WASHINGTON — 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.
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."
But he did have to be his own banker. In mid-December Kerry took out a $6.4 million mortgage on his Boston home to fund campaign operations.
Howard Dean, with his Internet success, had been the first Democrat to opt out of public-financing limits for the primary season. His example allowed the wealthy Kerry to do the same, while largely avoiding the political fallout that might otherwise have accompanied the move - whispered criticism that Kerry was trying to buy the nomination.
Considering the state of Kerry's polls at the time, many pundits saw the loan as a sign of desperation. In hindsight, there's another interpretation - if one accepts that even rich guys may not like liens on their homes. Kerry is a lifelong sailor, and last December, some would say, he lashed himself to his campaign's mast. "John had a very tough decision about the money. That was a huge decision," says Thorne.
It was several days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and when Jonathan Winer showed up at Kerry's Boston home, the senator was furious. How had those people been able to do this? (Though "people" wasn't the word he used.) How had they gotten through? Why couldn't we protect ourselves?
He went on in this vein for several hours - not blaming anyone, but raging at the circumstances.
"It was a warrior's anger," says Mr. Winer, who served as a legal counsel for Kerry from 1983 through 1994.
Winer had been invited over for what turned into a session of physical and mental catharsis. After Winer calmed down, he, Kerry, and a group of high-level associates that included former CIA director John Deutch had dinner. They discussed what they believed had happened, and what America should do.
Afterwards, Kerry went up to a small unfinished room at the top of the house and began playing guitar. The piece he was trying wasn't coming out great, remembers Winer; Kerry was just learning it. "But he was relaxing, just ... getting some solitude and quiet."
Later the senator sat on the counch with his wife Teresa and watched, once more, the indelible images of the planes' impact and the towers' collapse.
The next day Kerry went to a mosque and a synagogue to ask how people were thinking and feeling. He'd gone from anger to contemplation to empathy and public duty, all in 24 hours. "It was a seamless movement [through] different elements of his personality," says Winer.
He's no one-note Johnny. If there is one thing friends and aides agree on, it's that John Kerry is complex. And in the world of politics, complexity is both a blessing and a curse.
For instance, with Kerry there is always the issue of verbiage. He talks. And talks. And so on. At times on the stump it seems you need a machete to whack away the supporting clauses and figure out what he really means.
But he does mean something, and that's the difference between him and soundbite-happy pols, say his friends. As a schoolboy debater he honed notes for hours while other students relaxed. As a senator he'll pick up an issue and examine it from all sides, colleagues say, like an object of art, talking out different positions before he settles his own.
Among his aides, Kerry is famous for asking questions and playing devil's advocate even as they stride towards the Senate floor for a vote. Proponents say it's these qualities that - seen up close by Iowa and New Hampshire voters - finally conveyed Kerry's substance and deliberate way of thinking.
"It's not a bunch of convenient political slogans, but the result of a working through," says Winer. "And that was okay with them, even though it's not very TV friendly or entertaining,"
Then there's the stiffness. Kerry can seem to lack a human touch; he's the kind of person who, if he tried to slap a back, might almost miss - so unskilled can he seem at political bonhomie.
On Super Bowl Sunday he watched the victory of his New England Patriots from a sports bar in North Dakota, but reporters there said he actually watched the game, and made little attempt to connect with other patrons.
Still, along with stiffness comes an evident feeling for others - a quality to which the men he commanded in Vietnam so movingly attest. Veterans are becoming an important constituency for Kerry, and the aging men in American Legion hats who crowd the stage at his rallies seem a support group for Kerry as much as a visual for TV viewers.
Aides say that the vets loosen Kerry up. They make him seem more human - in the way that candidates' wives and children often do, too. The increasing prominence of veterans at Kerry's side in New Hampshire "had resonance," says John Marttila, a campaign senior strategist and longtime Kerry friend.
The vet presence "really helped support him emotionally," says Mr. Marttila, who adds that veterans "will have very significant electoral implications."
The campaign will probably do all it can to remind voters of the role Vietnam service played in shaping Kerry as a youth.
Already ads featuring archival footage of the young officer have proved among the most effective of the primary season. The point may be not just to bolster Kerry's national-security credentials, but to portray him as a warrior. It's a side of him that friends say they see all the time - the alpha male, back-against-the-wall, drive-for-the-winning-touchdown kind of thing.
Of course, this aspect of Kerry's personality may be accompanied by a procrastination-in-the-middle-until-it's-almost-too-late kind of thing. But the bottom line is this: Remember Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor who cruised through most of his campaign without answering Republican attacks? John Kerry knows Michael Dukakis - was his lieutenant governor, in fact. Michael Dukakis was a friend of his. And Kerry is no Michael Dukakis.
"The people who thought John Kerry couldn't cut it and Dean would be the nominee only looked at the side of him that thought too much and talked too much, not the man of action," says Winer.
Kerry can be tough, even cold when he thinks it counts. During the late 1980s, his senatorial investigation of money laundering and other shady deals at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) threatened to implicate Washington lawyer and legendary wiseman Clark Clifford.
"Jackie Kennedy called up John Kerry, and said, 'Why are you doing this to my friend Clark Clifford?' " remembers Winer.
When the elderly Mr. Clifford appeared before Kerry's panel to testify, the senator treated him gently. But the investigation continued, eventually producing evidence that Clifford had been, at best, surprisingly ignorant of crookedness at a bank he was associated with. BCCI became a blot at the end of Clifford's stellar career.
On Jan. 12, the Monday before the Iowa caucuses, Paul Pezzella attended a press conference on the steps of the Iowa capitol building in Des Moines. Gov. Tom Vilsack's wife, Christie Vilsack, was endorsing John Kerry.
It was a clear and sunny day, and a turning point, thought Mr. Pezzella, a senior campaign volunteer. After all, Mrs. Vilsack was at least as popular as her husband. She was so popular that the campaign quickly used her voice in an automated phone message to potential caucus attendees. She taped a television commercial. Kerry's "numbers jumped up, because people really liked her a lot," says Pezzella.
Meanwhile Kerry's message had become far more refined. He sounded more populist, and more comfortable. Out in the field, Kerry's town-hall meetings were beginning to run late. "The senator wouldn't leave until he answered every single question," says Pezzella.
The surge had begun. As presumed frontrunners Howard Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt slugged at each other with negative ads, Kerry cut their lead by the day. Five days before the caucuses, internal polls showed him pulling ahead.
As in 1996, when he won a tough Senate race against GOP Gov. William Weld, Kerry had kept slogging when things looked bleak. Iowa was only a primary.
But the slingshot effect of his Iowa victory was perfectly timed, sending Kerry to the top of New Hampshire polls and gaining him the most-sought desire of all once-trailing candidates: a second look from voters nationwide.
The nomination is not Kerry's yet, but it is his to lose. It would take a political earthquake to catapult any other contender ahead of him. That's possible, of course - look what happened to Kerry in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the odds are long, and lengthening by the day.
Kerry must now almost taste the nomination, the last goal he must achieve before making the final charge at what he's wanted all his political life: the Oval Office.
Few who know him doubt that he'll make that charge.
"He's a very tenacious and persistent guy who will keep pushing his head against a stone wall ... until the stone wall moves," says Ron Rosenblith, a close political adviser and fundraiser for most of Kerry's 18 years in the Senate.