the choice 2004 [home]
homeleadershipgeorge w. bushjohn f. kerrydiscussion
dan barbiero

photo of barbiero

A friend of John Kerry's for almost 50 years, Dan Barbiero was his classmate at St. Paul's School, his roommate at Yale and, like Kerry, fought in Vietnam. He talks about the traits of character and personality he observed in Kerry early on -- how John Kerry stood apart from his prep school classmates, why he blossomed at Yale, and how he is someone "who has just worked so hard at everything and puts so much energy into everything that it can easily be misunderstood by people who don't know him." This interview was conducted on May 8, 2004.

He's a very earnest man who has a tremendous sense of history. That's a hard thing for people to get en masse.  Opinions change remarkably when they are with him one on one... .

What kind of place was St. Paul's?

Upper-crusty New England boarding school, about as upper-crusty as you can get. Beautiful, beautiful school, absolutely wonderful school. The best secondary education that one could get, absolutely. But quite a lonely place for a boy to be in the woods of New Hampshire, away from home at that age.

Who goes there?

A lot of legacies -- boys whose parents and grandparents have been Paulies. I mean, it's an old and well-endowed school; all boys, at the time. Not many [there] like me. Some who got there sort of by chance.

What kind of kid would be a Paulie, as you say?

High IQ, presumably. Some of the legacies didn't. But for the most part, very high IQ. We had some very, very bright boys.

But being bright wasn't enough just to get you in?

No. You had to come from some well-connected connection -- either family that knew of the school -- in my case, I was a choirboy at St. Thomas Choir School in New York City and excelled academically there. The headmaster of St. Thomas told my parents that I had to go to this prep school. They had no idea what it was or anything about it. They sent me.


Politically, what kind of families were [St. Paul's students] coming from?

I think for the most part, very, very Republican and very conservative families, certainly, although there were some exceptions. ... But for the most part, it was a very conservative environment, and the history courses that we took and so on were taught, I think, with that bent. ….We learned American history and European history and so on, and I don't recall having the liberal point of view vocalized really at all. It was traditional conservative American politics.

Do you remember when you first met John Kerry?

Yes. John Kerry and I became friends instantly when we met each other at the apartment of Father John Walker, who was a history teacher and master at the school, an Episcopal priest, and a remarkable man. He was in his 30s at the time, and single, and just a fabulous person -- the kind of person that boys would go to if they wanted to talk or had problems, or just wanted to unburden themselves.

Both of us had been there a couple of years already, but I didn't really know John well until that meeting. John was in John Walker's apartment, and I walked into the apartment, as I would do. You didn't have to knock. The door was always open, and there was always a fire going.

Father John said, "Oh, this is Danny. This is John Kerry. He's feeling bad about himself, because he thinks people don't like him," or something to that effect. And we laughed. We made him feel so silly about feeling that way that it immediately cheered him up and we became friends.

Why was he feeling badly?

Well, I think like all of us, in prep school, you get sort of low at times. I think he went to Father John and was talking about his life at the school and his relationship to classmates and so on. I guess he wasn't the most popular guy, I imagine. It's apparent that he wasn't the most popular guy. I think it bothered him. He didn't know why, didn't know what about him would engender that.

After meeting him and talking with him that evening, I said, "I think you're a great guy, you know? You shouldn't feel -- who cares what they think? You know, you're fine."

Did he not fit in?

There was a society there that was the really core society of the school, which would be the boys who had families that had been there and who wore the right clothes and knew the right things and had a lot of money. And John, I don't think, is part of that society at all -- nor was I. I think he was more interested in just being able to talk seriously to somebody without any of that baggage. John just completely ignored the sarcasm and the sort of cliquishness that went on at prep schools in those days. It just wasn't his nature at all.

So you get to know John and he's a fairly serious and earnest guy, from your description?

Yes. He was, absolutely. Serious and earnest, but also a great athlete and a beautiful public speaker. He was debating then, and started the debating society. A serious student, a very hard-working student.

But he also had a very liberal point of view in those days, I think, because we talked with John Walker about African-Americans in the United States and how John Walker felt and so on. We were very open about that with John Walker, and could be. That wasn't the cool and accepted thing to do in St. Paul's in those days.

