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kerry at yale

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The portrait of John Kerry in his Yale days is clear and unambiguous: He was a young man "driven to excel" and his close friends were already speculating that he was going to be president someday. At the same time, however, he was a mystery to some of those friends. Here are the observations of author and historian Douglas Brinkley, Yale roommates Harvey Bundy and Danny Barbiero, and New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch. These excerpts are drawn from their FRONTLINE interviews.


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harvey bundy
A roommate at Yale who also served in Vietnam.

…What kind of guy was he?

John was, and is, an extremely focused person. John does everything 110 percent. I mean, whether it's relaxation, or whether it's his political life, or whether it's work, or whether it's athletics. I mean, John is always 110 percent into it. You could almost say he is over-programmed. He tries to do so much.

During junior year, John was head of the political union. And I got the political appointment as corresponding secretary, as his roommate, you know. And part of the job was really trying to keep John on schedule, an impossible task. He always [had] more things scheduled than there was time available to complete it. So, you're always running 15 minutes to a half an hour late. And my image of John is that we would be sitting around the dorm room talking on a Saturday afternoon. And John will be in and out three or four times, going from this activity to that. He'd have debate. He'd be going to Bones. He'd be going to soccer practice. He didn't tell you all the things he was doing. John's a fairly private person. But, you know, he was extraordinarily involved.

Same thing when we were relaxing. I mean, if there had been extreme sports in that day, John probably would have probably participated in the extreme sports. I mean, that was John's idea of recreation, to do it fairly intensely.

related links
see a chronology of kerry's life

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read the full interview

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

…I think he's more ambitious than just about anybody that you would encounter. But that ambition comes out of a great love of history and politics.

I looked through his archive, and it's stunning to see the correspondence. In college at Yale, he has a letter from Claire Boothe Luce and a letter from Clementine Churchill, and photographs of himself with four or five U.S. senators. He has already had personal photos and encounters with President John Kennedy, and is dating Janet Auchincloss and is rooming with Harvey Bundy. It's extraordinary stuff when you go look through the scrapbooks of John Kerry in this period. He's somebody who is consciously putting himself in that milieu, when Richard Kerry and Rosemary, his parents, weren't really fully part of that. …

…. his closest friends at Yale are already projecting on his birthday that John Kerry's going to be president someday. He knew that they were projecting that. So there was a feeling that someday he may be president. I think because of that, he's probably keenly aware of what he wrote. When I've looked at all his diaries, I was aware of the consciousness, the self-consciousness.


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danny barbiero
Old friend and roommate at Yale, he also served in Vietnam.

…John was intent on getting in Yale. To this day I don't know why he wanted Yale so much, but he did … he was thrilled when he got accepted. And as soon as he did, he said, "you know, let's room together when we go there."

I can just remember so clearly walking down Church Street with him, and having him just point to one building after another. He knew the names. He knew the history, and he would talk about, "that's Nathan Hill's statue. And this is the freshman green. This is the fence where that fence club is named after." He was just enthralled. He said, "Can you believe we're here? You know, this is just fabulous that we're here. This is the greatest place to be."

You say when he was at St. Paul's that he wasn't always the most popular kid. How did he do at Yale?

[At] St. Paul's, our class was 90, 99 [students], something like that. At Yale, it was 900, 1,000. So it was a much larger community, much more diverse community. He blossomed at Yale, as far as I could see. He completely found his own. He found the organizations he wanted to be with. He was very active in the Yale Political Union right from the start. And these were students that were like him. They loved politics. They enjoyed history and political science and debate. So, he was at home. Plus, he had soccer. He had JV soccer with his friend Dave Thorne which he loved and faithfully went to. …


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

…when you hear about the people at Yale who say, "I thought of him from the first time that I saw him, as somebody who might even be president," that's not because he said something to them. It's because somehow that was the way he came across and the way he presented himself and the way he was perceived. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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