John Kerry, Circa 1996

Years before the frenzy of the 2004 election, Jack Beatty offered a look at John Kerry and how he was perceived by voters.

Since Senator John Kerry became a serious contender for the Presidency, the media has subjected his record and character to intense scrutiny. The Atlantic Monthly has been no exception. Over the past year, Atlantic contributors have addressed everything from Kerry's Vietnam experience, to his foreign policy views, his debating skills, and even the suitability of his wife as a First Lady. Those seeking perspective on Kerry from before the frenzy of this year's presidential race, however, may be interested in "A Race Too Far" (August 1996), in which Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty analyzed that year's Senate contest between Kerry, who was the incumbent, and then-Massachusetts Governor William Weld. In the course of assessing what he described as "this strange race" between "a rich Harvard guy raised on a Long Island estate who married a Roosevelt" (Weld) and "a rich Yale guy raised abroad who married a Portuguese catsup heiress" (Kerry), Beatty offered an in-depth look at Kerry and how he was perceived by voters.

Then, as now, Kerry suffered from the perception that he was stiff and off-puttingly aloof. "Archaeologists have searched," Beatty wrote, "but have been unable to discover a single Kerry joke." His standoffish image was in no way helped by anecdotes such as this one, concerning his wife, Teresa Heinz:

When Heinz was mugged in Washington, Kerry kept to his round of fundraising events instead of rushing to her side. Did she miss him? "I just needed hugs," she confided to Margery Eagan, of the Boston Herald. Those may have been the four most frightening words spoken in Massachusetts Democratic politics in decades.

Like today, many were also uncertain as to what to make of Heinz herself, who seemed anything but the appropriately supportive political helpmeet. Massachusetts residents caught bemused glimpses of her in passing:

Though she still refers to John Heinz (not John Kerry) as "my husband," though she is still a Republican, and though her official residence is still in Pennsylvania, Heinz has deigned to refurbish a mansion on Beacon Hill's most exclusive block, and frequent local sightings of her have been reported.

Beatty suggested that Kerry's "cool, cerebral manner," and his failure to emerge from the shadow of his more famous Massachusetts colleague, Ted Kennedy, had left many without a clear image of the junior senator. "These are the questions people ask about Kerry," Beatty wrote. "What has he done for Massachusetts? What has he done for the country? What has he done, period?"

According to Beatty, though, Kerry had made a number of contributions in the form of a willingness to investigate the dark side of controversial subjects. Within the Senate, some admired him for this.

"The guy has guts," Jack Blum, who investigated the drug-contra connection for a subcommittee on terrorism that Kerry headed, told me recently. "So many politicians are in the job so people will love them. Kerry is a throwback to senators like Phil Hart, who, even though he came from Michigan, investigated the auto industry. They run for office not so people will love them but to use the powers of office"—in Kerry's case to expose betrayals of the public trust.

Kerry had taken charge of an investigation into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, for example, a giant international organization that, Kerry would prove, had engaged in various types of fraud—and was also linked to drug trafficking and terrorism. The investigation implicated many Democratic figureheads, including the well-respected Presidential advisor Clark Clifford. Beatty noted that Douglas Frantz and David McKean, the authors of a 1995 book about Clifford and his downfall, commended Kerry for his willingness to investigate in the face of political pressure to look the other way.

[Frantz and McKean] depict Kerry as the only Democratic senator who was willing to investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and Clifford's role in its mega-larcenies. "What are you doing to my old friend Clark Clifford?" an older southern Democrat asked Kerry in a Senate elevator one day. Kerry made no reply, but told an aide accompanying him, "You should hear what they say to me in the cloakroom." Not in public life to be loved, Kerry pressed on. The evidence compiled by his committee helped to close down a huge criminal conspiracy.

Beatty also described how Kerry tackled the politically explosive topic of POWs in Vietnam ("laying to rest the harrowing and commercially robust fantasy that U.S. POWs are still being held in Indochina," and thereby opening the door for normalized relations with Vietnam) and how he had persisted in ferreting out hidden links in the Iran-Contra investigations:

Kerry went after Oliver North more than a year before Iran-contra broke, exposing the connection between the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras and drug trafficking. And when Arthur Liman, the chief counsel of the Iran-Contra Committee, agreed to a White House demand that the committee be permitted to see only edited portions of North's diaries, Kerry refused to go along with the whitewash and persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to subpoena the North diaries. This did not endear him to his colleagues, who above everything were eager to avoid impeaching Ronald Reagan.

Such dogged commitment to upholding government rectitude, Beatty suggested, was a product of his wartime experience. Not only had it given him fortitude in his convictions, Beatty argued, but a sense of duty to correct injustice.

Kerry accrued his Lincolnian gravity in Vietnam... Then as now, he says, he sought to hold power publicly accountable. Making government obey the laws and its officials tell the truth, Kerry says, is a precondition to restoring the public trust on which any progressive use of government depends. Kerry's investigations can thus be seen as means to a liberal end: to put government on the side of the governed.

Kerry seemed at a loss, however, as to how to convey such lofty political aims to the public. "Puzzlingly," Beatty observed, pointing to the persistent problem of his tepid public appeal, "Kerry rarely mentions any of this on the campaign trail, preferring to recommend himself as a co-sponsor of the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act."