When Kerry Was Cute

John Kerry did have a childhood.

As a big-eyed, big-jawed boy, little John Kerry would round up the family to imagine himself as a mythic hero of arboreal England: a medieval knight, or King Arthur.

Or, sometimes, it was Robin Hood. “He was an adventurous kid, full of imagination, who always used to make up these imaginary games,” said Peggy Kerry, the candidate’s older sister, recalling the days back in Millis, Mass., and Brittany, France, when “Johnny” led his three siblings and a brood of first cousins in elaborate re-creations of history and fantasy. “He was always rallying us to re-enact Robin Hood and King Arthur.”

But it was a Camelot of the 50′s, in that distinctly American world of complicated inner intrigues played out against the backdrop of an affluent Northeastern extended family clan. And while it may have been Camelot, it was no idyll.

As Mr. Kerry attempts to make himself known to voters alongside a running mate who’s got the type of rags-to-riches folk tale that draws Oprah Winfrey like a moth to a flame, his own childhood has remained an enigma. Most Presidential candidates have gone out of their way to make their childhood understood: Bill Clinton in his little cowboy suit, Ronald Reagan saving lives as a lifeguard in Dixon, Ill., Richard Nixon listening to train whistles in the distance.

When he was 8, John Kerry was campaigning for Adlai Stevenson.

In two interviews, Mr. Kerry’s big sister, Peggy Kerry, described a family steeped in New England formality but also close-knit: All of Mr. Kerry’s three siblings now work long hours on his campaign. If the Kerrys were conservative in their family traditions, the strain of liberalism was strong. And if the Kerrys spent much of their childhood hopping around European capitals and boarding schools, they still had the American experience stamped into them, albeit a dark, somewhat complicated version of that experience: When John Kerry was 11 in the mid-1950′s, his family was in Europe, where his father, a Foreign Service officer, was stationed in divided Berlin, working as a legal adviser to James Bryant Conant, the former Harvard president who was President Dwight Eisenhower’s head of the U.S. High Mission to West Germany. John and Peggy Kerry were sent off to private schools in Switzerland; at 13, he was shipped back to the States for school, while his parents stayed in West Berlin.

Peggy and John and their two younger siblings, Diana and Cameron, grew up during the taut calm of the 1940′s and 1950′s, the Truman, Eisenhower and Cold War years, straddling two continents and two societies. From the time they were young, they had split vision, one eye on Europe and the other on the U.S., hopping back and forth between Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Oslo and West Berlin as their father’s diplomatic career demanded.

Cameron Kerry, the baby of the family, is a crucial part of the campaign now and one of the candidate’s closest advisers. Peggy is not part of the “inner circle,” as she says, but she is the co-chair of the New York State campaign committee, a frequent surrogate speaker and, said one friend, rarely seems to sleep now that the race is nearing its last do-or-die leg.

With her Mayflower accent and elocution, she can appeal to the Upper East Side big-money world if she has to. But, at heart, Peggy Kerry, 62, is a working mother with a husband, an administrator at the City University of New York, who is happy to go door-knocking. She seems eager to show how normal and down-to-earth the family is. She is the un-Teresa.

“The media,” she said, “is stuck on” her brother “being aloof and arrogant and adjectives that really don’t fit his passion for issues and love of life,” said Ms. Kerry, who, with her keen blue eyes, long pilgrim’s face and reedy physique, looks like her brother. “He used to always tell all of us as siblings to kind of go out there and do your best, something that he always does for himself.”

Americans, she said, are seeing more of the real John Kerry. “I mean, I really do think he connects with people,” she said. “Except when he goes on too long.”

Ms. Kerry was perched, cross-legged, on a padded deck chair by the pool at her friend Gail Furman’s Sag Harbor country house, contemplating her childhood, and his. He has, she said, a singing voice like a foghorn; likes to play classical Spanish guitar; at 6 or 7, went charging off on a horse like a cowboy.

As the non-governmental liaison for the United States Mission to the United Nations, Ms. Kerry is an employee of George W. Bush. But as sister to the putative Democratic Presidential nominee, she’s still campaigning, drawing a picture of the forces and influences that shaped her brother.

There was the father who was reserved and demanding, the mother who was warm and committed to “public service,” the family that was half in step and half out-of-step with the surrounding high society-and, of course, there was John F. Kennedy.

The Kerrys’ father, Richard Kerry, was a mid-level diplomat in the Foreign Service, a driven and intelligent man and a staunch believer in diplomacy, tight-lipped and introverted.

