John Kerry

by Aaron Crawford

Southern Methodist University, Center for Presidential History

John F Kerry 1

John F. Kerry accepted the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in his hometown of Boston on July 29, 2004. He began his acceptance speech with a dramatic flourish, offering a military salute and announcing: “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”1 Kerry’s gesture, and the tone of the convention, advertised his service during the Vietnam War. This typified the Kerry campaign’s efforts to emphasize Kerry’s military service and lifelong dedication to public service as important credentials for a President while the United States was engaged in a worldwide struggle against terrorism.2

Kerry was born in 1943 to an affluent Boston family committed to public service. As a youngster, Kerry accompanied his father, a Foreign Service Officer, to Europe and was exposed to the life of a diplomat. The election of John F. Kennedy inspired young Kerry to consider a life in politics, and Kennedy’s influence on Kerry grew after he met the president, twice, as an undergraduate at Yale University in 1962. This devotion to public service led Kerry to join the Navy after his graduation from Yale in 1966.3

Kerry arrived in Vietnam in 1968, after other tours of duty. From December 1968 through February 1969, Kerry was a commander on a Navy Patrol Craft Fast, or “Swift Boat,” in a period when the Navy began new and more dangerous patrols. During an ambush on February 28, 1969, he killed and disarmed a Viet Cong insurgent armed with a rocket launcher, for which he was awarded a Silver Star.4 Kerry was also awarded three Purple Hearts for wounds suffered on the Mekong Delta, and a Bronze Star.

Kerry’s service disillusioned him with war, and on returning to the United States he became a leader in the Anti-War movement. On April 22, 1971, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, describing crimes and atrocities committed by some American soldiers and arguing for an end to the conflict. He asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Some veterans considered Kerry’s antiwar activism a betrayal.5

After an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Congress in 1972, Kerry entered Boston College Law School. He went on to work as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office in Middlesex County and earned a reputation as a first rate investigator. But politics remained his ultimate goal, and in 1982 he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. Two years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate.6 In 2000, after Al Gore conceded the presidential election to George W. Bush, Kerry began preparing for a presidential run of his own.7

In December 2002, after handily winning re-election to the Senate, Kerry moved forward with his presidential campaign. The campaign started strong, boosted early by Kerry’s transfer of $2.6 million from his Senate campaign to his presidential effort. In January 2003, the American Research Poll placed him in the lead of the Democratic nomination process at 27%, twelve points ahead of the next candidate, Howard Dean.8

Within weeks of beginning the campaign, Kerry was diagnosed with prostate cancer. During his surgery and recuperation period in February 2004, Kerry’s front-runner status began to slip away. Howard Dean attacked Kerry for condemning the president’s policies in Iraq while having voted as a Senator to give him the power to go to war. Kerry refused to disavow his support for the war, but his tendency to overexplain his decisions created confusion. Dean cast him as a fence sitter, unable or unwilling to take a stand. Dean said at an Iowa event, “I don’t know what John Kerry’s position [on Iraq] is.”9 Dean, propelled by his anti-war message, surged ahead of Kerry and the other Democratic candidates in summer 2003.

The increased media scrutiny that came with Dean’s status simultaneously pulled Dean down and pushed Kerry up. Dean’s gaffes, for instance, led Iowan voters to reconsider Kerry and ultimately propelled him to victory in the state’s January 19 caucus. Kerry won with 37% while North Carolina Senator John Edwards finished second, relegating Dean to third place. After winning the New Hampshire Primary on January 27 and five more primaries on February 3, Kerry never looked back. He clinched the nomination on March 2 after winning nine of eleven Super Tuesday contests.10 The campaign had not been an easy one. In November, Kerry had fired his campaign manager, Jim Jordan, replacing him with Mary Beth Cahill. And near the end of 2003, Kerry mortgaged his Boston home for $6.4 million to refill the campaign’s coffers.11 But he had won the nomination, and won it early.

Winning the nomination early gave Kerry the opportunity to focus on the fight with Bush, but the campaign never connected a decisive blow. Kerry stressed his positions on the economy and education, but largely ignored the deteriorating situation in Iraq. With the Republicans ready to spend $150 million to “define” Kerry as big-government liberal and indecisive “flip-flopper,” avoiding discussions of Iraq would be impossible.12

The candidate himself delivered the most effective ammunition to the Republicans. On the stump, the deeply analytical Kerry tended to offer long discursive explanations of his decisions that obscured his positions. At an event for veterans in West Virginia on March 15, a Bush supporter taunted Kerry for his October 2003 vote against a bill funding the troops. Kerry explained that he had supported a version of the bill that would have ended the Bush tax cuts to pay for the war. In his explanation he said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.”13

