By 1972, John Kerry was a national figure, but without roots in one place he could call home. For a young man with congressional ambitions, that was a handicap, one he would quickly compound.
The 28-year-old activist believed Congress was the logical extension of his activism to end the Vietnam War. He was ready to leave the streets to work within what some fellow protesters scorned as “the system.”
His ambition tempered only by political naivete, Kerry tried on congressional districts like suits off the rack. In less than two months in early 1972, the antiwar leader called three different districts in Massachusetts home. To this day, he bears the brand of opportunist from that brazen district-hopping, which he acknowledges as part of his political “baggage.”
Kerry began the year in Waltham, where he had explored a challenge two years earlier to an aging Democratic hawk, Philip J. Philbin, in what was then the Third Congressional District. But Kerry withdrew in favor of the ultimate victor, the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest and vocal opponent of the war.
In early February, Kerry’s wife, Julia, bought a house in Worcester, where Kerry intended to take on Harold D. Donohue, a longtime Democratic incumbent, in a central Massachusetts district. They never moved in. Instead, the couple rented an apartment in Lowell late in March after learning that Representative F. Bradford Morse would be named undersecretary general of the United Nations. His departure would open up the Fifth District seat held by Republicans for generations.
Kerry had tenuous ties to the Fifth District that proved to be a flimsy shield against the withering assaults of critics. Leading the attack was The Sun, the conservative daily in Lowell, the old, parochial mill city that anchored the district.
Resentment poured from many of the other nine candidates, whom Kerry would leave in the dust of a freewheeling Democratic primary.
In the wait-your-turn political culture of Lowell and nearby Lawrence, Kerry was a carpetbagger trying to cherrypick a seat in Congress.
In the general election campaign, Kerry was lashed relentlessly by The Sun, which questioned his patriotism, his loyalty to the district, and his financial backers. He blew a huge lead and lost to the Republican nominee, Paul W. Cronin, a former state representative who had served on Morse’s staff.
Suddenly, the fast track to political glory vanished beneath the feet of the war hero turned war protester. There would be no official soapbox in the nation’s capital, not any time soon at least. Kerry’s first campaign for elected office had failed. And he was unemployed.
In defeat, he retreated to the outskirts of politics. “The years in exile” is how Cameron F. Kerry describes the next decade of his older brother’s life.
John Kerry settled down, became a father, a lawyer, and, to the shock of some liberal admirers, a prosecutor. As the top assistant to the Middlesex County district attorney, he would display the same brashness that bred resentment among his allies in the antiwar movement and fearful envy among his adversaries in President Richard M. Nixon’s White House.
In this little-examined period of transition, Kerry’s youthful audacity yielded to pragmatic maturity. He learned lessons of life and politics. He paid some dues. But at each step, his single-mindedness to pursue elected office reappeared. After falling from the slippery pole of politics, he tenaciously prepared to resume the ascent.
Lessons in Lowell
Politics has always been blood sport in blue-collar Lowell. Kerry learned that the hard way after parachuting in during the spring of 1972. His rootless upbringing had brought him no nearer to Lowell than leafy Groton, 15 miles to the west. Kerry’s family lived in the affluent town briefly when he was a toddler, and his parents had resettled in Groton in 1962, when John went off to Yale.
Lowell’s “mile of mills” along the Merrimack River had provided work for generations of immigrants, but by the early ’70s most of the weaving looms had fallen silent after the textile industry’s flight to the South. Lowell and Lawrence, 10 miles downriver, were also hard hit by the deep economic recession. Unemployment rates were at or near double digits.
Politics in both cities was infused with ethnic survivalism. Careers were built one favor, one patronage job at a time in heavily Democratic, socially conservative, and mostly Catholic enclaves.
Kerry was a Democrat and a Catholic, but otherwise an alien political life form to most residents of the cities and their conservative suburbs. In a 10-candidate field, he veered left, not only with his antiwar rhetoric but on social and economic issues.
“I can understand people who were pissed at me,” Kerry says today of the congressional run. “I came into the district, crash, `Here I am.’ There was a brashness to it. … If I had known what I knew today about politics, I’m not sure I would have done it.”
