the choice 2004 [home]
homeleadershipgeorge w. bushjohn f. kerrydiscussion
core traits and instincts

photo of kerry speaking at a press conference

From those who have studied John Kerry closely or have known him for decades, what are some of the revealing attributes of his nature and character ? In excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, here are observations from fellow Yale student John Shattuck, lifelong friend Dan Barbiero, Yale roommate Harvey Bundy, author and historian Douglas Brinkley, campaign staffer Thomas Vallely, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, and brother-in-law David Thorne.

photo of brinkley
read the full interview

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

…I once was doing an interview with John Kerry in Boston around Christmas. And he had to break it up, and was going to the eye doctor, and said, "You want to come along, and we can continue talking?" And I said sure.

We entered a building in Boston. It was Christmas. And two sanitation workers, maintenance workers in uniform, saw their U.S. Senator John Kerry. They were very thrilled to see their Senator in the flesh. And they walked up to him. And they looked like they were about to go hug him, and [say] Merry Christmas.

Kerry simply bowed. And I thought God, Bill Clinton would've had his arms all around these guys. Merry Christmas, guys. Most politicians would've. And I asked Kerry after he left, I said, "Why were you were so cold to them?" He said, "I respect them too much to go pawing on them. I don't like people grabbing and hugging me, and I don't wanna be that kind of politician. I respect them too much."

I think he feels embarrassed by some of the realities of American politics, which is that over-glad-handing, over-hugging, back-slapping. And so, I think there's a reticence to him. I think some people will see it as aloof. He finds it as being respectful for people. And it's worked for him. …

related links
see a chronology of kerry's life

photo of shattuck

John shattuck
Fellow student at St. Paul's School and Yale.

…I think there's a shyness of sorts on his part. I think once you've broken through the shyness, which is pretty easy to do in any small setting -- I mean, anybody he meets in a one-on-one, or even larger setting -- he's gonna connect well with.

I've watched him in crowds. I think he's extremely good in crowds. But he's not the kind of guy who as some extraordinary politicians will do, will look at virtually everybody in an audience and know who they are. That's a gift that very few political people have that I know of. …

And I think John has a different kind of gift. I hope people will sense this, as they get to know him better, that the seriousness of the relationship that he establishes with you is something that will stay, and stick. And it doesn't have to be based on a lot of you know, involvement. You don't have to have known him for a lot of time. But if he connects with you, he's gonna connect with you for good. …

photo of thorne

david thorne
Brother-in-law and a fellow student at Yale.

…He was always big into oratory. Can you remember the impression it made on you?

It was part of being aware of this young guy who is your friend, but who was clearly motivated, driven to excel in certain things. And probably the thing to which he was most driven, was as a speaker. He was part of the debate society.

Every year there'd be this contest to win the oratory prize. And he would compete and win it every year. But, he would work on it. And he would make us listen. A couple of his friends listened to the speech over and over again. And he'd present it and it was unusual for someone, you know, that age. He was overtly competitive.

What do you think about it? What do they think was driving him?

Thinking back, I just think John likes to win. He likes to excel in whatever he does. We competed in everything we did in many ways. Whether it was driving a car or foosball or whatever it was. I just remember part of the things that we had such a good time with, was we competed fairly even.

It was always fun. But it was always a competition. And I think John -- why does he drive himself to compete? I think that he likes to win. …

photo of barbiero
read the full interview

douglas barbiero
A friend and classmate at St. Paul's School and a roommate at Yale.

…Why has it taken so long … for the American people to connect to John 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. And 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. And I know people whose opinions change remarkably when they are with him one-on-one as opposed to seeing him speak. ...

There was this word used to describe Kerry when he was there [at St. Paul's School] 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.


Did you ever say, "John, will you just cut it out and just relax--"

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 'cause 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. ...

photo of bundy

harvey bundy
A roommate at Yale.

…John and I traveled around Europe between freshman and sophomore year. Part of that travel ended up in us arriving outside a little Austrian ski village at five o'clock in the morning. The idea had been to visit John's ski instructor.

And at five o'clock in the morning, we're pulling up outside this tent in Austria and we both agree that it's probably not a good time to call on the ski instructor. … And so, it was one of these "what do we do?" And outside the town there was a mountain. … So, John said, "Why don't we climb it?" … There were no trees or anything on it…and plenty of places to break your ankle as you climb up. And we get to the top and enjoying the view and John's reaction is, "Let's run down." And the next thing I can recall is I'm halfway down the mountain and John's already back down to the car.