Within days a political ad appeared featuring Kerry’s statement, portraying him as an indecisive leader. The Bush campaign emphasized Kerry’s seemingly fuzzy position on Iraq, thus helping them deflect the increasingly grim news from the war that included an expanding insurgency and prison abuse at Abu Ghraib. Still, despite Bush’s diminishing polling numbers, Kerry failed to capitalize.14

The Kerry campaign sought to regain momentum with bold moves and a new approach. Kerry worked with Washington speech coach Michael Sheehan to develop a more conversational and personal style.15 More drastically, the candidate tried to convince his friend and fellow Senator, John McCain, to become his running mate. McCain ultimately refused and campaigned for the president.16 During the primaries, Dean became the first candidate to refuse public-financing and instead raise private money. Kerry had harshly criticized the decision but it freed him to follow suit and revitalize his struggling campaign. In the spring, the Kerry campaign began debating whether it should opt out of public funding in the general election. Without question, the Bush campaign would use his harsh remarks about Dean’s decision against him.

On the other hand, by accepting the Democratic nomination in July, it meant that he would have to stretch $75 million of public campaign funds for the rest of the campaign, six weeks longer than the Republicans. In the end, Kerry decided to remain with the public financing system.17

Kerry tried to redefine the race on his terms leading up to the Democratic Convention. He sought to frame question of moral values as matters of honesty and responsibility in a bid to overcome deeply divisive debates over gay marriage and abortion that were used against the Catholic candidate. “The value of truth is one of the most central values in America, and this Administration has violated it,” claimed Kerry18 In July, he selected John Edwards as his running mate. Edwards, who had finished second in the primaries, had proven more successful engaging voters and was expected to make an effective case against Bush and Cheney.19

The Democratic National Convention, meeting in Boston from July 26-29, highlighted Kerry’s war record. Speakers at the convention continually alluded to the candidate’s service in Vietnam, but largely refrained from attacks on President Bush. After the convention, Kerry and Edwards embarked on a 3,500-mile “Sea to Shining Sea” tour. While Kerry tried to campaign against the Bush administration’s domestic policies, the war in Iraq remained a dominant issue. On August 9 at a Grand Canyon event, the media pressed the candidate about whether he would still vote for the invasion of Iraq. “Yes,” replied Kerry, thus highlighting his agreement with Bush on this most crucial issue.20

In early August, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527 organization, released an advertisement questioning Kerry’s war record. The group followed with another ad featuring Kerry’s allegations of war atrocities from his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Kerry campaign initially ignored the ads, which ran in only a few media markets, believing a response would only give the message more exposure. This proved to be a costly mistake as cable news networks and the internet gave the Swift Boat Veterans sustained attention. Almost simultaneously, a new book, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry attacked Kerry’s war record. The author, John O’Neill, had been a public critic of Kerry’s since his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a matter of weeks, the Swift Boat ads had raised enough uncertainty about Kerry’s Vietnam service to neutralize his war record as an effective campaign tool.21

In the fall campaign, Kerry sought to recover from the Swift Boat attacks and go on the offensive. He made his strongest and clearest attack on Bush’s leadership in Iraq on September 20. He accused Bush of conflating Saddam Hussein with those responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks and entering a war that both distracted from the war against terrorism and put the nation in danger. “[W]e have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure,” he said.22 At the first presidential debate, on September 30, Kerry continued the assault on Bush’s performance. In one tense exchange, Kerry invoked the president’s father and his leadership in the Persian Gulf War. “[T]he president’s father did not go into Iraq, into Baghdad beyond Basra. And the reason he didn’t is, he said, he wrote in his book, because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That’s exactly where we find ourselves today.” President Bush’s visible irritation during the debate contrasted with Kerry’s cooler and measured performance. With most outlets reporting his performance as a win, Kerry had begun to even the race.23

In the final month of the campaign, Kerry kept his momentum. An exception was the third debate, when he mentioned Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, a move that appeared to many as calculated and mean-spirited.24 The parties continued to spend millions of dollars a day, fighting state by state, until the race hinged on the battleground states of Florida and Ohio. President Bush stumped with an unwavering message of victory in Iraq and security at home while portraying his opponent as a “flip-flopper.” Kerry maintained his steady barrage of attacks on Bush’s leadership and promised to build a stronger coalition to achieve victory in Iraq and refocus American efforts on Afghanistan and Homeland Security.25 Despite his renewed emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry’s own words again proved problematic. Kerry responded to an interview question about how the September 11 attacks had changed him by saying: “[I]t didn’t change me much at all.” He spoke of the terrorism as a criminal matter, such as organized crime that the United States could only hope to contain terrorism. “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” he said. When the interview was published on October 10 in the New York Times Magazine, the Republicans pounced, portraying it as more evidence of Kerry’s indecisiveness.26 With national security such a prominent part of the election, voters seemed more assured by Bush’s resolve. Bush was reelected. More than 120 million voters cast a ballot, with Kerry winning over 59 million.27

Kerry returned to the United States Senate. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed him as Secretary of State.

1 James W. Ceasar and Andrew E. Busch. Red Over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 117.

2 Erica Seifert. The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns, 1976-2008. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 196.

3 Michael Kranish, Brian Mooney, and Nina J. Easton. John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography By the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), 1-57.

4 Douglas Brinkley, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (New York: William Morrow, 2004), 281-318; Kranish, Mooney, and Easton, John F. Kerry, 71-109.

5 Brinkley, Tour of Duty, 1-17; Patrick Hagopian. The Vietnam in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 206-07.

6 Jeffrey Toobin, “Kerry’s Trials,” The New Yorker, May 10, 2004, 54-61.

7 Kranish, Mooney, and Easton, John F. Kerry, 348;

8 Kranish, Mooney, and Easton. John F. Kerry, 352-54; Caesar and Busch, Red Over Blue, 69; Adams Nagourney, “In the First Mile of a Marathon, Kerry Emerges as a Front-Runner,” New York Times, February 26, 2003.

9 Joe Battenfeld, “Candidate Kerry Slams Bush for Diplomatic Shortcomings,” Boston Herald, March 13, 2004; Kranish, Mooney, and Easton. John F. Kerry, 355-57.

10 Kevin J. McMahon, David M. Ranklin, Donald W. Beachler, and John Kenneth White, Winning the White House 2004: Region by Region, Vote by Vote (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 1-5.

11 Ceasar and Busch. Red Over Blue, 82, 100; Kranish, Mooney, and Easton. John F. Kerry, 367; Barbara Norrander, The Imperfect Primary: Oddities, Biases and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Politics (New York: Routledge, 2010), 27.

12 Evan Thomas, et al., “Trench Warfare,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 62-71; John C. Green, “Financing the 2004 Presidential Nomination Campaigns,” David B. Magleby, Anthony Corrado, and Kelly D. Peterson, eds., Financing the 2004 Election (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2006), 117; Ceasar and Busch, Red Over Blue, 107; Evan Thomas and the Staff of Newsweek, Election 2004: How Bush Won and What You Can Expect in the Future. (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), 58.

13 Nick Anderson and Matea Gold, “Battlefront Shifts to West Virginia,” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2004; Thomas, et al., Election 2004, 62.

14 Evan Thomas, et al., “Teaming Up,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 72-81; Patricia Conley, “The Presidential Race of 2004: Strategy, Outcome, and Mandate,” William Crotty, ed., A Defining Moment: The Presidential Election of 2004 (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2005), 117.

15 Evan Thomas, et al., “Trench Warfare,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 62-71; Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV, Second Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 78.

16 Robert Timberg, John McCain: An American Odyssey (New York: Free Press, 1999, 2007 update), 7.

17 Evan Thomas, et al., “Teaming Up,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 72-81; Thomas, et al., Election 2004, 56; Michael J. Malbin, “A Public Funding System in Jeopardy: Lessons from the Presidential Nomination Contest of 2004,” Michael J. Malbin, ed., The Election After Reform: Money, Politics and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 219-47; Ceasar and Busch. Red Over Blue, 82 .

18 Ceasar and Busch. Red Over Blue, 114-15.

19 Howard Fineman, et al., “Warming Up Kerry,” Newsweek, July 19, 2004, 20-26.

20 Evan Thomas, et al., “Teaming Up,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 72-81; Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, eds., Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2004 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 33.

21 Ceasar and Busch. Red Over Blue, 118-20; Evan Thomas, et al., “The Vets Attacks,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 90-104; Seifert, The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns, 196-97; John O’Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2004).

22 Dan Balz, “Kerry Sharpens Attack on Bush and IraqWar,” Washington Post, September 21, 2004; Evan Thomas, et al., “Inside the War Rooms,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 88-102.

23 Evan Thomas, et al., “Face to Face,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 107-16; Ceasar and Busch. Red Over Blue, 127-32; Schroeder, Presidential Debates, 172-74; Conley , “The Presidential Race of 2004,” 127; Thomas, et al., Election 2004, 156.

24 William Safire, “The Lowest Blow: The Kerry Campaign Believes Cheney’s Daughter is ‘Fair Game,’” New York Times, October 18, 2004; Paul Ryan Brewer, Value War: Public Opinion and the Politics of Gay Rights (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 60; Thomas, et al., Election 2004, 163-64.

25 Evan Thomas, et al., “Down to the Wire,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 118-27.

26 Matt Bai, “Kerry’s Undeclared War,” New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2004, 44-45; Ceasar and Busch. Red Over Blue, 134.

27 Evan Thomas, et al., “How Bush Did It,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 34-40; Evan Thomas, et al., “In Victory’s Glow,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, 28-39.