The open seat attracted a throng of candidates. Jumping in besides Kerry were seven Democrats from the Lowell area, plus two from Lawrence. Cronin faced three other Republicans. Roger P. Durkin, a conservative Lowell Democrat, ran as an Independent.
Kerry waged a very expensive, sophisticated campaign, driven by well-heeled contributors from outside the district and an army of young, idealistic volunteers, who worked feverishly to identify Kerry supporters and then pull them to the polls on primary day. They also distributed leaflets to the elderly, describing available government services and benefits; prepared a consumer guide comparing supermarket prices in the district; and operated a “renter’s hot-line” to handle complaints.
Filmmaker Otto Preminger, author George Plimpton, composer Leonard Bernstein, and other celebrities backed Kerry, who spent $279,746 on the primary and general election. The fifth district was the most expensive congressional race in the country that year.
To win the primary, the newcomer overcame the election eve arrest of his brother, Cameron, and campaign field director Thomas J. Vallely, both then 22, in the basement of a Lowell building that housed the headquarters of Kerry and another Democratic contender, state Representative Anthony R. DiFruscia of Lawrence. It was almost 2 a.m. – 30 hours before the polls opened – when the two were arrested on charges of breaking and entering with intent to commit larceny.
That day’s Sun blared a memorable, double-deck headline: “Kerry brother arrested in Lowell `Watergate.”‘ DiFruscia, getting some extra ink in the campaign’s waning hours, had drawn the parallel to the break-in at Democratic headquarters in Washington three months earlier.
The Kerry camp declared it a setup, saying that the two responded to an anonymous phone call, minutes earlier, threatening to cut the campaign’s 36 phone lines on the day before its get-out-the-vote effort. Lowell Police arrested the pair in an area near the trunk line for all of the building’s phones.
To this day Kerry becomes animated talking about the episode, convinced it was part of a conspiracy against his insurgency. He said he does not know who was involved. He dismissed as ridiculous the charge that DiFruscia was a target. “He didn’t figure in the race,” said Kerry.
But some of Kerry’s claims in the Lowell break-in are wildly at odds with the facts.
“That headline was held open. That page was held open, according to [Sun] typesetters, at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Kerry said. “That doesn’t happen at a newspaper, you know that. And that headline was out there on the streets the next morning, first thing.”
The Sun, however, was an afternoon paper, and its first deadline was hours after the arrests, in plenty of time to write the story for that day’s editions. The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence also reported the arrests that day, in a smaller story under the headline “Shades of Watergate?”
Kerry’s brother today declines to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the arrests and the charges, which were dropped a year later.
“It was an impulsive, rash thing that we did and that John Kerry ended up having to deal with,” said Cam Kerry, now a partner at the Boston law firm of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo. “That’s all we’re going to say on that one.”
Vallely, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and later became a state representative in Boston, had more to say.
“I kicked in the door,” he said, and then, police swarmed the area. Vallely said DiFruscia’s office was of no interest; the Kerry phone lines were. In hindsight, he said, “We probably were overreacting to someone who was joking.”
In the September primary, Kerry carried 18 of 22 towns, offsetting his fourth-place finish in Lowell and second-place finish in Lawrence, which together delivered half the Democratic vote. He buried the huge field with astounding tallies in outlying towns, where antiwar sentiment was strongest. In Carlisle he bagged 82 percent of the vote, in Lexington and Concord 72 percent and 78 percent, respectively.
Overall, Kerry drew 20,771 votes, or 28 percent, 5,130 votes more than runner-up Paul J. Sheehy, a state representative from Lowell. DiFruscia ran a distant third.
A lesson in defeat
With the big primary win, Kerry was an overwhelming favorite to take the general election in November. A Boston Globe poll had him 26 points ahead of Cronin a week after the primary. But there was a huge obstacle looming: Clement C. Costello, the crusading ultraconservative editor of The Lowell Sun. In the countdown to the election, the anti-Kerry drumbeat grew more heavy-handed.