In the piece that was written in The New Republic [by Franklin Foer] ... there was a lot of talk about the sort of kid who kind of was happy-go-lucky, wealthy -- you know, you had a parkway named after you. You didn't really have to worry too much about where you were going to end up in life. That's the kind of kid I take it you're describing as the sort of norm. John and you were sort of peripheral to that?

Yes. I think the kind of boy at St. Paul's who was the really well-accepted boy -- certainly there were a lot of exceptions. I shouldn't characterize the school as being all that way. We had some brilliant, very non-traditional types of boys at the school. Young guys like Willie Taft, who was extremely bright and although he had that pedigree, I wouldn't have put [him ] into that category -- but there were a group that, yes, they were trust fund kids. They didn't know anything else but having a trust fund and having that kind of legacy.

What were John's politics? What was he reading? What kind of music was he listening to? Paint a picture of him, if you could.

He worked hard at music. For him to play bass in the Electras, to me, was surprising, because I didn't think he had -- he always surprises you because he puts so much effort into things. He played the bass in the Electras. He was listening to rock and roll, but he also had a very eclectic taste in music. He loved European music. I can skip ahead a year into a couple years into college. He was in love with the Broadway show Camelot. He loved that kind of Broadway show music, loved it.

He was socially conscious. People tell me that one of the criticisms of John is that he's a waffler or he changes his mind. As long as I've known him -- and I've known him a long, long time -- his points of view on social issues, on environmental issues, on our relationship to the rest of the world, Europe and so on -- he's been unchanged.

The attitudes and things that he says today, he has always been saying. How to get there and what you have to do to achieve those goals may change from week to week or month to month. But his visions and his beliefs have been very, very consistent as long as I've known him. I've known him since he's 17 years old. ...

There was this word used to describe Kerry -- when he was there -- as a striver. What's that mean?

I don't recall the word at the time. But he was -- and is to this day -- a striver. He's a man who has just worked so hard at everything and puts so much energy into everything that it can easily be misunderstood, I think, by people who don't know him. He's just an extremely hard-working, energetic guy about the things he wants to do, and ignores everything else. He could be oblivious to the things he's not interested in, which can be a little disconcerting. But he's very, very focused about the things he wants to do, and puts a tremendous amount of energy into them.

For instance, he very much wanted to get to Yale. I think he wanted the prestige of being a Yale man. I did, too.

That striving, did that put him on the outs a little bit? Not as much as being an outcast, but did that put him on the outs of the kind of easy money, trust funds kids? This comparison has been made.

I may be responsible for some of that. But I perceive this difference. The difference is that a "reg" at St. Paul's School in those days -- which was a term we used -- was somebody who was nonchalant, a little bit sloppy, but with well-worn, very expensive clothes bought from the right places, and who just did everything in a casual manner, including how one walked and how one acted.

The good thing to do was to be totally casual and relaxed and sort of have this air of being able to handle anything, being unfazed by anything; not trying really too hard to do anything.

John was so much the opposite of that at sports and schoolwork, and just how he spoke with you or how he thought about things. He was earnest and thoughtful. I think that put people off. They didn't like that about him.

Did you ever say, "John, will you just cut it out and just relax and not be so--"

I probably said that 100 times. But he couldn't. It's not in him to relax. Relaxing for John is inviting me to his house in Boston, just the two of us, and showing me what he's mastered on the guitar, which requires incredible focus and concentration, because he's not a natural guitarist. But that's his relaxing -- to do this extremely difficult, isolated task and show it off for me. I wouldn't take that as showing off. I'd take it as John sharing what's important to him, which is to master something difficult. ...

What was the John [Winant] Society?

That was a debating society. I was not a member of it. I had my own things that I was a member of. It was a debating society that I think he formed.

You saw him speak?

I saw him speak on several occasions. He's the kind of speaker, if you had a small group and he got up on a platform and spoke -- I used to get a chill when he spoke. I mean, he was a very powerful speaker. He could really turn on an audience when he spoke.

How did he have fun?

He's a great skier. ... He loved soccer, loved sports. He was a great ice skater, hockey player. He was a very stylistic athlete. His skiing style is beautiful to watch. His skating is pretty to watch. He loved sports. Athletics were a big deal for him.

What about having fun with girls or drinking with the guys? What about--

He wasn't a drinker. John, as far as drinking goes, I've never known John -- I used to try to get him to take a drink, because I certainly wasn't of that ilk. But he -- you couldn't get him to drink hard liquor at all. He would drink a glass of wine or beer now and then, but one. It just didn't interest him at all. That wasn't his fun.