“He was very aloof, remote, and difficult to get to know,” said Ms. Kerry.

Born to Jewish Czech and Hungarian parents who converted to Catholicism, Richard Kerry grew up in Boston in a hard-working immigrant family that quickly pulled itself into the ranks of the middle class through his father’s shoe business. It seemed like a happy, prosperous family, but when Richard Kerry was 6, his father committed suicide in the men’s room of Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel. From then on, said Ms. Kerry, it was “a very hard childhood”-one that may have explained the exacting, tough-love ethos that Richard Kerry applied to raising his own kids.

“We lived next to a farm, and John used to go down and hang out at the farm, and he learned to swear, and I’ll never forget: My father actually did wash his mouth out with soap,” recalls Ms. Kerry.

And when, at the age of 12, John Kerry lay sick with scarlet fever at his strict Swiss boarding school, the Institut Montana Zugerberg, his father never made the trip from Berlin to visit him.

By contrast, Rosemary Forbes Kerry, Peggy and John’s mother, was “a very warm and loving woman” who was “there for us more emotionally,” Ms. Kerry said. Rosemary came from blue-blood stock: She could trace her ancestors back to both the Forbes family, a wealthy New England merchant family, and to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She too could be shy and reserved, but as one of 11 children in a family that had lost some of its wealth, if not its status, by the time she came of age in wartime Europe, she had a strong sense of community and public service that broke through her Brahmin upbringing.

“Auntie Rosie was very, very kind,” said Deirdre Armstong, Ms. Kerry’s first cousin, speaking to The Observer as she relaxed in the shade of Ms. Furman’s patio. “She and my mom had a very strong idea about service to the community. Maybe it came from the war”-Rosemary Kerry fled Paris, where she was studying to be a nurse, on the eve of the Nazi invasion-”but it was just clear that their role was to help other people.”

“My mother was always involved in public service,” added Ms. Kerry. “She was a great environmentalist, and later on in Massachusetts, she volunteered at the Massachusetts General Hospital … she was just very, very involved.”

Warm mother, aloof father, familiar syndrome; John Kerry came of age, borrowing bits and pieces from each of his parents. “I would say he’s a pretty good mix of both of them,” said Ms. Kerry. Like his father, he could be reserved and serious, with a strong will to challenge himself at sailing, skiing, windsurfing and the other sports Richard Kerry taught him, and that aroused his strong competitive instincts.

“He and my father would do a lot of sports together, and it was almost like John was in competition with him,” said Ms. Kerry. “He challenges himself to really ride the edge, go up against the elements like nobody else in the family.”

He wrote his siblings chatty letters from boarding school and intimate ones from Vietnam, and when the extended Forbes clan gathered at the family estate in Brittany, he was the ringleader, egging the younger cousins to join in the games.

“He was good fun and a bit larger than life-and not just because he’s tall!” said Ms. Armstrong, who spent summers with the Kerry siblings in Brittany. “He was very dynamic, always going off with his student friends and doing what seemed like daring and exciting things.”

That changed, however, when John Kerry returned from Vietnam, where he captained a Swift patrol boat along the Mekong Delta. Ms. Armstrong recalled that he struck family members as being “subdued” and “not himself” when he visited the family compound between tours during the summer of 1968; and throughout the first year after he returned from his battle duty, he woke up screaming and sweating from Vietnam nightmares. Vietnam, said Ms. Armstrong, “brought out his serious side or something. I think it had a big impact.”

The Kerry family-father, mother and children-were all vehemently opposed to American participation in the Vietnam War, which they saw as a “big mistake” well before a vocal antiwar movement had coalesced, according to Ms. Kerry. This was vintage Kerry: While the family mingled with high society and embraced some distinctly Brahmin traditions, they were always at one remove, always rubbing against the grain of posh propriety with their decidedly progressive views.

In the sixth grade, Peggy Kerry remembers selling “Stevenson for President” buttons in the family’s Washington, D.C., neighborhood, young Johnny in tow. It was a Republican enclave, where everyone walked around with “I Like Ike” buttons, and the Kerry kids’ efforts were not always welcomed: When Halloween rolled around in the fall of 1952, neighborhood pranksters wrote “Eisenhower” in great, big letters on the sidewalk in front of their house.

