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the 1972 defeat

photo of kerry campaigning in 1972

A year after his famous 1971 anti-war speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 27-year old John Kerry ran for Congress in Massachusetts' Fifth District. It was a blue-collar area and was divided over the war. Kerry ran on reviving the economy and opposing the Vietnam War. Although 6,000 volunteers joined his campaign, it ended in a crushing defeat. Kerry was attacked in the final weeks by the conservative Lowell Sun for being an elitist outsider and for questioning the patriotism of those who supported the war. Here are comments on that race, and its lessons for Kerry, drawn from FRONTLINE's interviews with New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, author and historian Douglas Brinkley, former adviser Dan Payne, brother-in-law David Thorne and longtime campaign staffer Thomas Vallely.


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philip gourevitch
New Yorker writer who has covered Kerry in the 2004 campaign.

…I think the '72 race burned him. I think it was the first time that, in some fundamental way, ambition, smarts, entitlement, position and privilege didn't work together to get him what he wanted.

I mean, Vietnam was not what he wanted. He didn't want to be in that kind of fire-fighting. You read his journals, which are so eloquent and so powerful, it's clear that John Kerry was not getting his kicks in Vietnam, he wasn't living a war-hero movie. But I think that the defeat when he got home -- his brother, Cam Kerry used the word with me -- he had a sense of the absurd as he re-adjusted back to life in the states. And then he goes through this intense period of kind of superstardom as a spokesman for the anti-war movement. Then he gets crushed in this campaign in Lowell, Massachusetts. And then he's got a wife, he's got a couple of kids. He's suddenly like a guy working his way up in a DA's office.

It quite lacks the kind of sense of historical destiny, perhaps, that John Kerry, up until then, probably had noticed in his own biography and had been very conscious of -- and that other people around him had been conscious of his cultivating. …

related links
see a chronology of kerry's life

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douglas brinkley
Author of Tour of Duty - John Kerry and the Vietnam War.

… And why did he lose? Because everybody replayed his transcript that he gave in front of the Fulbright Committee where he was so emotional and spoke so clearly about it [Vietnam]. They showed the cover -- the photo of the American flag upside down on his book, The New Soldier-- that it's the sign for distress. But the right grabbed it and beat up on him. …

…And they took a huge toll out of the guy. We laugh about it now. They looked like they were sort of following him everywhere. His phones were bugged. John's wife, Julia, who I've interviewed for hours, is still unable to cope with the harassment that they faced in '71 and '72 by the U.S. government. She had a brick go through her window and land by the baby's crib and almost killed their baby in the house that they were living in. They couldn't have a conversation without knowing their lines were tapped. When you listen to the White House tapes and listen to Chuck Colsen, Haldermam, Erlichman, saying, "Let's destroy--" exact words of Chuck Colsen, "Let's destroy the young Kerry before he becomes a young demagogue."

…And it was not fun for a 27 year old, confused guy, still having nightmares about Vietnam to have this right-wing establishment pounding on him. And I think it took a great psychological toll out of him. I think by '72, he was wiped out. ...


photo of payne

Dan Payne
Communications consultant in Kerry's 1972 campaign.

…He lost principally because of the Lowell Sun, which is the largest newspaper in that district. And this newspaper is not far from the Manchester Union Leader, another notorious, right-wing newspaper that doesn't mind flexing its muscle. …

What they did is spend about five of the six weeks of the general election just hammering Kerry every single day. Calling him everything from traitor, to elitist. There were pictures of him with Jane Fonda. And this was the first time we saw the Jane Fonda photos. So, they come back over and over in John Kerry's life. She's a recurring theme. But, they essentially said, "This is not a patriot. This is a traitor to his own country, and a traitor to his fellow soldiers."

Talk about Clemmy Costello [owner of the Lowell Sun newspaper]

Lowell was represented by Clemmy Costello. Saw itself as sort of down and out, struggling, just barely making it. Lunch bucket, blue collar place. Here comes John Kerry with his national reputation and his fancy hair cut. And his connections with national celebrities. One of the stories they delighted in writing was who's giving money to John Kerry. You know, Leonard Bernstein is a contributor. And that's all you should need to know if you're from Lowell. You know, you don't know Leonard Bernstein? You don't need to know him. He's a New York elitist. And, so they tried to paint John Kerry as the other. And-all of us were up against something that none of us really knew how to deal with. We took a lot more of it than we should. And we didn't fight back until it was too late.