He wasn't very much interested in mixers. He did have dates at St. Paul's. We used to have tea dances, where young ladies would come from neighboring girls' schools and dance. …

I think he was dating Janet Auchincloss at the time. As I remember, girls liked him. That's a fact. Women were always attracted to John. He didn't have any trouble attracting women.

But he's very romantic, as I recall. And when he found a girl that he really liked, he was focused on that woman. He was very focused.

Did he talk about his family? Did you get some sense--

Oh, yes. I knew his father came to school. I didn't know his father and mother at St. Paul's. I got to know them at Yale when we went together at Yale. So I did meet his father. I must say, I always found his father to be very cool and not very affectionate to John.

Disapproving? What do you mean?

Not disapproving. Dismissive is more of what I would say. He dismissed him. He would interrupt him or he wouldn't really listen to what John was saying. I thought John was a very interesting man. I liked him. I listened to what he had to say, and his father, I don't think, really did.

It's funny how later, when his son became United States senator, the father would constantly fax him opinions on various public issues. But Mr. Kerry was a very bright man, very glib, very socially adept. If you went out to dinner with him, he could order in two languages and so on and select a proper wine and so on and so forth. Very adept socially, but he had no real warmth.

I think John was always a little jarred by that. He was always trying to get his father's approval, as we all did at that time. His mother, on the other hand, was just the most warm, motherly -- just a great, great woman. So it made up for it, because she was so warm and down to earth and just a really good, nice person. I think John gets a lot of his heart and sensitivity from her.

Did he talk about his folks with you? ... Did he talk about his dad?

Sure, yes. He talked about his dad and what his dad did. His father back then had purchased a 40- or a 44-foot yawl, a Concordia, which is a beautiful racing sailboat, classic. He invited me to -- it might've been the summer after St. Paul's -- to sail, race Block Island with them, which is a really nasty race, if you know sailboat racing.

His father wasn't that great a sailor, actually. [He] had this fabulous boat, but was really difficult to get along with as far as being the skipper of the boat. He wasn't pleasant at all. And John did all the work. ...

When did Kennedy become a figure for John Kerry?

Here's this guy who was a public speaker, an orator, really, at a young age, very interested in political science and government. He was dating Janet Auchincloss, and his initials are JFK. So, obviously, he got a lot of -- people called him JFK. We used to call him JFK in school sometimes.

He didn't really like that. He would bristle at it, because he didn't want to be branded, to be like Kennedy. He did admire him tremendously. But dating Janet was a big deal, because she was obviously connected to the family.

Did he tell you about when he met President Kennedy?

Oh, yes. He said it was unbelievable. ... We were back at school, and he said, "You know, I had this experience. I was on the on the yacht, and he's right there." He told me the story about how he just happened to meet him, stand, walk up to him and talk to him.

He was in awe of this guy. I mean, John Kennedy to all of us, was -- even though I came from a Republican family, I loved John Kennedy and was a great fan of his at the time. But John was [a] huge [fan]. He told me that he just couldn't believe how relaxed and natural [Kennedy] was and his manner. He was very excited about that meeting and being on the boat with him, just very excited.

What kind of place was Yale in 1962?

Yale was great. Yale was my only choice. I saw Yale and I fell in love with it. John was intent on getting in Yale. To this day, [I don't] know why he wanted Yale so much, but he did. …

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. 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? This is just fabulous that we're here. This is the greatest place to be."

He thought he was in the greatest place he could be at the time when we were freshmen walking down the streets of New Haven.

There are some people [who] derisively talk about him being ambitious, politically minded at a very young age.

... I hear people criticize him for being ambitious and politically minded at a young age, and it always confuses me. First of all, I don't see what's wrong with that. He had all of these gifts, certainly for public speaking. I don't think he ever thought about becoming president of the United States in those days, although I will say we teased him about it.

In fact, freshman year, I took John home to my suburban house in Elmont, Long Island. We didn't live a fancy life. It was a 60-by-100 plot of land in suburban Long Island. I introduced him to my mother and my father, who were arch Republicans. My father was a member of the New York State legislature and a Republican.

