Swept to Senate via Vietnam, Kerry takes on US policy
Washington — 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.
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?''
Those who know John Kerry well say that the issue of war and peace will be the core of his career as a senator, and that this steel core was forged in the fires of Vietnam. His brother, lawyer Cameron Kerry, says the senator's Vietnam experience ``really is the key to his personality, inside and outside. It defines his politics in a visceral kind of way.''
``Vietnam was definitely the turning point,'' says Mr. Kerry's mother, Rosemary (Forbes) Kerry. ``It gave him a tremendous sensitivity to war, to the whole horror and waste of war.'' Out of that conviction came his 1971 book, ``The New Soldier,'' written by Kerry with other members of the VVAW.
Kerry was swept into office by waves of vets in campaign jackets, who barnstormed with him as Kerry's Kommandos and flew with him from town to town in the helicopter he piloted. Cameron Kerry says veterans' support pulled his brother's campaign out of a nose dive and was a ``galvanizing energy.''
John Kerry grew up in an atmosphere in which politics was passed around the table like mashed potatoes. His father, Richard Kerry, now a retired lawyer, served in a Foreign Service job that took the family around the world from Oslo to London. Born in Millis, Mass., John was 11 when his parents were posted overseas, to Berlin. They sent him first to St. Paul's, an exclusive Episcopalian preparatory school, where he was ``one of the few mackerel snappers,'' and then on to Yale.
After graduating from Yale and serving with the Navy in Vietnam, Kerry launched an unsuccessful 1972 race for Congress. He then earned his law degree from Boston College and went on to become an assistant district attorney in Massachusetts, then a radio and TV commentator as well as cookie entrepreneur. (He was co-founder of Kilvert & Forbes Cookie Company).
Elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in '82, he spearheaded the state's campaign against acid rain. In the same year his marriage to Julia Thorne began to unravel, leaving his wife with custody of their two daughters.
``Part of the criticism of John is that he doesn't care about people, is aloof, distant,'' notes Massachusetts state Rep. Thomas J. Vallely (D). ``But he's a shyer person than most people think.''
Kerry's mother, a member of the wealthy and socially prominent Forbes clan, sees him differently. ``He's a very warm, caring person, despite possibly an outer appearance of being self-centered and ambitious.''
The conservative Washington Times in a Kerry profile said his critics consider him ``a ruthless political opportunist and a hypocrite.''
When told what his fans and critics say of him, Kerry grins and says, ``Well, the supporters are correct, and the detractors are out to lunch.''
There is about John Kerry an attitude of high seriousness. But he collects Punch humor magazine covers, and he broke up the audience with his one-liners in a Washington Press Club dinner speech last winter. He also admits to a fondness for 10-speed bikes, J. S. Bach (pronounced ``back''), turkey with all the fixings, historical biographies (such as Gore Vidal's ``Lincoln''), sailing. A photo of Kerry skiing at Aspen with his daughters, Vanessa, 8, and Alexandra, 11, sits in his new, pale-blue office in the Russell Senate Office Building.
As the second interview ends, Kerry leans forward on the red-leather couch and talks earnestly about Nicaragua: ``Peace is important. . . . If you're not talking to another country, how can you claim to be reasonable?''
To critics of his stand he says: ``My desire to see us negotiate is as patriotic as anyone else's to see us fight.''