Pursuing Kerry: The Elusive Candidate

By Dorrien, Gary | The Christian Century, August 24, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Pursuing Kerry: The Elusive Candidate


Dorrien, Gary, The Christian Century


COMPLAINTS ABOUT John Kerry's "religion problem" are of a piece with complaints about his personality. Kerry is emotionally cool and rhetorically uninspiring. He does not emote religious feeling--or much of any feeling. Political commentator Clarence Page observed that Kerry shows "an almost painful reluctance" to talk about his religion (Newsday, January 13). When pressed, Kerry will mention that he served as an altar boy, considered becoming a priest and wore a rosary around his neck in Vietnam, but in the next breath explain that New Englanders "tend to be more personal in our faith and not throw it at people."

The problem, if it is one, is a matter of style and partly a function of class. It does not necessarily indicate a lack of feeling or religions conviction. Kerry has an air of privileged inaccessibility because he grew up privileged and socially isolated. His reticence is not restricted to religion; it's a struggle for him to be self-revealing on any subject. Though Kerry made a national splash as a war resister, even his friends couldn't get him to talk about his war experiences.

For many years the Boston Globe complained that Kerry's elusiveness made him something of a mystery to the Massachusetts voters who elected him. It didn't help that Kerry had only one tough election in his Senate career--in 1996, when he was challenged by Massachusetts Governor William Weld. The Globe decided not to rest on its 30 years of reporting about him. Reporters Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton dug into his background and career. They knew more about him than anyone else, they reasoned, but still didn't know him very well. At the same time, historian Douglas Brinkley completed a study of Kerry's experience in Vietnam that drew on Kerry's letters, journals and notebooks.

With these books, the first full biography of Kerry and the first thorough account of his war experience, we know a great deal more about Kerry. And so does Kerry. Until the Globe reporters investigated his background, Kerry had believed that his paternal grandmother was probably Jewish and his paternal grandfather came from an Austrian line of Kerrys. Last year he learned that both his paternal grandparents were Jewish.

Massachusetts voters took it for granted that their Catholic senator with the Celtic-sounding name had an Irish background. Even Kerry's friends assumed that he was Irish on his father's side and Boston Brahmin on his mother's side. Kerry never claimed that he was Irish, and on the rare occasions that he was directly asked about it he acknowledged that his father came from Austria. But he benefited politically from the impression that he was a cross between the Irish-American Kennedys and the Yankee Brahmins, and he did not go out of his way to correct it, especially not at the St. Patrick's Day breakfasts he attended.

The Brahmin part is true. Kerry's family tree on his mother's side includes the famous Winthrop and Forbes families which stretch back to the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The wedding of Kerry's maternal grandparents, James Grant Forbes and Margaret Winthrop, was treated by New England newspapers as a royal union of legendary families.

Their daughter, Rosemary Forbes, met Richard Kerry at a sculptor's studio in Saint Briac, France. Richard was a graduate of Phillips Academy and Yale University, a student at Harvard Law School and an accomplished pilot. His father, Frederick A. Kerry, made a fortune reorganizing retail giants such as Sears, Roebuck mad Company.

That much John Kerry knew. But in January 2003 the three Boston Globe reporters told Kerry a fuller story: that Frederick A. Kerry was the son of a Jewish Austrian beer maker named Benedict Kohn, that Frederick had married Ida Lowe from Budapest, that Frederick changed his name from Kohn to Kerry in 1900 to escape Vienna's rampant anti-Semitism, and that in 1901 Fritz and Ida Kerry were baptized as Roman Catholics.

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