I said, "This is my roommate, John Kerry. He's going to be president one day." Said that to my mother. I'd forgotten that I said that. But about a month ago, I was at a family dinner with my mom, who's now 88. And she said, "You remember when you brought Johnny home, and you introduced him like that?" and I said, "I do remember that, Mom." She said, "Well, I told him that I'm a Republican but that if he runs, I'll vote for him. So I've just written him a letter telling him that I'm going to vote for him. I'll keep my promise."

You say when he was at St. Paul's, 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. 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.

He was very energetic? ... There's a story about how you had to arrange your rooms accordingly.

We started off with three bedrooms and a big living room. Then they took one of the bedrooms away from us to give to a master that was connected to another suite. So we had two bedrooms.

Harvey [Bundy] and I, without even giving it any thought -- no one's going to share a bedroom with John, because you have to get up at five in the morning. He was just impossible. So--

John Kerry had a strong sense of what the Democratic Party meant?

I guess he did then. I think he admired Democrats, but I think he admired historical figures. He was really a student of history. He loved all of the great orators of the Congress of the United States, and studied them. I think he was open to more than one side of the argument. I wouldn't have pegged him as a Democratic Party follower as much as somebody who believed in the social values that the Democratic Party espoused at the time. ...

It is a difficult thing for people to understand now [about] Vietnam, that you could be anti-war -- which John Kerry was beginning to show signs of -- but then he still goes to war. How do you explain what was going on there in 1966?

We talked a lot about this, because I enlisted and he enlisted. ... There was a tremendous amount of patriotism involved in that. We grew up believing that we had been given this tremendous gift of going to St. Paul's, going to Yale -- having essentially the world handed to us -- and that our obligation was to serve our country when called on. That really was a lot of it. It sounds really corny. But that's what we believed, believe it or not, at the time.

The other thing was that we had this rather juvenile attitude that the only way we're going to really find out what was going in Vietnam was to go there; which, in retrospect, is about eight milliseconds after I got there, I satisfied that curiosity, and was ready to go home. But that was a big reason.

We enlisted in the officer corps because we felt that was the best place for us to be. We had this fabulous education. We had Harvey Bundy's Uncle Bill tell us that "This was the thing to do, boys. We need you..."

Bill Bundy was then Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. … And after his speech [at Yale] he came to our room to visit the three of us. And we asked him about Vietnam, you know, what's the scoop here, what's really going on? And he told us that this was a very important part of American policy, that it was critical that we secure this part of the world. I think the domino theory was in full swing at that time. And that we were very much needed to go be in the officer corps and serve our country there.

If you look at the records, I think that you'll see that the class of 1966 had a lot of graduates go in the service. I think 1967, 1968, those classes wouldn't have. We were just sort of on this cusp. When we enlisted, it was 1965 or the end of 1965. What you did is, you enlisted in your junior year, and then you didn't really go in until well after you graduated.

What about John's anti-war feelings at that time?

Well, I don't know that he was anti-war as much as concerned with how the administration was handling foreign policy. He was always a student of foreign policy. I think his focus was more on "Is this foreign policy correct? Are we doing the right thing?" I think "anti-war" was not quite it at that point and time. …

So how does he exist with the serious questions he has about our involvement in Southeast Asia and the idea that he's going to enlist in the Navy?

We would never have made the jump to disobey a call to arms because we questioned foreign policy. That would have been a huge leap for us to make. It would never have occurred to us.

Yet a few years later, that becomes the norm.

A few years later when we come back, our goal is to get the boys out of that position they're in, because they're not being supported.

You knew Dick Pershing, a good friend of John Kerry's?

Didn't know him well. Knew him. Met him. I know he was a great buddy.

Do you know about what the impact [was of his death in Vietnam] or had you had conversations with--

He was devastated. I think Pershing and JFK were probably the two big blows that he had, in terms of big people in his life dying. Kennedy was also a huge blow to him. Pershing was tough.

You have to put it in the context of us being young men in war. We saw men die. But seeing a buddy from home that you loved die, knowing that happens, is a different thing, different impact. Even the guys that got killed that I served in the basic school with hit me much more than seeing troops die that I knew there. Just was different. So Dick, as close as he was to John, and with such a promising future and terrific guy, I think that was a big blow to him.

Everybody remembers when Kennedy was shot. ... Do you remember talking with John about it?

