How Kerry turned the corner
As the single-engine Beechcraft plunged down, picking up speed, John Kerry said, "Give it to me." It was the late 1960s and Kerry and two Navy buddies had rented the plane for an off-duty jaunt from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. One of the friends was a military pilot, who perhaps hadn't realized that puddle jumpers don't barrel roll quite like F-4s.Skip to next paragraph
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The plane fell out of the maneuver, and Kerry - who'd earned his pilot wings while at Yale - worried aloud that the wings would pull off. He insisted on taking control.
"He slowly pulled it out ... not that far off the ground," remembers the third man in the plane, longtime Kerry confidante David Thorne.
Some 35 years later, it is John Kerry's candidacy for President of the United States that has recovered to zoom skyward. In one of the most stunning turnabouts in recent US political history Senator Kerry has gone from laggard to a likely nominee in under four weeks.
His oldest friends give much of the credit to Kerry himself. They call him a closer - a sometimes-maddening hockey-nut-guitarist-debater who'll waste time on nonessentials, but recover in the end.
Of course Kerry had a part in his own comeback. But the story of the once-and-future front-runner is about many things: new organization, money, tweaked speeches, and stumbling foes. It's about peaking at the right time, and press expectations, realistic and otherwise. It's a reminder that in politics, nothing counts until real people vote.
"It was a lot of ingredients, lots of contributing editors," says Joe Ricca, a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign in Iowa, and a principal of the Dewey Square Group, a Boston consulting firm.
Mr. Ricca remembers that it hit him over a dinner of veal Parmesan, two days after Christmas: He thought John Kerry had a real chance, despite the polls. He was dining with John Mauro, supervisor of Iowa's Polk County, at an Italian restaurant in Des Moines.
Mr. Mauro had brought along about a dozen members of La Macchina ("machine," in Italian), his political organization for Iowan Italian-Americans. Ricca had come prepared to argue a case in front of a doubting audience, but he found instead a comfortable crowd that made him feel he was back in Boston's Italian North End. "They were regular down-to-earth guys. They said, 'We are with John Kerry,' " says Ricca.
The group wasn't swayed by any one issue. They just liked what Kerry was saying. And they were influential, Iowans' Iowans, the kind of people who could, and would, bring others with them. Ricca thought: This can work.
"People were starting to pay attention. There was a mood shift," he says.
Remember November? Back then, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's Internet fundraising seemed like a revolution - the eBay of retail politics. Dean's pile of cash brought publicity, and he'd ridden that wave to the top of the polls. John Kerry? The former front-runner? So over. A has-been. The political equivalent of a rotary phone.
Meanwhile, in his wilderness of low poll numbers, Kerry brooded, say some of his closest friends. He thought he should be a cutting-edge Internet candidate. He'd spent a lifetime challenging the insider culture of Washington, and now he was typecast as the insider candidate. Meanwhile, a guy from Vermont (who'd grown up on Park Avenue, by the way) was stomping across Iowa as a modern-day William Jennings Bryan. Kerry knew he should, and would, do better.
"John was just so frustrated at watching Dean do what he was supposed to do, take on the mantle of the people, the grass-roots, and the kids," says David Thorne, Kerry's former brother-in-law and a friend since college days.
But Kerry's campaign organization needed to do better, too. As the calendar slipped towards winter, his staff remained Washington-centric and consumed by infighting. At times it seemed they needed not just more oversight, but the intervention of UN peacekeepers.
Kerry finally fired campaign manager Jim Jordan in November. His replacement was Mary Beth Cahill, Sen. Edward Kennedy's chief of staff, who brought a handful of key Kennedy staffers with her. They infused the campaign not so much with a burst of liberalism as with a dose of order. Kerry himself could devote fewer hours to refereeing strong personalities and more time to honing his own strong personality for voters.
This change was perhaps the pivotal moment in Kerry's recovery, says Michael Whouley, Kerry's volunteer ground general in Iowa and a Dewey Square founder. "It gave John Kerry the confidence that he had a functional campaign," says Mr. Whouley. "He didn't have to be his own campaign manager."