SEPTEMBER 10, 2008
In early January, two days after Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton, John Kerry appeared at Obama's side at a rally in Charleston, South Carolina, and gave the Illinois senator his endorsement. "Sometimes, the hardest thing for the established political world to do is make a clean break with the past," Kerry said. "The old guard sometimes has a hard time acknowledging an individual who breaks the mold. But let me tell you something: Barack Obama isn't going to just break the mold. Together, we are going to shatter it into a million pieces and rebuild our nation."
Kerry's endorsement came at a critical moment for Obama. Not only did it help him knock some of the "Clinton Comeback" stories out of the news cycle; an endorsement from the party's most recent presidential nominee signaled to other establishment Democrats--many of whom were still wary of crossing the Clintons-- that they, too, could jump on the Obama bandwagon. At the lowest point of Obama's presidential campaign, Kerry had given him a much-needed boost.
What was most remarkable about Kerry's endorsement, however, was not the endorsement itself but the run-up to it. After being courted by Obama and Clinton for nearly a year, Kerry finally decided, a few days after Christmas, to offer his endorsement to Obama. But Obama did not want it--at least, not at that moment. The Obama campaign (rightly, as it turned out) believed that it was already on its way to winning the Iowa caucus on January 3; it also (wrongly) believed that it would win the New Hampshire primary five days later. As Kerry later recalled for me, "We just agreed that ... we should let it have its own energy, not change that dynamic, and sort of hold it until it might be needed." And so, just before midnight on January 8, hours after getting pole- axed by Clinton in New Hampshire, Obama placed a call to Kerry to say he needed that endorsement now--that is, if Kerry was still willing to give it.
It's a general rule in politics that you don't keep endorsements in your back pocket, lest circumstances--and offers--change. In the case of an endorsement from Kerry, that rule would seem particularly apt. (A senior Clinton adviser says that, had Kerry offered Hillary his endorsement in late December, she would have announced it immediately; her campaign coveted Kerry's organized support in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which he won in 2004.) Fair or not, Kerry has been dogged by a reputation for flip-flopping since even before the Bush campaign made it a central line of attack in his presidential run. For years, Democrats and pundits have complained that he lacks political backbone and that he can't be counted on when the chips are down. And, as Kerry himself realized, the chips were definitely down for Obama after New Hampshire. "The Hillary people, they were convinced that it was over--they'd punctured the balloon and it was done," Kerry says. "They'd won the big one, ... and they were going to win the rest of the states."
Given all this, any politician in Kerry's shoes that night might have been forgiven for telling Obama that he'd had some second thoughts, that (to borrow a phrase) he was for the endorsement before he was against it. But when Obama called, Kerry was ready with his answer. "Barack said, 'Do you still want to go down to South Carolina?'" Kerry recalls. "I said, 'Absolutely, let's go.'"
Since making his gutsy decision to endorse, Kerry has emerged as a powerful surrogate for Obama, regularly going to bat for him on the stump and on the TV talk shows, where he hews closely to the Obama campaign's talking points and offers criticism of John McCain that's far more withering than anything Obama himself could get away with. "John McCain is still stuck on the low-road express," Kerry said at a recent campaign event. "He doesn't get it. He's even dangerous, I think, for the direction of this country."
For those who remember Kerry as a lackluster and ham-fisted presidential candidate, this emergence has come as a surprise. "There's a wholeheartedness to [Kerry speaking about Obama] and a total lack of hesitancy and calculation that he always seems to have when he's speaking about himself," says one Democratic consultant. "A year ago, if you had asked [Obama strategists] David Axelrod and David Plouffe if they thought Kerry would be an important surrogate, they'd have laughed. But he's been fucking good." Kerry is even winning compliments from across the aisle. "If Kerry had conducted himself like this four years ago," says Republican strategist John Weaver, "he might have been elected president."
Indeed, Obama's "clean break" from the national past, as Kerry called it in his endorsement speech, seems to be a clean break for Kerry as well. Which is yet another surprise. Given the abuse Kerry took from his party following his defeat, one might have expected him this time around to sit on the sidelines and sulk. Instead he's done the opposite, looking to Obama as a vehicle for his own rehabilitation. Which leads to the question: In trying to help Obama overcome Clinton and now McCain, will John Kerry at long last be able to overcome himself?
'I think we ran a great campaign in many ways that many people don't understand," Kerry told me when we met for breakfast at the Four Seasons in Boston one recent morning. At 64, Kerry might be slightly more wrinkled and gray than he was as a presidential candidate, but, other than his diminished entourage--he was accompanied by only a press aide and a driver--he doesn't look very different from four years ago. As he awkwardly folded his large frame into a cramped banquette and ordered an English muffin--"really well-cooked, like not quite cancerous"--it was hard not to think, But for 60,000 votes in Ohio, this man would be eating breakfast in the White House right now.
The thought almost certainly occurs to Kerry from time to time, too. Even now, he speaks of his presidential campaign in the sort of granular detail that suggests he hasn't really gotten over it. "I won eight million more votes than Al Gore, I won a record level of young people voting in history, I won more votes than any Democrat's ever won," he said in between bites of his scorched English muffin. He touted his victories in states that were thought to be tossups and his margins of victory in others that were considered safely Democratic. "In Washington, I ran five hundred thousand votes ahead of the governor," he boasted. Even states he failed to win were part of his case for how well he'd performed. "We had to stop advertising in Colorado [due to federal spending rules], I got pummeled for three weeks without any answers," he said, "and I still only lost by two-and-a-half--two-point-four--percentage points." Nearly four years later, that tenth of a percentage point obviously still matters to him.
"He was clearly haunted by the would-have-beens and what he might have done wrong," says Ed Kilgore, a Kerry adviser before and after the 2004 elections. "You could really see him for a while there assessing every single day's news in terms of what he would have done as president." In fact, some of Kerry's supporters now argue that, had he run in the current political climate, he would have won. "My feeling has always been that the mountain John Kerry had to climb was a hell of a lot bigger than the mountain Barack Obama has to climb," says David Thorne, Kerry's closest friend. Kerry himself isn't shy on that point. "On Election Day [in 2004], George Bush was at fifty percent; today he's at twenty-one or something," he said. "On Election Day, the right-way wrong-way numbers were forty-seven percent wrong way; today, it's eighty-five percent. On Election Day, the economy was pretty strong; today it's horrible. And, on Election Day, we were one year into a war; now we're six years into a war. So big shift in perceptions, energy prices, inflation, banking, foreclosures, just a totally different playing field. ... Which is another reason why I'm proud of what we did."
But no amount of pride could make up for losing an election that many Democrats felt was theirs to win. And, after his defeat, Kerry set out to redeem himself. Almost immediately upon his return to the Senate, he took the lead on children's health care legislation and began speaking out on Iraq in more forceful terms than he'd ever used during the presidential campaign, sponsoring the first Senate bill to set a timetable for withdrawal. He wrote a book on the environment with his wife, Teresa, that became a best-seller. And he threw himself into the '06 midterms. "I raised fourteen million dollars ... and I campaigned for eighty candidates, sixty of whom won," he boasts.
"He didn't go off and grow a beard and get fat like Al Gore," says one Kerry adviser. "He wanted to be frenetically active. I think he had the psychological need for and enjoyed doing a thousand things at once the minute that campaign was over."
Of course, the other big reason Kerry was so frenetically active after '04 was his ambition to run for president again in '08. "I think Gore decided almost from the outset that he wasn't going to run again," says Bob Shrum, who managed both Gore's and Kerry's presidential campaigns. "I think Kerry was seriously thinking about running."
But Kerry's personal rehabilitation and his presidential ambitions ran off the rails just a few days before the midterm elections, when, during a campaign rally in California, he botched a joke that was meant to skewer Bush for being a poor student but instead denigrated the intelligence of American soldiers in Iraq; suddenly, some of the midterm candidates he'd raised money and stumped for were canceling their appearances with him, and prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, were denouncing him. "After that," says Shrum, "he couldn't run." Two months later, in a tearful speech to a mostly empty Senate chamber, Kerry announced, "I've concluded that this isn't the time for me to mount a presidential campaign."
That Kerry would wind up so heavily invested in Obama's presidential campaign might seem odd. After all, at first glance, the aging, bumbling Brahmin and the young, dashing African American couldn't be more different. But Kerry's friends are quick to emphasize the two men's similarities, from the time they spent abroad as children (albeit Kerry's in a Swiss boarding school) to the humbling electoral defeats both suffered early in their careers. "One thing that did connect Kerry and Obama was the sense that they had both kind of been outsiders a little bit in their lives," says a Kerry friend. "I think he looked at Obama as someone he could much more relate to than some of the other people in the campaign." As Kerry told me, "I see the affinity for change and grassroots politics that appeals to me. I came out of grassroots movement politics. I think there are similar instincts in a lot of things."
Indeed, for Kerry, Obama seems to embody the very qualities that he sees in himself but has been tragically unable to convey: that he is an agent for change, a crusader for justice, a politician in touch with the grassroots. "The Obama of this campaign," says one Kerry friend, "is the guy [Kerry] always wanted to be."
Even if Kerry didn't have a crush on Obama, he has other reasons for working so hard to elect him. One of them, it appears, is to end the vicious cycle of past Democratic presidential nominees screwing up current ones--a cycle with which he became intimately familiar in 2004. "He went through the contortions of being a nominee and having some high-profile headaches in previous nominees, " says a Kerry adviser. Gore endorsed Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries and, after Kerry won the nomination, according to one Kerry adviser, wasn't as helpful as the Kerry campaign would have liked. "Gore had moved on to a different part of his life: Scheduling him was difficult, getting him to do things was a challenge," says the adviser. Meanwhile, many people in Kerry's circle believe Bill Clinton actually wanted to undermine Kerry. "If John had a conversation with President Clinton," the adviser says, "it was immediately leaked to The New York Times." Now, much like Jimmy Carter has tried to make up for a failed presidency by attempting to become the best ex-president, Kerry appears intent on trying to make up for his failed presidential campaign by attempting to become the best ex-presidential nominee. "His sense is that the way he can be most helpful is doing everything he's asked and keeping his advice confidential," says the adviser.
Then there is the not insignificant matter of Obama's Republican opponent, whom Kerry seems to especially delight in skewering. Sometimes Kerry's criticism of McCain is snarky. "John McCain is looking for someone for vice president who has more economic expertise than he does," Kerry told 850 people at a recent birthday fund-raiser for Obama in Boston. "So congratulations to all of you, you're on the short list." Other times, his attacks are vicious-- particularly when they relate to foreign policy. "Barack Obama hasn't been there as long, but, in the short time he has been there, he's shown a greater understanding of that challenge than John McCain has at any time in his long career," Kerry told me.
Kerry and McCain have a famously complex relationship. In 1984, when McCain was an Arizona representative, he traveled to Massachusetts to campaign against Kerry in his first run for the Senate because he was still angry at Kerry for throwing his Vietnam service medals on the steps of the Capitol in 1971--an action McCain heard about while being held in a North Vietnamese prison. But, in the '90s, through their work together on a Senate select committee that explored the Vietnam pow/mia issue, Kerry and McCain became close friends. In 1996, when Kerry faced a tough reelection race against Bill Weld, McCain refused to campaign for Weld. And, in 2004, Kerry approached McCain about being his running mate. But, when McCain said no, and news of Kerry's interest wound up in the press, Kerry felt betrayed. "The inability to get together on the veep thing was not a problem," says one Kerry adviser. "The fact that the McCain folks decided to leak it all was." (Weaver, who was McCain's chief strategist at the time, denies that charge and believes the leak came from Democrats opposed to McCain's joining the ticket.) Things went further down hill when McCain, after initially denouncing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against Kerry as "dishonest" and "dishonorable," refused to let Kerry use his image in rebuttal ads and then went on to vigorously campaign for Bush. "Kerry really believed that Band of Brothers bullshit," says one Democratic strategist. "He thought that he and McCain had come to a soulful understanding of each other that was strong and permanent and meaningful, and it clearly wasn't for McCain."
Kerry insists that his disagreements with McCain aren't personal. But he seems personally wounded by the political road McCain has been traveling of late. "I'm not unfriendly to John," Kerry told me in a resigned tone. "I do think he's taken a turn that I don't find in keeping with John McCain, the maverick, independent pre-2004. ... I think he's been catering to interests that have led us astray the last few years." Kerry's brother, Cam, says, "The sort of general public disappointment in McCain"--at least among Democrats who once admired him--"translates on a personal level for John." Kerry recalled a breakfast he and McCain had in early 2005 at the Capitol Hill restaurant La Colline, where the two talked over the presidential campaign. He said McCain told him, "Sometimes you disappoint your friends."
When Kerry's not campaigning for Obama, he's campaigning for himself. He's up for reelection in November, and, although he faces only token opposition, he's not taking anything for granted. One afternoon in early August, he came to an Irish bar in Quincy, where about 50 people were gathered in a basement banquet room. As is usually the case with Kerry, his prepared remarks were fine, hitting all the hot-button issues from the subprime mortgage crisis to McCain's foreign policy of "unilateralism on steroids." But it's the off-the- cuff speaking that has always bedeviled Kerry, and, when he took his first question, about withdrawing troops from Iraq, and immediately launched into a story about a meeting he once had with the governor of Anbar Province and some local sheiks, it triggered an instant flashback to any number of rambling, incomprehensible presentations--the kind that once led Jon Stewart to admonish Kerry, "No one understands you!" But then something unexpected happened: Kerry quickly got to his point. "I said to them point blank, 'Look, as long as the president keeps saying we're going to be here as long as it takes, isn't it true that you really are under no pressure whatsoever to make the decision about how long you take?' And they agreed. ... They said, 'You're right.'" And then it was on to the next question. Without the apparent performance anxiety of running for president, Kerry had suddenly discovered concision.
Indeed, some people now believe that this new and improved Kerry is headed for bigger things. In the weeks before the Democratic convention, Kerry's name was increasingly bandied about as a potential Obama running-mate. ("[I]f he had not run in '04, he would almost be a lock for the vice-presidential nomination, " Shrum told The Huffington Post.) And there's speculation that, in the event of an Obama victory, Kerry would join his cabinet. "John Kerry would be a tremendous asset to the Obama administration as secretary of State," says Max Cleland, a former Georgia senator and Kerry confidante.
Kerry and his advisers are quick to tamp down such talk. This, to be sure, is the natural denial of a politician up for reelection. But it also appears that Kerry, who has seemingly been running for a higher office since he was an undergrad at Yale, has finally achieved an angle of repose. He speaks enthusiastically about the "progressive legislating" on issues like stem-cell research and children's health care that will be possible if Obama wins and Democrats pick up seats. "Then you start building, and then you do the toughies like energy and health care," he says. "I think we could really see a very exciting period." His aides say that he hopes to one day chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the same committee he testified before as a 27- year-old antiwar activist. And, although it is a sensitive topic, given his friendship with Ted Kennedy, the prospect of Kerry eventually becoming Massachusetts's senior senator and an elder statesman of sorts is obviously an appealing one. The fact that these goals only require Kerry to hang around long enough to achieve them suggests a certain level of contentment, in stark contrast to the restless ambition he has always displayed. "I think he's decided that he wants to be a senator," says one Kerry adviser, "and there have been questions about that over the years."
Over breakfast at the Four Seasons, Kerry talked about some of the political lessons he learned in 2004--that it was a mistake to take public financing and also a mistake not to fight back harder against the Swift Boat ads--and how they applied to Obama and the 2008 race. But, the more Kerry talked, the less he reflected on Obama and the more he focused on himself. "I'm a much better political thinker, I am a much better candidate, I am a much better public person than I was when I began," he said. "And I think a lot of the stereotypes of John Kerry, some of which I got tagged with, I understand them, I think many of them, most of them, are way behind me in terms of reality. I think I'm a much stronger advocate, much clearer in my language and in my beliefs, knowing what matters and doesn't, and I think I would have been ..." Kerry paused in mid-sentence. "I could be," he continued, "very strong."
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.