Kerry, meanwhile, tried to soften some of the animosity, particularly in Lowell. Never a backslapper, he nonetheless one night bought the house a round of drinks and played pool at Mike Molloy’s Pub, a shot-and-beer joint in Lowell’s tough Acre section. Only a couple of the regulars refused the free drinks, The Sun reported, but others gave Kerry credit for showing his face in a bar once owned by Sheehy, his strongest primary foe.
Kerry was loved or loathed primarily because of his antiwar stance, but most of his campaign advertising tried mightily to humanize the candidate, showing him talking to ordinary folks and discussing economic issues. “He’s not a politician. He listens,” one ad said.
Kerry’s platform called for activist, big government, advocating a national health insurance program and prescription drug discounts for the unemployed. He also proposed a federal jobs program to clean the polluted Merrimack River and the imposition of rent control in Lawrence and Lowell.
Kerry squared off against Cronin and Durkin in some forums, but they were relatively polite affairs. Cronin ran newspaper ads mocking Kerry’s big-money donors. “What do Otto Preminger of Hollywood and Louis Biron of Lowell have in common?” the ad said. “This year they’re influencing a congressional race. Otto Preminger contributed $1,000 to John Forbes Kerry. Louis Biron gave $15 to Paul Cronin.”
Durkin was more aggressive, running full-page newspaper ads with “CENSORED” splashed across them after failing to win permission to reprint the cover of Kerry’s 1971 book, “The New Soldier,” featuring Vietnam veterans, in an Iwo Jima-like pose, except hoisting a US flag flying upside down, a sign of distress.
The hardest shots at Kerry came from The Sun. Shortly before the election, Costello fired stinging blasts over four consecutive days on his editorial page. The newspaper also ran long, critical news stories on the themes of the Costello broadsides: Kerry’s district shopping, his out-of-town money, his antiwar activism.
It was a press flogging that has been compared to the over-the-top exploits of The Union Leader, the archconservative daily in Manchester, N.H.
“Maybe just a notch below that,” says Kendall M. Wallace, who in 1972 was The Sun’s city editor and is now its publisher. “Without that kind of intense coverage, I think Kerry would have been the congressman.”
Kerry said as much in letters to contributors after his upset defeat. “For two solid weeks, they called me un-American, New Left antiwar agitator, unpatriotic, and labeled me every other `un-’ and `anti-’ that they could find,” Kerry wrote. “It’s hard to believe that one newspaper could be so powerful, but they were.”
The blitz took a toll. “John Kerry was essentially sort of a cardboard cutout figure to people,” Cam Kerry said. “When the attacks came, there weren’t people there in the community who could vouch for him.”
To this day, despite the absence of persuasive evidence, Kerry is convinced political operatives of President Nixon were also working to sandbag his candidacy.
Specifically, Kerry said, he believes they were involved in arranging the abrupt withdrawal, four days before the election, of Durkin, who promptly endorsed Cronin and decried Kerry’s “dangerous radicalism.”
Kerry asserted recently that “Durkin’s withdrawal was not spontaneous,” reviving the notion that he was among the campaign targets of the Nixon dirty tricksters. “There were administration people up in Lowell,” Kerry said he was told by supporters in the Lowell area.
Most of the conspiracy theories involve Charles W. Colson, the Nixon heavy who grew up in Winthrop and later was one of the Watergate conspirators to be imprisoned. In 1993 and again in an interview with the Globe during the preparation of this series, Colson acknowledged trying to discredit Kerry’s antiwar efforts but flatly denied any attempts to derail his congressional campaign.
Durkin, a businessman now living in Boston, denies vigorously that he was a tool of the Republicans. Recently, he said he “fell on the grenade” only when he became certain his candidacy would ensure a Kerry triumph.
Durkin’s pullout may have been the coup de grace. A Boston Globe poll, conducted two weeks before the election, had Durkin third, with 13 percent of the vote. Kerry’s lead over Cronin, once 26 points, was down to 10 by that time.
Cam Kerry recalls sensing the election “slipping away” as he canvassed in Lawrence on the final weekend. “There was a lot of outright hostility,” he said. The Vietnam War and abortion were polarizing issues.
In the end, it wasn’t close.
Cronin beat Kerry by 18,123 votes, almost 9 percent, of 207,623 cast. The Republican, who died in 1997, won Lowell, Lawrence, and 19 of 22 towns. Kerry carried only Lexington, Wilmington, and Billerica.
In hindsight, his failure to respond directly to The Sun’s bludgeonings was a fatal blunder, Kerry concedes.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Kerry said. “We were kids. And we got our asses handed to us. It’s a great lesson.”
Learning the law In defeat, Kerry had plenty of time to absorb that lesson. Lowell had rejected him, but he did not immediately abandon his adopted hometown. In November, the Kerrys purchased a handsome home in Belvidere, Lowell’s best neighborhood.
But Kerry, the itinerant activist, had a campaign debt and no job. He had been defeated in his chosen field of politics and was unsure of his next step.
He took some time off, worked a while as a fund-raiser for CARE Inc., the international aid organization, and decided on law school.
“I knew I didn’t want to wind up in 10 or 15 years saying, `A lot of time’s gone by, and I don’t have a profession,”‘ Kerry said.
“And that’s when I committed to go to law school,” he said. “I wanted to learn the skill of advocacy and learn the law, understand the law well, know the whole lawmaking process in the context of public life.”
Even then, in a time of uncertainty, Kerry had not lost sight of his goal of becoming a lawmaker.
In early September 1973, Kerry’s life changed dramatically. On Sept. 5, Julia gave birth to their first child, Alexandra. In a matter of days, he started classes at Boston College Law School.
A nationally known figure, Kerry was not your typical law student.
“I remember looking up at my first-year class, and sitting there, big as life, was this guy I had seen on television, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and running for Congress,” recalls Thomas J. Carey Jr., one of Kerry’s professors. “He stood out from the beginning.”
As a student, Kerry tried to maintain a modest public profile, moonlighting part-time as a radio talk-show host on WBZ, and, for a few months, serving as executive director of MassAction, a private government watchdog.
Then he floored some of his liberal friends. In 1976, he became a full-time prosecutor.
Kerry, who had been a student prosecutor in the Middlesex District Attorney’s office while earning his law degree, joined the staff after graduating and passing the state bar examination at age 32.
“Most people would have told you then that it was a Nixonian-Agnew thing to become a prosecutor and law-and-order,” said Ronald F. Rosenblith, a former Kerry aide and longtime fund-raiser/adviser. “They couldn’t understand why this great progressive shining voice that could articulate things so well on our side would do that.”
No mystery there, Kerry says today.
“My dad had been a prosecutor and told me it was a great way to learn how to do cases and try cases,” he said. “It was fabulous. I wanted to be a trial lawyer. It was the best place in the world to get trial practice.”
Today, as he campaigns for the presidency, the fourth-term senator often flashes that credential on the stump as if it were a talisman against the dreaded “Massachusetts liberal” epithet.
After joining the staff of aging District Attorney John J. Droney, Kerry moved with Julia to Newton, nearer the East Cambridge office. On New Year’s Eve 1976, the couple’s second daughter, Vanessa, was born. Less than a month later, Droney promoted Kerry to the position of first assistant, giving him free rein to overhaul the office.
Droney veterans were stunned. Many of his assistants were resentful.
Their reaction fit a recurring pattern during Kerry’s years as a young man in a hurry, thrusting his way to the forefront and irking others who coveted that prominence. First it was members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, then the Lowell and Lawrence pols he’d brushed aside in the ’72 primary. Now it was Droney loyalists who suddenly became subordinates to the new guy.
“It shocked me, too,” Kerry says. “I mean, I was surprised. John wanted to run for reelection [the next year], and he knew there were some issues in the office. … Some people didn’t like the modernization process, didn’t want it, and obviously felt they were more qualified, and some were. … But we changed the office.”
For almost 21/2 years in the late 1970s, Kerry guided the transformation of the DA’s office. As first assistant to Droney, a wily pol afflicted by Lou Gehrig’s disease, he reformed a plodding, hidebound operation.
He became the alter ego of Droney, whose mind was sharp but who suffered impaired speech and mobility as he faced a tough reelection challenge in 1978.
“John Kerry in effect became the legs and voice John Droney no longer had,” recalled Peter W. Agnes Jr., then a young lawyer in the office and now a superior court judge. “He provided youth, vitality, and charisma.”
With a $3.8 million infusion of federal funds he helped obtain, Kerry nearly tripled the staff, and many of the new hires were women. He launched initiatives that were innovative at the time: special units to prosecute white-collar and organized crime, programs to counsel rape victims and aid other crime victims and witnesses, and a system for fast-tracking priority cases to trial. He also directed the investigation that led to the first conviction of Somerville’s Howie Winter, one of the state’s notorious gangsters. Despite his administrative duties, Kerry managed to try some cases and won convictions in a high-profile rape case and a murder.
“I won’t say everybody loved him, but he was always there and probably the most natural trial lawyer on his feet I ever saw,” said J. William Codinha, who succeeded Kerry as first assistant and who remains a close friend.
“There’s no way John Droney would have been reelected without John Kerry,” said Codinha, now in private practice.
A polarized office
Kerry’s selective account of his achievements in the East Cambridge courthouse, however, exaggerates some accomplishments and omits the excesses of what became a polarized office under his leadership.
“The office was divided,” said George E. Murphy, who served as an assistant DA in Middlesex for 20 years and now has his own practice. “There were Kerry people, and there were Droney people.”
In listing his accomplishments, Kerry greatly inflates the reduction in the backlog of cases on his watch, an achievement that he has described in more grandiose terms over time.
These days, he often says he wiped out an inventory of 12,000 criminal cases. That’s up from a claim in a 1984 Kerry campaign biography of a cut to 228 from 11,000 in 18 months. But in a May 1979 interview with The Sun, Kerry said he engineered a drop to 228 from 3,000 before the backup climbed to about 500. A 1978 Droney reelection advertisement, which Kerry helped write, said the dropoff was from 4,523 cases to 716.
State records for the period show a sharp dropoff in the criminal caseload of every county of the state, led by Middlesex, which was helped by a $250,000 federal grant. The precise figure could not be determined from official reports, however. But they show the entire superior court caseload, including backlog, never exceeded 7,265 during Kerry’s tenure.
Kerry said he isn’t sure where his figures came from but recalled a concerted effort to clean up a mess. “We adjudicated a number of them, we had to dismiss a whole bunch for lack of evidence, lack of witnesses, people had moved or didn’t want to testify,” he said. “We went through every case.”
Near the end of Kerry’s tenure as a prosecutor, two accusations of misconduct were made during Droney’s 1978 bid for reelection.
After part of a Droney campaign advertisement violated a superior court judge’s gag order in a murder case, Kerry appeared before the judge, Thomas R. Morse Jr., and took responsibility for the full-page newspaper ad that he helped design.
From the bench, Morse chastised the prosecution for “insensitivity” but stopped short of imposing sanctions and denied a defense lawyer’s motion to dismiss the indictment of Anthony Jackson, the so-called “hitchhike murderer,” who was ultimately convicted. Jackson wasn’t named in the ad – titled “The inside story on how John Droney cracked some of Massachusetts’ most famous crimes” – but it clearly referred to him and his prior convictions in a series of sex-related murders.
“I don’t recall that,” Kerry said recently. “If you tell me that’s true, it’s true, but I think it was inadvertent, and obviously, no one purposely steps over a court [order].”
In the closing days of the 1978 Democratic primary, Droney challenger L. Scott Harshbarger blasted the DA’s office, saying it was timing indictments and investigations to influence votes. “Staged media events,” he called them. Harshbarger narrowly lost but ousted Droney four years later and went on to become state attorney general.
One of the cases that exploded into the news in the weeks before the primary was a scandal involving the sale of county jobs. A gusher of news leaks suggested a wider conspiracy of government higher-ups and organized crime involvement. A defense lawyer for one of two suspects charged with selling low-level jobs accused Kerry directly of violating grand jury secrecy by leaking stories to the press.
“We never leaked any grand jury information,” Kerry said recently. “Not me, man …. We would call people in and try to find out where it was coming from, and I believe I know. I’m not going to say it on the record, here, now, but we had a considerable amount of concern, and you know, a few feathers were ruffled in the process of trying to find out who was leaking that.”
The case dropped out of the news after the election. No more suspects were charged, and of the two who were, neither went to prison. One paid a $5,000 fine.
Later, Droney told reporters: “We never had any evidence to take to the grand jury that anyone else was involved.”
By the spring of 1979, Kerry’s days were numbered in an office he had remade.
After his reelection, Droney was invigorated. He instituted new office policies, some of them petty, and suspended Kerry’s secretary and two of his proteges for relatively minor infractions. Droney assumed more of the duties he had ceded to Kerry.
“It became obvious in ’79 that [Droney] was sort of feeling better … and he began to say, `I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that,”‘ Kerry recalled. Certain his role in the office would be diminished, Kerry said he decided it was time to leave.
“I can’t complain, and I’m not going to complain,” Kerry said. “He gave me an unprecedented opportunity of a lifetime … and I like to think it worked for both of us, and the time came when it didn’t. You know, that happens in life.”
Kerry said they remained friends until Droney’s death in 1989.
Many prosecutors in the office at that time believed Droney pushed Kerry out in part because his top aide was so obviously seeking to win the top job for himself, one way or the other.
In early 1978 Kerry was prepared to run for DA if Droney’s illness forced him to bow out. But a prominent figure in state politics says Kerry’s interest in the job continued even after it became clear Droney would be reelected.
William F. Galvin, then a state representative, said Kerry told him that if Droney’s ailment prevented him from serving out his term, Kerry might then be appointed by the new governor to succeed him. Galvin, now secretary of state, recalls meeting with Kerry before the 1978 election to prepare for commentary on a Boston television station.
In the election, Democrat Edward J. King and Republican Francis W. Hatch Jr. were locked in a close fight for the governorship. Kerry was rating his chances for an appointment to succeed Droney depending on which party won the election, according to Galvin.
Initially, Kerry said his brother-in-law, David Thorne, might have influence because he knew Hatch, said Galvin, who in turn recalled saying he doubted Hatch, a partisan, would name a Democrat, especially one as young and promising as Kerry.
Kerry was crestfallen for a moment, Galvin remembered, but then brightened, telling Galvin he knew an influential political broker.
“`I’m very close to Johnny Zamparelli [then Middlesex South Register of Deeds], and he’s very close to Ed King,”‘ Galvin quoted Kerry as saying.
“It was a joke,” replied Kerry when told of Galvin’s recollection. “I mean that’s an offhand, half-assed comment you’re making …. I mean if he remembers it this long, more power to him. He may have seen it as some dark conspiracy, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about it that way.
“I was loyal to the nth degree to help [Droney] get reelected,” Kerry said. “And indeed, had he not run, I did think about running if he didn’t run. Absolutely, unabashedly.
“But after that, I decided I’m not going to sit around on some kind of speculation about what his health was going to be. I went off and did my thing.”
Kerry and Roanne Sragow, an assistant DA whom Droney had suspended, opened their own practice, setting up shop at a prestigious Boston address, a skyscraper at 60 State St.
Over 21/2 years, they built a successful practice, specializing in litigation involving wrongful deaths, medical malpractice, corporate trade secrets, and what Kerry describes as “a string of relatively notorious hair implantation cases.”
Kerry also developed some interesting sidelines, joining WCVB-TV (Channel 5) as a regular public affairs commentator and in late 1979 cofounding with K. Dun Gifford a cookie shop at Boston’s Quincy Market. It’s still there, Kilvert & Forbes Ltd. (named after their mothers’ maiden names), though Kerry sold his interest in 1988.
By late 1981 the law practice was “doing very well,” Kerry says, and he was faced with a decision whether to expand the two-lawyer firm. But as the 1982 election cycle approached, a political opportunity arose, though one less exalted than the congressional platform Kerry once sought.
Thomas P. O’Neill III was giving up the lieutenant governorship to run for governor. The No. 2 post would be open on the Democratic ticket.
It was an amorphous, do-little job, but certain to attract a large field.
The law firm expansion was shelved. The old Potomac Fever yielded to a lower-grade Beacon Hill bug. “I decided I was going to run for office,” Kerry said.
Exile over. He was back in the game.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2003.
To read more from this series, visit http://www.boston.com/globe/kerry