Senator Cherishes Parents' Sense of Duty
WASHINGTON — It's midnight in the Gulf of Maine and wind shrieking through the rigging overwhelms all shouts.
Fog, crude-oil thick, smothers any flicker of light. And walls of water bulldozing the bow drive some of the crew to safety below deck.
But Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts remembers during the three-day stormy regatta from Marblehead, Mass. to Nova Scotia how his father, Richard, kept a cool head and skippered their sloop to victory.
"It was very hairy, demanding, trying ... and he was just steady as the rock," says Senator Kerry: "I learned how to keep steadiness at the helm with others losing their heads around you."
Kerry took an unwavering hand to very different waters - Vietnam's Mekong River Delta - for a very different endeavor: war. He commanded a Navy "swift boat," battling Vietcong guerrillas as they fired from among dense riverbank grasses.
Kerry returned from the Vietnam War in 1969 with three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star - the latter for pulling a crewman from the river in a shower of bullets.
But keeping a sure hand under fire is not the lesson Kerry most cherishes from his father - and mother. Rather, it's their sense of civic duty.
"Both my father and my mother were very conscious of public responsibility and the importance of being involved in the community," Kerry says: "When I was growing up the dinner table talk of issues and concerns of the world and basic values was very important."
Both parents served on town councils, planning boards, conservation groups, or other local committees. His mother, Rosemary, was a Girl Scout volunteer for 50 years. "They both were involved in the nuts and bolts, nitty gritty kind of things that make a difference," Kerry says.
So the same sense of public service that drove Kerry to enlist in the Navy in 1966 impelled him after Vietnam to carry hostilities peaceably to national leaders advancing what he deemed to be an unjust war.
"How do you ask a man to die for a mistake?" Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 in one of the most searing speeches during the Vietnam era's stateside war of words. His simple question articulated the intensity of a week of Washington protests by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group he helped lead.
Members of Congress vilified or praised Kerry. Some veterans of other wars labeled him a traitor. But his father, a World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps, stuck by his son. "He accepted my choice and he was very supportive," Kerry says.
But even fatherly support was not enough to ensure Kerry came to grips with the death of comrades and civilians in a war he judged folly.
"My father certainly had an impact, but Vietnam was far too personal and far too much something one had to work through oneself - it was more a personal journey," he says.
Kerry was one of the first Vietnam veterans to enter Congress, assuming a Senate seat in 1984. Now considering another personal journey - a bid for president - Kerry might also have to go it alone without his father.
"Anyone who looks at the political process today has second thoughts about what it does to people - it's not very pretty," says Kerry, sometimes mentioned as a possibility for a run in 2000. The elder Kerry's advice: "He would probably say think twice."