Skip navigation

Profile: John Kerry

Globe and Mail Update

John Kerry

Childhood
University
Vietnam
Anti-war
Family
Law
Senate
Run
Click on the icons to read about John Kerry's life

Childhood


John Forbes Kerry was born in a Colorado military hospital on Dec. 11, 1943, the son of a diplomat who volunteered as a test pilot during the war.

The father, Richard, had tuberculosis which prevented him from seeing combat. His mother was a high-born Bostonian whose family had considerable landholdings and whose ancestors could be traced to the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Despite that, Mr. Kerry's immediate family was not overly wealthy and relied on the largesse of a great-aunt to send young John to an exclusive prep school in New Hampshire.

Coming to St. Paul's after several years of education in Swiss boarding schools, the youth is remembered there for his debating talents and skill at playing hockey on nearby Turkey Pond.

His religion and political leanings left him isolated at the school, which was at the time dominated by Republican Episcopalians. The contrast was noted, some recall, when he delivered a speech touting John Fitzgerald Kennedy to an audience firmly supporting Richard Nixon.

Kerry moved to Yale after five years at St. Paul's, following the path trodden by his father and reportedly hoping that his liberal views and political ambitions would be more welcomed.

Back to top


University


It was at Yale University that John Kerry began to cement the friendships that influenced his life so strongly. Among them was David Thorne, who became a lifelong confidant and future brother-in-law.

Kerry played soccer and other sports, was actively involved in social life and was inducted into the Skull and Bones club in his senior year, two years before George W. Bush got a slot.

He was slated to graduate in 1966 and, as the date approached, considered the war his nation was waging in Vietnam. He admitted later that he had lost interest in the academic side of school and was looking for more adventure. But he was also skeptical about his government's motives in Southeast Asia.

Given the chance to address his graduating class in 1966, Kerry criticized the "excess of interventionism" and warned of the dangers of U.S. foreign policy.

"[The] war has found our policy-makers forcing Americans into a strange corner ... that if victory escapes us, it would not be the fault of those who lead, but of the doubters who stabbed them in the back," he said. "The United States must, I think, bring itself to understand that the policy of intervention that was right for Western Europe does not and cannot find the same application to the rest of the world."

But Mr. Kerry knew that he would be drafted unless he enrolled in graduate school or applied to be an officer, so he suppressed his misgivings about U.S. foreign policy and joined the Navy.

"We have not really lost the desire to serve," he told the graduating Yalies. "[But] we question the very roots of what we are serving."

Back to top


Vietnam


Mr. Kerry signed up for Vietnam alongside several schoolmates, one of whom was killed in action before Mr. Kerry even arrived in theatre.

He was posted first on a guided-missile frigate, a low-danger mission, and then volunteered to serve on a swift boat. The tactics of this arm of the navy changed around the time he joined its ranks. Initially a relatively safe assignment, the patrol boats began to cruise the inland waterways in an attempt to draw out enemy fighters by provoking them to fire.

It was a deadly business, for both the bystanders and the sailors. After one violent incident on Christmas Eve 1968 Mr. Kerry wrote in his journal that he half-hoped the military would put him on trial, "because that would make sense."

After another mission, in which Mr. Kerry beached his boat and chased down a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla, his commanding officer raised a similar theme. "I said, 'John, I don't know whether you should be court-martialed or given a medal,'" the officer later told the Boston Globe.

He got the medal instead, one of five he was awarded during his service in Vietnam. Given three Purple Hearts for wounds he admits were minor, he also picked up a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

Mr. Kerry says he found the missions increasingly pointless and he eventually used his three wounds as the basis for a request to leave Vietnam.

Back to top


Anti-war


Serving a safe job as the aide to a Brooklyn-based admiral, Mr. Kerry became involved in the anti-war movement and asked to released from his military commitment. The request granted, he became the public face of a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

His official biography explains that he had "seen the lives of his fellow soldiers, his friends, put at risk because some leaders in Washington were making bad decisions" and that he felt a responsibility to his friends still serving. Critics said that he was hungry for publicity and was already plotting a political career.

Whatever the truth, the presence of a decorated veteran with a patrician background at the head of a group the government was eager to marginalize caused consternation at the White House.

Tape recordings from the Nixon White House show just how seriously they took Mr. Kerry and a memo from Nixon counsel Charles Colson reportedly argued for the need to "destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader."

Mr. Kerry took his case to Congress in the spring of 1971 at a jammed hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Wearing his fatigues and ribbons for gallantry, he cemented his reputation with probably the most famous speech of his life.

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" he said. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Mr. Kerry left the anti-war group after about a year. Some say he was forced out but other commentators say he was ready to take the battle from the streets to the halls of power, believing that Congress was place to end the Vietnam War.

Back to top


Family


The congressional bid failed, but Mr. Kerry bounced back to wed long time girlfriend Julia Thorne, whose brother he had known since childhood. The Thornes were successful in finance and the lavish wedding was the first of two such unions that both brought large-scale infusions of wealth.

The New York Times described the May, 1970, wedding as the union of "Miss Julia Stimson Thorne, whose ancestors helped to shape the American republic in its early days, and John Forbes Kerry, who wants to help steer it back from what he considers a wayward course."

Their first child was born three years later, only days before Mr. Kerry began classes at Boston College Law School. A decade later the marriage had collapsed but the couple kept up appearances for several years. Divorced in 1988, Mr. Kerry's ex-wife later wrote that she was tired of the fear and loneliness of being a political wife.

The divorce left Mr. Kerry short of money and at times without a fixed address. In his "gypsy" period he stayed with friends, colleagues and sometimes lobbyists.

Mr. Kerry met his next wife, the phenomenally wealthy Teresa Heinz, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. They married in 1995, even though the widow of Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz was a staunch Republican at the time and did not want Mr. Kerry to seek higher office.

Back to top


Law


Mr. Kerry returned to university after failing in his first stab at national politics, entering law school in Boston in 1973. He graduated three years later and ended up as assistant prosecutor for Middlesex County. While there he helped clear a backlog of cases and used federal funds expand the staff dramatically.

His track record includes a focus on white-collar and organized crime, programs to counsel rape victims and a system for getting important cases to trial quickly. He helped jail a prominent New England crime boss.

He moved into private practice with a former assistant district attorney. They set up shop in Boston did work in wrongful-death litigation, medical malpractice and corporate trade secrets.

The practice lasted several years, a period in which he also made appearances as a commentator on local television and co-founded a cookie shop. As the partners considered expanding a new political opportunity cropped up.

The Democratic lieutenant-governor announced his intention to run for governor, leaving an opening for hopefuls that soon included Mr. Kerry.

Back to top


Senate


Easily winning the race, Mr. Kerry threw himself into the largely ceremonial role of lieutenant-governor, happily assuming responsibility for tasks delegated by Governor Michael Dukakis.

Although he had barely settled into his new position, Mr. Kerry could not resist the chance to contest the Senate seat vacated by Paul Tsongas. He won the nomination by a slim margin after a series of campaign statements that have come back to haunt him. In particular, his 1984 assertions that he would have voted to cancel many emerging military capabilities and to reduce others. Many of these weapons, including the stealth bomber and the Patriot missile system, went on to starring roles in wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

After squeaking onto the ticket as the Democratic candidate he won the actual race by 10-point margin and was re-elected in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2002.

His most public roles in the Senate included hearings (which he helped provoke) into the Iran-contra scandal, the search for missing Americans in Vietnam and the ultimate resumption of diplomatic ties with the nation and the investigation into the scandal-plagued Bank of Credit and Commerce International (later nicknamed the "Bank of Crooks and Criminals International") that he helped close.

Back to top


Presidential run


In 1996 Senator Kerry fought through a campaign threat by William F. Weld, whom some Republicans thought might one day run for president. The victory left the Mr. Kerry camp wondering what successes lay in store.

Mr. Kerry chose not to run for president in 2000 but reportedly hoped to be chosen running mate by Al Gore. Mr. Gore went with Joseph Lieberman and Mr. Kerry was left on the sidelines. Re-elected junior senator from Massachusetts in 2002 -- as always, filling the No. 2 slot behind Ted Kennedy -- he began to consider his options for 2004

In January, 2004, Mr. Kerry announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president. He beat out the other candidates and accepted the party's nomination in July, surrounded by fellow Vietnam veterans.

Back to top


Recommend this article? 29 votes

Back to top