What makes Kerry tick

Posted: Oct 13, 2004 12:00 AM

With less than three weeks remaining until Election Day, most voters, including his supporters, still don't know much about John Kerry. He is one of the most guarded, private and aloof presidential aspirants in recent memory -- and he seems intent on keeping it that way. Apart from his four months in Vietnam, Kerry has shared little about his personal biography with American voters. When he throws out a tidbit, you have the sense he's holding back -- or worse, trying to deflect the truth.

 When Kerry told viewers in the second debate in response to a question on federal funding of abortion, "I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life, helped lead me through a war, leads me today," it sounded downright weird. Being an altar boy and allowing his Catholic faith to "lead" him today might explain why John Kerry would oppose federal funding of abortion, but he offered those insights to explain why he favors government funding of abortion. It made no sense, rational or political. You had the feeling he was hiding something, namely what he really believes. Either he doesn't want to admit he disagrees with his Church on abortion or that his political ambitions trump his moral convictions.

 Trying to decipher what makes John Kerry tick is hard work, even for the journalists assigned to cover his presidential bid, which is why Matt Bai's New York Times magazine profile, "Kerry's Undeclared War," is so impressive. Bai admits that Kerry treats reporters as the enemy: "he acts as if you've been sent to destroy him, and he can't quite figure out why in the world he should be sitting across from you," writes Bai. Kerry views the most banal issues as fraught with danger. In the most amusing anecdote in the long piece, Bai describes Kerry's wariness over a simple choice of what kind of water to drink:

 "A row of Evian water bottles had been thoughtfully place on a nearby table. Kerry frowned.

 "'Can we get any of my water?'" Kerry asks, sending his communications director out to fetch a different brand.

 "'What kind of water do you drink?'" Bai inquires of Kerry, trying to make conversation.

 "'Plain old American water,'" (Kerry) said.

 "'You mean tap water?'" asks Bai.

 "'No,' Kerry replied deliberately. He seemed now to sense some kind of trap. I was left to imagine what was going through his head. If I admit that I drink bottled water, then he might say I'm out of touch with ordinary voters. But doesn't demanding my own brand of water seem even more aristocratic? Then again, Evian is French -- important to stay away from anything even remotely French, " Bai fantasizes the candidate running through his options.

 "'There are all kinds of waters,' (Kerry) said finally. Pause. 'Saratoga Spring.' This seemed to have exhausted his list. 'Sometimes I drink tap water,' he added." It's a funny episode, but also telling.

 As is Bai's description of the one subject that seems to elicit any passion from Kerry: diplomacy. "The only time I saw Kerry truly animated during two hours of conversation was when he talked about the ability of a president to build relationships with other leaders," says Bai.

 "He leaned his head back and slapped his thighs. 'A new presidency with the right moves, the right language, the right outreach, the right initiatives, can dramatically alter the world's perception of us very, very quickly,'" Kerry gushed to Bai.

 But are world leaders likely to trust Kerry, a man so reticent, so conflicted about what he truly believes?

 Bai's piece has generated a great deal of attention because Kerry is quoted in it saying, "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." Kerry went on to compare fighting terrorism to fighting prostitution, gambling and organized crime. He argued that we need to reduce terrorism to the degree where "(I)t isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

 Reading Kerry's words I had the feeling he'd finally said what he really believes. And suddenly I understood why he's so desperate not to reveal himself.