How do you explain it?

How do you explain it? John is not an easy person to explain, you know. I think everyone is struggling with that question. John is a very private individual. We spent a lotta time together, obviously, over three, three and a half years. And yet, we didn't talk about John very much. John isn't someone who would come to you and say, "Harvey, I've got this problem. You know, help me -- help me solve it." …I mean, guys don't do that anyway. But John is a very private person.

So, it's hard to explain John other than someone who really had a vision for himself, and didn't wanna slow down at all in life. Now, do people get visions? Why do people not wanna slow down? I don't know the answer to that. It's probably in how you grew up. It probably relates to family. It can relate to a lotta things. But John was always going someplace. Like he felt like it was his job to be a leader.

And the fact that we sensed that John would hold this type of a position or would be running for this type of office at some point in the future was not something that John said. It was something we sensed about John, you know. Just that he felt this need to -- give back to his country. It's not ambition as much as it's a understanding of the role that he maybe saw himself cast out for in life. …

photo of vallely

john vallely
Veteran of several Kerry campaigns.

…You have said that John needs a kind of tension to be at his best. That part of him needs the high wire act. And that even in his marriage with Teresa, this is true. That it benefits him, because of a certain healthy tension that exists. And that he's best when his back is against the wall.

You know, he likes danger. Okay? I think he likes physical danger. I mean, he enjoys-- he's a very active person. And he drives too fast, he drives the boat too fast. He's always on the go. He's a little jittery. "When are we getting there?" He's not always great to travel with. "When is the bus arriving?" In high form. I mean, he' s got his energy. He's--

He's type A.

Built-up energy, okay? And it's always better when he's working it, than getting it-- you know, pent up in him. He's also very calm person. He does not get angry easily. I've never really seen him really angry. I think he becomes calmer the more tension there is around. And I think he becomes much calmer. I think it's one of those things that's -- one of his great abilities, is to be calm. Now, he's not normally calm. He's normally a pain in the ass. Okay? But when they lock and load, he's super. He can focus. …

….. What is this tendency to explain his explanation? Fatal for a politician?

No, it's natural in a politician. All politicians wanna get everyone to vote for them. I mean, the idea of it is you wanna get 100 percent of the vote. You know, " I'm trying to get everyone to vote for me." And in doing that, he gets himself in trouble, not big trouble. It's petty trouble. …

photo of kerrey

bob kerrey
Former Democratic senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran.

…Very often people encounter John Kerry and say, "He just doesn't feel like a politician to me. … He feels a little stiff, a little remote, not easy with people." And yet there are these moments when he demonstrates a good deal of touch or skill. How do you reconcile that?

Well, this is my evaluation of John, is that there are two kinds of people that don't have a lot of really close friends. Group number one are people that are unlikeable. John's not in that group. He's a very likeable guy.

And group number two is where people are relatively shy and closed off. And they make friends slowly. Once they've got a friend, they hold fast to them. That's the way John is. John is much more observant about what's going on and has, I would say, fewer intimate friendships as a consequence. But that's his nature.

Very inquisitive on the other hand, very interested in what's going on around and very open to the possibility that his conclusion that he reached may be wrong. So I find him to be very attractive as a friend, as somebody I'd like to hang out with. But he is an adult who has a smaller group of intimate friends then a lot of people that you might know that are 60 years of age. …

Why do people like that go into politics? Why don't they become something which you think of as more suited to a shy personality?

Because it is suited to a shy personality. I mean, as long as you're inquisitive, as long as you don't have bad values and you've got to be honest and trustworthy and other sorts of things in order to survive it. But … you can overcome it as well by a variety of techniques.

But I think people get into politics because they want to do good in some way. They think they could be good at it, they'd enjoy it. And it can be very pleasurable. It can be very pleasurable to accomplish things and to do the good things that you set out to do.

But Kerry, I gather, is not one of those people where being alone is just physically unpleasant to him, right?

I don't know the answer to that. I mean, he certainly has selected … selected solitary activities for his pastime endeavors. Personally, I think it's terribly important for human beings of all kinds, especially politicians, to find times when there's nobody around but themselves. I mean, that's when you do your best thinking. That's when you got the space necessarily to reflect. And in the modern era it's hard as heck to find time to do that. …

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