Monday, January 28, 2013

Exclusive: Who is the Real John Kerry?

John Kerry's Vietnam days (Kerry is in the back row, center)
Watching Sen. John Kerry's somewhat stilted testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee as he prepares to be approved as the new secretary of state as soon as tomorrow, I was reminded how different this guy is in one-on-one conversations than he is in the public square. I've been a part of some of Kerry's most personal and revealing interviews on record, and I can tell you that, whatever you think of the stoic senator, there are sides of him you're probably never seen.

When I was covering Kerry's 2004 presidential run for Newsweek, for example, I wrote a story titled "Getting Out the Music Lovers," which chronicled Kerry’s efforts to appeal to Southern Democrats. During the telephone interview for that story, Kerry apparently Googled my name and clicked on my music website (I had a national record deal at the time). Just as I was about to ask him a campaign-related question, he interrupted me and said, "Wait a minute, Jamie. Is this you, the country singer with the guitar that I see here?"

It caught me off guard, but I felt obligated to reply. "Yes, senator, that's me," I said. "I have another life as a singer-songwriter. But I'm not really country, I'm more rock."

"Oh, I see," he said. "So with your musical pursuits, where do you find time to write for Newsweek?" 

Clearly more interested in talking music than politics, Kerry proceeded to ask me about my guitar playing, then told me he was learning some country songs, presumably to win more Southern voters. 

At a campaign stop in New York City just days before that interview, Kerry had broken out into a performance of the Johnny Cash classic Ring of Fire after being handed a guitar. So I asked him if he was goin' country.

He laughed. "Jamie, I'll tell anyone who will listen how much I enjoy playing Ring of Fire," he said. I thought to myself, "This is not the same pretentious politico I saw the other day on C-Span." The conversation revealed a side of Kerry I didn't know or expect, a lighthearted, music-loving side. It made me wonder: who is the real John Kerry?

In a more serious but equally revealing Newsweek story I co-wrote that same campaign year titled “Kerry and Agent Orange," the senator talked for the first time about his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, and recalled his lifelong friendship with Giles Whitcomb, a Naval Intelligence officer who served with Kerry.

Whitcomb, who died in 1988 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the same cancer I've battled for the last 16 years, had along with Kerry been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Kerry pressured the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to ensure that Whitcomb's widow received full veterans’ benefits after his death. 

It took a generation for VA to admit there is a link between Agent Orange and many types of cancer. Kerry, a survivor of prostate cancer, which like lymphoma has also been linked to Agent Orange, has been a champion for veterans with VA claims, and he always gets emotional when he talks about Whitcomb. This is another side of him the public doesn't often see.

In an interview for a San Diego Magazine story I wrote titled “An End of Innocence,” Kerry was particularly candid and unguarded. He shared with me what his life was like during military training in San Diego in 1968, fondly recalling those carefree days drinking beer in Mexico with his buddies, surfing at Windansea Beach in La Jolla, and riding his bike around Coronado.

“My best memory of living in San Diego was surfing, without a doubt,” Kerry told me. “There was such a dichotomy between what we were preparing for - combat - and what we were able to do in this beautiful place in between. We used to just surf until we dropped. We were already tired from survival training in the mountains. We’d finish the day drinking the best beer I’ve ever tasted.”

Kerry also told me in that interview that he was a bit of a thrill-seeker back then. A pilot, he said he especially enjoyed “herding cows” from his plane.

“That’s the single best memory of flying in San Diego: me and my friend David Thorne coming out of the clouds in this little plane, flying right over the fields and herding the cows, sending the cows running,” he said. “We really had a good time being foolish sometimes. It was such a great way to just lose focus and put away the real world for a while.”

At the same time he was surfing, drinking beers and herding cows, Kerry was also preparing to return to Vietnam for his second tour, which he says changed him as a person and made him more cynical. That second tour planted the seeds for the controversial anti-war demonstrations he participated in after he came home. 

Kerry, who was awarded three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, as well as the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, told me that San Diego will always have special meaning for him. "It was the place where I spent those last days before I ended up going off to a very different war than the one I’d known during my first tour of duty," he said.

Several years after that interview, in a Newsweek story I wrote about Kerry's daughter Alexandra titled “The Book on John Kerry,” she told me how frustrating it has been for her that her father is so often mischaracterized by the press and misunderstood by the public.

“I know who he is, “ Alexandra said. "So it's odd to know someone, to know his character and his layers, and then see him portrayed in such two-dimensional ways.”

I, too, have come to know a different John Kerry than the man the public sees. The common perception? He's a bit of a stiff. But in conversations, I've found Kerry to be much warmer and more relaxed, with a great sense of humor. He can even be goofy and self deprecating. 

During that 2004 presidential race, Kerry endured more than his share of verbal assaults from the so-called Swift Vets and POWs for Truth and others. He told me he wasn't bothered by the character attacks, but the pain in his voice said otherwise. Kerry served honorably in Vietnam and was clearly hurt by the lies that were being told about him. 

Kerry and I always maintained that journalist-subject distance; we never became friends. But we did establish a mutual trust. He opened up to me and shared sides of himself that I don’t think he's shared with many reporters. In my interactions with him he's been far from the aloof character many describe. He is indeed layered, and surprisingly funny.

But make no mistake: despite his opposition 40 years ago to the Vietnam War, a war that millions of Americans now believe was a huge mistake, Kerry is no dove. He understands the real threats to America that exist around the world. Namely Iran. And he will make a tremendous secretary of state. Even more than president, this is the job he's really prepared for his entire adult life. 

And given the travel demands of his new job, I suspect he’ll have plenty of time to brush up on his guitar. Maybe he can even teach Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a few chords, though a duet of Kumbaya is probably off the table.

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