He was at a JV soccer game when it occurred. I was on my way actually to watch him play. Everything came to a standstill. We went back to the room. We put on our TV. John came back from the room. We were just beside ourselves, and we talked about it.

Then they started, of course, watching all the newscasts, and over the weekend watching the unfolding of the funeral and all of the things that occurred on that weekend. Of course, every member of government came across the television screen at one time or another.

We pretty much stayed in the room watching this and listening to it, bringing a pizza up, and mourning the loss of John Kennedy. John, he would say, "Oh, look, that's so-and-so, and that's so-and-so. That guy, his job is --" ... He just knew this stuff. I don't know how many sophomores in college today could do that. He was so immersed in government. He knew this stuff. ...

You didn't really know him in Vietnam? You were in different wings of the service.

No. He called me in Vietnam, which I always thought was a sign of the kind of friend he is. The first thing he did when he got through to Danang was to find me and call me and see if I was all right. It wouldn't have occurred to me to do that, but he did it. ...

You talked to him much about it afterwards?

Not a lot. We talked. It's funny. I have a picture of us at the baptism of Harvey [Bundy's] first-born child, whom we're both godfathers for, and we're in our uniforms. I remember, because we're both there in uniform talking about [Vietnam], and John sort of [says,] "Well, you know, I was in these boats. So I wasn't like you. I wasn't digging holes in the ground." He sort of pooh-poohed what he did. He did tell me that he'd gotten a bunch of Purple Hearts, because I could tell from his ribbons. He said, "You know, I was lucky. You were, too. We're both here in one piece, thank God."...

Were you involved with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War?

Yes. Sure.

Do you remember seeing him on the [television], when he gave that speech before the committee?

I remember it. I remember more particularly going on to the Dick Cavett show with him because I was around for that. We went to the Dick Cavett show together. I waited in the green room with him. Then when he went on, I was watching him on the monitor, and that was pretty exciting.

But by this time, your old Yale roommate is a star.

Didn't surprise me in the least.

Didn't surprise you? But do you tease him about it? What was that like?

Well, it was John being John. John is so much a man of action. You know? As soon as he gets a bug about something, he does something about it. You and I might get a bug about something and write a letter or talk about it with somebody. But he actually takes action.

He's so much a man of action. It was so typical of him to do that. We were all upset when we came back from Vietnam. Anybody who had any brains knew it was not a good deal for the guys that were there, especially if you were a platoon leader or a unit leader -- you had men under your command.

I just took it as the most natural thing that he would have this organization that was going to get the boys home. Didn't surprise me in the slightest. I mean, talking on Dick Cavett, yes, it was a pretty great thing. He was very good, I thought, very good. In fact, he was so good that Cavett bumped the woman in the green room who was ... Hot Lips in "M*A*S*H." Big, tall, gorgeous blonde. ...

How close you've all remained -- he, as you said, was the kind of guy that would land in Vietnam and call you. But you're still close--

We're still very close. The thing that doesn't come across publicly with John, which always annoys me, is that he's such a warm, compassionate, funny kind of person. He doesn't come across that way at all up there on the platform.

He's smiling more than he did at the beginning of the campaign, which is good. And Teresa, I think, is extremely good for him, because she's so down to earth and [such a] heart-on-her-sleeve type of person. But he is an extremely compassionate, caring man -- on many occasions, tremendously fair, a sense of fairness.

I knew that about him right away, and he's been that way for years. I mean, he will always be concerned for his pals, and genuinely.

Why has it taken so long for -- and it still hasn't really clicked -- for John Kerry to connect with the American people, or for the American people to connect to Kerry?

It's the same problem John had when I met him. He comes across just too earnest, I think, for most people to believe he's real. There's something that's unreal about that tremendous sense of purpose he has, and that sense of oratory that he has.

But that's him. That's who he is. He's a very earnest man, and he's a man who has a tremendous sense of history. Even as a boy -- no different. I think that's a hard thing for people to get en masse. I think if you meet him one to one, you spend any time with him, that breaks right down. I know people whose opinions change remarkably when they are with him one on one, as opposed to seeing him speak. ...

home · introduction · george w. bush · john f. kerry · what makes a good president?
interviews · links · join the discussion · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts · credits · privacy policy
teacher's guide · plan a campus event · FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted oct. 12, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
some photos copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation