San Diego Union Tribune

February 25, 2004

Building his credentials
Kerry has groomed career for presidency


They called themselves the Dog Hunters, and John Kerry might have them to thank for sustaining a meteoric political career that has carried him to the threshold of the Democratic presidential nomination.

The year was 1984, and Kerry was locked in a tight primary election battle with a popular politician named James Shannon for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. In an attempt to appeal to the anti-war left, Shannon used a debate late in the campaign to question the sincerity of Kerry's opposition years earlier to the Vietnam War.

Kerry counterattacked, accusing Shannon of impugning his fellow Vietnam veterans who went into combat despite misgivings about the conflict.

"That dog won't hunt," Shannon retorted.

Later that evening, Vietnam veterans began calling John Martilla, a longtime Kerry strategist, to express outrage at Shannon.

Traveling as a pack, the self-styled Dog Hunters rented a helicopter during the campaign's remaining days and traversed the state, confronting Shannon and touting Kerry's battlefield heroism.

"It was critically important, because the way it emerged – they controlled the conversation," Martilla said. "John's service was honored."

Kerry won by 3 percentage points, setting up an easy general election victory against a conservative Republican whose earlier flirtation with the far-right John Birch Society made him an easy mark.

The campaign also established a pattern in Kerry's political life marked by the enduring loyalty of successors to the Dog Hunters – a band of brothers, the senator calls them – and by his own ability to overcome significant political obstacles.

For much of his life, John Forbes Kerry, 60, has been grooming himself for the presidency, according to longtime friends and associates.

In 1971, recently discharged from the Navy, survivor of two tours in Vietnam, a combat boat commander in the dangerous Mekong Delta and recipient of three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, Kerry performed so impressively that he found himself being interviewed on "60 Minutes."

"Do you want to be president?" CBS correspondent Morley Safer asked.

Kerry denied harboring any such aim, adding, "That's such a crazy question at a time like


In retrospect, the question hardly seems crazy at all.

Beginning with his decision as a Yale undergraduate to seek combat at a time when draft resistance was beginning to build among his peers, Kerry has compiled an impressive political résumé – crime-fighting prosecutor, Massachusetts' lieutenant governor, U.S. senator.

"There's no question Kerry has been credentialing himself his entire career for this race," said Lou

DiNatale, a longtime Kerry watcher and political science professor at the University of Massachusetts. "The military was a credentialing, the district attorney was a credentialing, and he's going to use these things for the race he's always been running."

A descendant on his mother's side of some of Massachusetts' earliest settlers, Kerry is a Brahmin in bearing and accent. His paternal grandfather was a Czech Jew who changed his name from Kohn to Kerry, and Kerry's diplomat father supported the family on a government salary.

With generous relatives helping out, Kerry attended boarding school in Switzerland before entering New Hampshire's exclusive St. Paul's School, where he played hockey and lacrosse with a future FBI director, Robert Mueller.

There and later at Yale, where Kerry won the presidency of the Yale Union, friends joked about which one of them would serve in a Kerry Cabinet. But they also wrestled with the moral ambiguities of Vietnam.

Selected to give the class oration upon graduation in 1966, Kerry gave voice to their dilemma. "We have not really lost the desire to serve. We question the very roots of what we are serving," he said.

Nevertheless, Kerry took a commission as a Navy officer.

After a relatively easy deployment in Vietnam waters aboard a destroyer, Kerry volunteered for decidedly more dangerous duty with the "brown water Navy" that was conducting combat missions in coastal waters and the Mekong Delta.

Kerry commanded heavily armed 51-foot aluminum vessels that conducted scores of patrols, engaging in dozens of brief, vicious firefights with a mostly unseen enemy.

In addition to suffering three minor wounds, he was decorated for chasing down and shooting a Viet Cong fighter and for rescuing a Green Beret officer from a Delta waterway in the middle of a violent ambush.

After serving one-third of the normal 12-month tour, he took advantage of a rule that allowed officers with three wounds to accept transfer out of Vietnam and flew home in late March 1969. The following January he was released from active duty.

By the time he left the Navy, Kerry's disillusionment with the war was complete, and he set about trying to hitch his political aspirations to the energy of the anti-war movement.

Kerry's career started inauspiciously as he set out in search of a congressional district that ultimately led some to dismiss him as a political opportunist.

Others were impressed with what they saw.

Barry White, a Boston attorney and political fund-raiser who chaired the 1992 presidential campaign of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, recalled, "He was young, vigorous, obviously very knowledgeable and very enthusiastic – and driven."

Married at the time to Julia Thorne, the twin sister of a close Yale friend, Kerry regrouped after losing a congressional primary in 1972 by going to law school and then serving as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County.

It was his reputation as a crime-fighting prosecutor as much as his earlier anti-war celebrity that helped him win the lieutenant governor's race in 1982. He was in that post only a year when Tsongas' announcement that he would quit the Senate for health reasons spurred him to seek the seat, even though he had two daughters and a crumbling marriage.

His sudden leap into the Senate race did not go unnoticed by his critics, who in the years that followed would nickname Kerry "live shot" – a reference to what they claimed was his inability to bypass a television camera.

But his victory over Shannon also stamped him as a hard-nosed competitor who is at his best in a tight race against a formidable opponent.

The pattern repeated itself in a 1996 Senate re-election contest against a popular Republican governor, William Weld. Despite post-Labor Day polls showing that nearly two-thirds of the state's voters felt Kerry did not deserve a third term, he won by 8 percentage points.

In 1995, he married Teresa Heinz, a widow who had inherited a fortune four years earlier when her husband, Sen. John Heinz of the ketchup family, was killed in a plane crash.

As a senator, Kerry made his mark as an investigator whose inquiries included targets such as Panama's Manuel Noriega, who was toppled from power by U.S. forces; Iran-Contra figure Oliver North; and influential Democratic adviser Clark Clifford, who had become entangled in the machinations of an outlaw bank.

But perhaps his major accomplishment involved undertaking the politically thankless task of investigating the unresolved fate of his fellow veterans who were assumed to have fallen into Viet Cong hands. Aided by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Vietnam POW, Kerry and his panel concluded that there were no remaining GIs in Vietnamese custody.

His findings laid the groundwork for President Clinton's decision to normalize relations with Hanoi.

It was also a move intended to hasten the healing from an unpopular war that had blighted the lives of many who had served.

Kerry's work on the issue strengthened his links to thousands of fellow veterans. As Kerry was struggling to overtake the once high-flying Howard Dean earlier in this campaign, latter-day versions of the Dog Hunters were manning phones and knocking on doors in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Only days before the Iowa vote, a former Green Beret – and a Republican to boot – appeared at Kerry's elbow to recall how the wounded Yale preppie had risked his life in 1969 to pull him from the Bay Hap River.

Jim Rassmann said he owed Kerry his life and wanted the world to know.

Kerry has been the Democratic front-runner ever since.