John Forbes Kerry
U.S. Senator, Massachusetts
Born: Dec. 11, 1943
Birthplace: Denver, Colo.
Kerry was raised Catholic in a family of privilege, and spent part of his childhood living in Europe. His mother was a descendant of John Winthrop and his father was a lawyer and a diplomat. He attended St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., and Yale University (1962–1966), where he became a member of the exclusive, secret Skull & Bones society to which George W. Bush also belongs. Enthralled by politics since childhood, Kerry was called “little J.F.K.” at Yale—his background, looks, and liberal politics echoed his hero, John F. Kennedy.
Although Kerry had criticized the Vietnam war and the draft, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy rather than wait for his draft notice to arrive, asserting that he believed “in a code of service to one's country.” Kerry volunteered for a second tour of duty in Vietnam, during which he served as the commander of a patrol boat in the Mekong Delta, a dangerous assignment. Wounded three times and commended for his valor, Kerry was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Among his several acts of bravery was saving a Green Beret's life—under fire and wounded, Kerry turned his boat around and rescued the soldier, who was adrift in the water. Years later, another soldier would credit Kerry with saving his life—in 1999, Kerry responded to the desperate call of a suicidal former crewmate.
Kerry's Vietnam experience further disillusioned him about the war. When he returned to the U.S., he became a founder of Vietnam Veterans of America and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, becoming its national coordinator. In 1971, at age 27, he organized a protest march of about a thousand Vietnam veterans in Washington, during which he gave an impassioned speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He eloquently questioned the motives for the war: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” His polarizing speech catapulted him to national attention, identifying him as a powerful new leader of the antiwar movement and pegging him as an angry young radical among the war's defenders. The FBI labeled him as a subversive and Nixon eventually placed him on his famous enemies list.
The following year, Kerry ran for Congress as a Democrat from Massachusetts. Despite his appeal as a fresh, young, idealistic liberal, he lost the election. He then attended law school at Boston College, graduated in 1976, and became an assistant district attorney (1976–1979), distinguishing himself by successfully convicting a major New England mob boss. In 1982 he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts under Governor Michael Dukakis. It was during this period that his thirteen-year marriage to Julia Thorne broke up (they had two children, Alexandra and Vanessa). In 1984, he ran for a Senate seat and won against the ultra-conservative Republican candidate, Ray Shamie. He has been reelected three times since then, giving him nearly two decades of experience in the Senate.
Kerry's Senate career has focused on investigations and oversight rather than legislation. As a freshman senator, he secured a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His 1986 investigation into charges that the Reagan administration was illegally sending aid to Nicaragua's contras helped lay the groundwork for the Iran-contra investigations. He also spearheaded the investigation of Panamanian general Manuel Noriega's drug trafficking and money-laundering through the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. In 1991, he served as chairman of a Senate Select Committee that investigated Vietnam POWs and MIAs, a highly emotional issue and thankless task, as many POW/MIA groups understandably did not want to put the issue to rest. In 1995, these efforts helped lead to the normalization of relations with Vietnam. That year he married Teresa Heinz, the wealthy widow of the late Senator H. John Heinz III of Pennsylvania. A major philanthropist, she was a former UN translator who speaks five languages and was raised in Mozambique.
Considered a relatively liberal Democrat, Kerry supports gun control, abortion rights, gay rights (but not gay marriage), a raise in the minimum wage, and has a strong record on environmental issues. He has voted against the Bush tax cuts, capital punishment, mandatory sentencing for drug dealers, and the missile defense system. He also voted to authorize President Bush to use force against Iraq but has since criticized the president for rushing to war without the backing of the international community.
The 2004 presidential campaign between the president and Democratic senator John Kerry was one of the most closely followed and polarized races in recent history. Kerry selected Sen. John Edwards as his running mate in July. Terrorism, the war in Iraq, tax cuts, health care, the economy, and the deficit were the major issues. Kerry accused the president of mismanaging the war on Iraq and the fight against terrorism and promised to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The president accused his opponent of being a “flip-flopper” on issues and of not having the leadership to fight the war on terror. In a close vote, President Bush won reelection, with 51% of the popular vote.