But it was John F. Kennedy who really captured their political imagination. More than 40 years after Senator Kennedy ran for President, Ms. Kerry still talks with a hint of pride about being one of the only students at Smith College to volunteer for the Kennedy campaign, and she is quick to point out that her brother, John, hustled from St. Paul’s to Boston the night before the 1960 election to hear the young candidate speak.

John Kennedy became the great love of John Kerry’s early life, the idol he worshipped in place of rock stars, and the politician who pushed him from a flirtation with politics into a full-bodied embrace. His mother gave him a sense of social commitment, his father gave him a sense of service and a critical vision, but John Kennedy provided the romantic message that still motivates him today.

“I think he was moved by Kennedy’s ability to stir a generation to try their best,” said Peggy Kerry. “John often refers to Kennedy’s challenging ourselves to go to the moon, and I think that that’s tremendously what John wants to do-to call the next generation, just to have us, as a country, make this a better world.”

As a kid ready to take on his father’s generation and the gray, authoritarian Eisenhower years-even locked into his own class uniform and St. Paul’s School strictures-it makes sense that John Kerry was smitten by the message of “Ask not …. “

But it was more than that: John Kerry met President Kennedy twice in 1962, chatted and sailed with him in Rhode Island after dating Jacqueline Kennedy’s half-sister Janet Auchincloss. And his Yale roommates, Barbiero and Harvey Bundy, were nephews of President Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state, William Bundy, and his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy. After Kennedy’s death, William Bundy came to Yale and exhorted the undergraduates to serve in Vietnam. He sat in John Kerry’s suite with him and his roommates and sold the policy. The message of service resonated deeply enough to make John Kerry choose the Navy and head to Vietnam, against his father’s wishes and his own ambivalence.

“He’d had questions about Vietnam from the very beginning, before he went, but he felt that call to duty, the call to service,” his sister said. Leaving Yale, he both wore the uniform and protested the war, his sense of service conflicting with his father’s sense of real politics.

In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine the Kerry family sense of service-the reflex which rallies citizens of good standing rally to serve-doing battle with its own liberal instincts, even to see that battle as a central one in John Kerry’s life: The passion and the reticence of the Kerry family seem to co-exist nicely. It’s the same struggle that drove Mr. Kerry at Yale to object to the incivility of war protesters, even as he developed his own inner ambivalence about the war, then served, saw battle and returned as a decorated veteran to protest American war policy in his fatigues.

It’s part of what motivated Peggy Kerry herself back in the late 1960′s to move to Greenwich Village, join the Vietnam Moratorium project, and perhaps indirectly launch her brother’s political career when she introduced him to Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert Kennedy and well-known antiwar activist.

“When John came back from Vietnam, he was stationed at Brooklyn Naval Base, and we needed to have somebody to fly Adam Walinsky around the state for several speeches,” Ms. Kerry recalled. “So I called my brother up and asked if he would take the day off, and he did, and he flew Adam around.”

“We had this continuing wide-ranging conversation about the state of politics,” recalled Mr. Walinsky, describing their flight across the state. “And he came to all the speeches, and each time he stood along the wall quietly listening, really avidly trying to learn what was going on.”

Several months later, of course, Mr. Kerry would himself leave the Navy and join the antiwar movement, eventually becoming the leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War-which shared an office in New York City with the massive Vietnam Moratorium project that Ms. Kerry was helping organize. From there, it was a slow but heady climb towards politics, beginning with two failed runs for Congress and followed, a decade later, by his successful runs for Massachusetts lieutenant governor and ultimately the U.S. Senate.

Peggy Kerry was involved in all these campaigns-leafleting, organizing, ringing doorbells-and, not surprisingly, she’s hurled herself into this one, the most important one, as well. When asked how her life has changed since the campaign began, her 6-year-old adopted daughter, Iris, answered for her, describing a nightly barrage of phone calls. “They always ask for Peggy, because they want to talk to her,” she said seriously. “Sometimes they want to talk about the campaign.”

Ms. Kerry herself doesn’t seem to have gotten entirely used to this new reality. With less than two weeks until the Democratic National Convention, she is still working to make sense of the fact that her younger brother has gone from playing Robin Hood and King Arthur to being the Democratic nominee.

“I guess I haven’t put it all together,” she said with a laugh. “Being a delegate and being involved in the convention is nothing new to me. I was a delegate in 1988 for Mike Dukakis, and I was involved in 1992 and 1996. But when you suddenly realize, ‘Oh my goodness, this is my brother,’ it’s … strange.”

Strange?

“Well, yes,” she said. Then she paused. “But a good strange.”