You didn't know what you were up against. It seems a little surprising. Was there a certain amount of naiveté or--

Well, John had won the primary handily. He got about 33 percent of the vote. But that meant 67 percent of the people didn't vote for John. And what we didn't calculate was how difficult it was gonna be to get the Democrats to come over. We knew the Republicans would probably never want John Kerry, that he was too anti-Nixon in his outlook. But we figured the Democrats would come over. And they didn't.

… And none of really understood what we were up against here. And what we've subsequently learned is that we were up against the Nixon White House. That Charles Colson, Nixon's chief hatchet man, has admitted that he was working behind the scenes. That he was feeding stuff to the Lowell Sun, through their Washington bureau. … And some of the same people who are now attacking John Kerry for being a traitor for embarrassing the Navy and all Vietnam veterans, some of those same people were involved in 1972 in that Congressional campaign. They're back now. So this is a storyline that recurs in John Kerry's career. …


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david thorne
Brother-in-law and campaign manager in the 1972 congressional race.

…day after day, the papers printed full-page editorials that were treated like hard news about John Kerry in Vietnam, John Kerry the carpetbagger, John Kerry the radical. John Kerry being arrested. All these kinds of things. "Who was John Kerry?" You know, painting this kid negatively day after day after day. I remember very distinctly two and a half weeks before the election, and we couldn't stop it. We were not prepared. We didn't have money.

We did a survey afterward and found out that actually 65 percent of the other guy's vote was an anti-Kerry vote. The smear campaign had been incredibly effective. And we knew we were losing. And it was like trying to hold on to something that was just disappearing in front of your face. And -- you know-- we -- you're 27-years-old and you-- you don't know how to stop-- I'm not sure anybody could have stopped it.

This is the first really big defeat for John Kerry.

Right.

How does he take it? What does he learn from it?

Well, I mean, I think that it was stunning -- I mean, a devastating loss. And I think it was. And, you know, for five, six months he just doesn't really know what to do with himself. I mean, it was just kind of trying to catch a breath and regroup and going from being this national hero to, you know, having no political career at all. … And you were defeated. And you had no base. You came outta nowhere. No technical training of any kind, as a lawyer or anything else. You had to go find a job. You were married, you had this small kid on the way. You had to completely re-adjust your sights. And it was a very difficult period. I mean, losing an election is difficult in whatever circumstance 'cause you put so much energy and so much juice into it. But in this case, it was particularly devastating. I remember feeling completely devastated myself, you know.

But, you know, within five or six months, John gets his feet underneath him and chooses to go to law school and begins to build a political career. And next time, he wins. …


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john vallely
Director of field operations for the 1972 campaign.

…There were really two issues. One, introducing John to a district in Massachusetts and trying to have John connect on the economic issues with a group of towns and cities that at the time were seriously in decline. And getting John to sort of understand those issues. The overriding issue of the day of course was Vietnam. The U.S. had not left Vietnam and I think during the campaign they invaded Cambodia. The Paris Peace Talks were going forward. So the issue of the day was Vietnam. And the country was divided. And the district was divided. I don't think we comprehended how divided the district was.

But when you are an unknown person as John was then, and when you attack their patriotism, that hurt John. The Lowell Sun basically challenges his patriotism. And it worked. And they defeated him.

But he was known, he was a star on the national scene stage.

But you can be a star and unknown. I mean, I don't think that they had a firm understanding of who he was. I think the divisions about conduct in Vietnam or the conduct of the war in Vietnam and what we should be doing as a country.

But certainly John did not have the political feet to withstand what the Lowell Sun did. … And it destroyed him. It destroyed him. But helped create the new John Kerry. But you know, we can thank Clem Costello for the education of John Kerry.

Because before that, he was a little green? Naíve?

I don't think John's ever naíve. Green, maybe. But you know, loss is an important lesson. And John was a spectacular loser. I remember election night. When John lost, I remember -- it was in Andover Massachusetts. John had a lot of supporters. John's campaign was like the Dean campaign. It had that feel -- rather than have the internet -- we didn't need the internet. We just had sort of the divided country and a lot of people were with John. But so when he loses ,he says to the crowd, "I want to tell Clem Costello one thing. If I had it to do all over again, I'd be on the [Washington] Mall tomorrow with the veterans. " And it was just a terrific bonding between John and the crowd, and frankly John and me. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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