.

Senator Kerry flew to Nicaragua in April with fellow Democratic Sen. Thomas Harkin of Iowa, met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, and brought back word that Mr. Ortega would be willing to accept a cease-fire if Congress rejected aid to the rebels, or ``contras.'' That week the House initially voted down aid to the contras, and Mr. Ortega made an immediate trip to Moscow -- an action that moved House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. to say the ill-timed trip embarrassed those who had voted against aid.

In spite of this setback, Kerry said in an interview that he doesn't think his trip to Nicaragua damaged him politically and that his mail supports him.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, says, ``I will not comment on that [question] in any way, except to say frankly I don't know why he went to Nicaragua.'' But Senator Lugar also calls Kerry ``an intelligent, concerned member of the committee.''

Kerry emphasizes that he is not an advocate or supporter of Ortega's government. ``I have no illusions about the Sandinistas.'' Nevertheless, he argues, ``We are still trying to overthrow the politics of another country in contravention of international law, against the Organization of American States charter.

``We negotiated with North Vietnam. Why can we not negotiate with a country smaller than North Carolina and with half the population of Massachusetts? It's beyond me. And the reason is that they just want to get rid of them [the Sandinistas], they want to throw them out, they don't want to talk to them.''

In this first of two Monitor interviews over a period of about four months, after he has relaxed a little, Kerry unfolds his tightly furled arms and puts his long legs on the coffee table. In an age that places great stock in a politician's telegenic qualities, Kerry is almost ideal. He is just under 6 feet, 4 inches tall, has thick, dark-brown hair touched with gray, and hazel eyes, which flicker under dense eyebrows in a bold Irish face. He has a deep voice, salted with a Massachusetts twang, so that ``idea'' becomes a Kennedyesque ``idear.''

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, who serves with Kerry on the Foreign Relations Committee, says, ``He's very thoughtful, willing to learn, eager to listen.''

But there is some stinging criticism of Kerry, such as columnist Robert Novak's charge that the senator was ``playing kissy-face with Ortega'' on his trip. Kerry flashes back 16 years, when he was a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW): ``We were criticized when we stood up on Vietnam. . . . But we've been borne out. We were correct. Sometimes you just have to stand and hold your ground.''

Toughing it out is in character for Kerry, who won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts as commander of a naval patrol boat in the Mekong Delta.

He returned from battle to become a leader of the VVAW, one who burned medals and pitched tents in protest with 1,000 other vets on the Washington Mall. As spokesman for the group, he testified before the Senate in an impassioned speech, asking: ``How do you ask a man to die for a mistake?''