One criticism of John Kerry's early Senate investigations was that, in his own words, they "looked at strange and nefarious types that people did not take seriously." On Oct. 24, 1991, that rap ended.
On the other side of the witness table in the vast Hart Senate hearing room was seated Washington powerbroker Clark Clifford - a man who'd played poker with Winston Churchill and advised every Democratic president since Harry Truman. He was an icon in official Washington, especially for Democrats with an eye on the Oval Office.
But Mr. Clifford was also implicated in a $20 billion-plus criminal banking enterprise across 73 countries - unwittingly, he said. Top party activists, including uber-fundraiser Pamela Harriman, had urged Senator Kerry not to embarrass Clifford by calling him to testify.
It was a defining moment for Kerry, whose investigations, more than his legislative record, have been highlights of his 19-year Senate career. He told staff to "get the truth out" and follow evidence where it led - even to the heights of his party.
"It was a career risk," says Jack Blum, Kerry's special counsel in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) investigation. "I can't think of any more potentially career disruptive move than grilling Clark Clifford."
As a fourth term US Senator, Kerry's legislative record is modest; Few bills bear his name. His 6,310 Senate votes, mainly liberal, have enough twists and turns to invite charges of inconsistency. But his signature investigations were models of dogged, even relentless focus, and may tell more about his persona and likely attributes as a president than anything else he has done in his 19 years in the Senate.
His probes included tracking illegal gunrunners to the Reagan White House (1985-86), drug traffickers to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (1988), and Mr. Noriega's dirty money to BCCI and some of the top powerbrokers in Washington (1987-92).
"Every one of his investigations is about holding government accountable and forcing Washington to change official reality to conform to the facts on the ground," says Jonathan Winer, a top Kerry aide during these investigations. "He did it year after year after year. One investigation led to another."
To supporters, this capacity to ask penetrating questions is one that helps a leader craft policy in often-complex situations. But critics say Kerry's focus on investigation has smacked of grandstanding, prompting the moniker "live shot Kerry" early in the senator's career. Others note that obsession with detail sometimes reflects a reluctance to set bigger-picture objectives or, when needed, to move on.
A former county prosecutor, Kerry thrives on the minutiae of a long, complex investigation. Unlike many senatorial colleagues, he reads through evidence himself. He's an aggressive questioner, constantly bringing hearings back to basics: what witnesses knew and when they knew it. But he's also shown he can build consensus, as he did with a charged MIA/POW investigation that opened the door for the US to restore relations with Vietnam.
If he makes it to the White House, Kerry will be only the third US senator in history - after Warren Harding and John Kennedy - to go straight from Capitol Hill to the presidency. And neither got there by writing great laws.
It's an irony of politics that a strong legislative résumé may be more likely to sink a presidential bid than to make one. Thousands of votes make too big a target, experts say. And the grind of making laws rarely helps a newcomer make a name.
Early on, Kerry took the road prospected by John F. Kennedy: nailing a big oversight investigation. For Kennedy, it was corruption in the Teamsters union - a high-profile probe including recognizable villains, misdeeds you can talk about over breakfast, and television coverage.
"The public has paid more attention to those investigations than they do to the daily legislative grind that goes on here," says Senate historian Don Ritchie. "Prominence as an investigator is a boost to someone with presidential aspirations."
Even before his Senate career began, Kerry had made his way into public life by asking questions. Best known is his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a witness for Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971 when he queried: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Elected to the US Senate in 1984, he gave up a prized offer to be on the Senate Appropriations committee and joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee instead. It was a sign of longstanding interest in world affairs, fed by his father's career involvement in the foreign service. Kerry's internationalist views echo today in his calls for repairing relations with longtime allies in Europe.
On that committee, he pursued some of the most complex investigations in Senate history. On a tip from a Vietnam vet, he investigated reports that mercenaries were dealing arms to contra rebels in Nicaragua. The threads led to the White House.
Kerry, seen as too opinionated in this case, was not included on the congressional panel that investigated Iran-contra. Still, he used his position on the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics, and international operations - a panel not known for deep investigations - to continue his investigation of dirty guns, drugs, and money. He tracked leads from Colombia, the Bahamas and Haiti to Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, who is now serving time in a federal prison. The Noriega probe led to the downfall of BCCI, where the money was laundered.
A colleague on the Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, says Kerry approaches such investigations with a prosecutor's mind: "He is very logical and almost didactic in the way he approaches issues. He takes a complicated problem and tries to deconstruct it."
Such work involves a mastery of detail that senators usually leave to their staff. But a former aide describes handing Kerry 800 pages of documents during the Noriega investigation, along with scripted questions to use in the hearing the next morning. "To my amazement, he read not only the script, but the documents," says Jack Blum, the subcommittee's former chief investigator.
Colleagues credit Kerry with doing much of the heavy lifting himself. Mr. Blum adds that pressure to back off the BCCI investigation was intense: "From Day 1, there was never a committee that took such an unmerciful pounding from the White House. Kerry said: 'Just ignore it.' "
Later, he turned his investigative attention to how to spend the "peace dividend" after the end of the cold war. Kerry warned that a more dangerous war was already taking shape, with global crime organizations that corrupted entire governments, especially the "Big Five" - the Italian Mafia, Russian mobs, Chinese triads, Japanese yakuza, and Colombian drug cartels. "It will take only one megaterrorist event in any of he great cities of the world to change the world in a single day," he wrote in his 1997 book, "The New War: The Web of Crime that Threatens America's Security."
Nearly absent from Kerry's watch list are Islamic terrorist groups, including those affiliated with Osama bin Laden, who reconstituted a network for terrorist money laundering in the Sudan after the collapse of BCCI.
But by then, Democrats had lost control of the Senate and Kerry had lost his mandate for pursuing investigations. As the Kerry operation wound down, Blum says Kerry wanted to get into "the whole bizarre relationship between US intelligence and Muslim radicals who were training in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but time ran out. And on both the Democratic side and the Republican side, there was no stomach for it, because we were winning the cold war. It turns out that was a grotesque mistake."
Kerry's last investigations before Democrats lost control of the Senate exposed abuses of federal multifamily housing incentives. "It was very difficult for Kerry in the minority during a Democratic administration to do investigation," says Mr. Winer, a former Kerry aide during Noriega and Iran contra investigations.
But if he has tried to take on the role of a Senate private eye, Kerry has also revealed his approach to issues through votes on policy - amassing a record that is not as reflexively liberal as some portray.
In his first year in the Senate, Kerry was an early supporter of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which required Congress to work within deficit-reduction targets. Backers credit Kerry's decision to support the plan as a turning point: "We got a lot of Democratic support when I got John Kerry [and Sen. Christopher Dodd of
Connecticut] to sign on," says Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina. Kerry has voted consistently for free-trade agreements, while now calling for a review of trade policy.
He opposed much of the Reagan defense buildup. He voted against the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but backed the 2002 resolution to use force in Iraq. GOP opponents hope to use such votes to define Kerry as soft on national defense. "He seems to think that because he is a war hero, that he gets a free pass on national security issues. The fact is he voted to gut American intelligence-gathering capacity and fought every meaningful new weapons system since he has come to Washington," says House majority leader Tom DeLay.
The liberal label may be most apt on environmental and social issues. He has supported gun control, abortion rights, and legislation promoting the civil rights of homosexuals. On this year's hot controversy, he says he opposes gay marriage and supports civil unions.