Cambridge Shrugged

100305 article classics Cambridge ShruggedCAMBRIDGE, Mass.-"Cambridge here is not unusual. It mirrors New York and Los Angeles, or San Francisco, certainly-a lot of people hate Bush, but no one really likes Kerry. No one really feels they have a sense of who he is." That was how Martin Peretz, Cambridge resident, editor in chief of The New Republic, part-time lecturer in social studies at Harvard, and keen observer of A-list Cambridge dinner-party culture and its feelings toward Mr. Kerry, put it. Mr. Peretz was speaking by phone Monday afternoon, July 26, from his house on Martha’s Vineyard, where he was avoiding the convention hubbub after attending a dinner for Al Gore the previous evening. Of course, Mr. Peretz has his reasons for not embracing Mr. Kerry. Four years ago, he bet the bank on a different horse—Mr. Gore, who was his protégé at Harvard-and the horse lost. This time around, The New Republic endorsed Joe Lieberman, Mr. Gore’s 2000 running mate. But it was in 2000 that Mr. Peretz came maddeningly close to achieving the dream that keeps so many restless Cambridge minds awake at night, tantalizing them as they sit on the wraparound porches of their ample turn-of-the-century homes and gaze out at the leafy, prosperous streets of Cambridge: that they could have the President’s ear.

On Sunday evening, at a reception for Harvard alumni in U.S. government held in the airy main lobby of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Robert Boorstin, the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress, summed up Cambridge’s enthusiasm for Mr. Kerry with a noncommittal "Eh!" as he turned his hands palms up in a gesture that drove home the point. "He’s not like Teddy Kennedy," said Mr. Boorstin, eyeing the bar.

It’s peculiar: Teddy Kennedy doesn’t have a strong Cambridge brain trust, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter. The Cambridge intelligentsia is more forgiving of Mr. Kennedy. Perhaps it’s because he speaks to a part of their past that they will hold forever dear, or because he sweeps them up—entrances them, really—with his constant motion. Not so Mr. Kerry. Over the years, he has forged on, dutifully and dully, in his steady path to power-just like them. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. Mr. Kerry, their local wonk with the wooden face and the logy voice, communicates the same sense of entitlement as his Massachusetts Senate colleague does, but lacks the Kennedy thrill, the visceral delight in life. Some even say that in spite of his wonkiness, Mr. Kerry lacks an identification with particular issues for them to embrace.

"He’s a hometown boy. A lot of people know him, and so he’s not a god," said Amy Domini, who runs a socially conscious investment firm in Cambridge and serves on the board of the Cambridge-based Progressive Government Institute. But knowing Mr. Kerry, Ms. Domini said, as she looked around the crowd at the Kennedy School reception, means "they trust him completely."

He’s not J.F.K.-he’s not even Teddy-but he is still the ticket back to Washington for these Cambridge intellectuals. That much was palpable at Sunday’s Kennedy School reception. There, guests sipped wine and ate sushi off little crimson-lined plates, talking about vacations, kids’ summer plans-everything but the reason they were there, namely that they wanted more than anything for John Kerry to win the election so they could flee the fluorescent lighting of their university holding pens and get back into the game.

If Mr. Kerry were to win, "I’d say the population [of Cambridge] would go down no more than 23 percent," wisecracked David Gergen, the director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and a former White House adviser to President Clinton, as he dashed off from the reception to the Harvard television studio to appear on Larry King Live.

Even so, the Cambridge smart set’s affections for Mr. Kerry are surprisingly lukewarm, not unlike those of so many Democratic constituencies who dated other candidates before marrying Mr. Kerry. Of course, Mr. Kerry is a Yale man, and so perhaps the situation is different in New Haven. As Mr. Peretz put it, "This sounds very parochial, but there’s not the intrinsic Cambridge interest in Kerry the way there was for Kennedy and Gore, simply because there’s no Harvard connection." Still, it’s strange that for all the years he spent as a Massachusetts career politician, this year’s Democratic contender never seems to have forged particularly close ties with the Cambridge intelligentsia.

Unlike Mr. Gore, whose enthusiasm for the environment made him the darling of Cambridge scientists, "such enthusiasm as there is for Kerry is not because of any prior deep commitment that Kerry had to any issue that people identified with intellectually or politically or morally," said Mr. Peretz. "I think that Al-I’m prejudiced about him-that Al was never threatened by meeting with people who were smarter than him. He pursued those contacts to enhance himself. I don’t know that Kerry has ever really done that."

As he stood in uniform near the portrait of J.F.K. at the Kennedy School reception on Sunday, Officer Michael Rea of the Harvard Police Department offered a similar view. "I have no idea of his policies," Mr. Rea said. "It’s more either you hate Bush or are willing to put up with Kerry."

Indeed, it’s not as if Cambridge is going to vote Republican anyway. "Canterbridgians are a very peculiar, narcissistic lot. But everybody is for him," Mr. Peretz said. "And if one raises a friendly word, however modest, about Bush, one is sent into the dunce corner: ‘How could you?’, etc."

"We’re a little bit spoiled in Cambridge," said firebrand Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, speaking by phone from his home on Martha’s Vineyard. "People my age remember Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy. Everyone remembers Clinton, and whether you love or hate him, he was the most charismatic guy in the room. Kerry is not the most charismatic guy in the room. He may be the tallest guy in the room. He used to be the best-looking guy in the room."

But Mr. Dershowitz said he’s known Mr. Kerry for more than 25 years and was supporting him for President. "He’s a guy I would trust with the nuclear trigger," the Harvard law professor said.

It’s not that Mr. Kerry doesn’t already have a brain trust in Boston, because he does. Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton administration and a distinguished professor at Brandeis University, is said to be a close Kerry adviser. Richard Goodwin, the former Kennedy adviser, is said to be helping write speeches. John Sasso, the Boston political operative whose genius is best reflected in the fact that he helped Michael Dukakis, a disastrous candidate, win the Democratic nomination in 1988, is Mr. Kerry’s campaign link to the Democratic National Committee. And some Kennedy School faculty members are already actively advising Mr. Kerry, chief among them Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans in the first Clinton administration, and Joseph Nye, the former dean of the Kennedy School and a chairman of the National Intelligence Council under President Clinton. The two seem to be among the Harvard faculty with the closest ties to Mr. Kerry, and both said that they’d attended informal policy-discussion dinners at Mr. Kerry’s house over the years.

John Holdren, a former member of President Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and, yes, the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and director of the Program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Kennedy School, is also said to be a Kerry adviser. William J. Perry, the Secretary of Defense under Mr. Clinton and a professor at Stanford, and Ashton Carter, a former undersecretary of defense under Mr. Clinton and professor at the Kennedy School, who co-directs the Preventive Defense Project, a joint Harvard-Stanford institute, is advising Mr. Kerry on Iraq and national defense.

At the Kennedy School reception, "Bush has some supporters here, but nowhere near as many supporters as Kerry has," said Dan Glickman, the outgoing director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School, the incoming president of the Motion Picture Association of America and former Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration, as he affably greeted guests in his yellow-and-white-striped tie. Harvard students "were clearly more impassioned for Dean," Mr. Glickman said. "After Iowa, there was more enthusiasm for Kerry."

Mr. Allison, an expert on nuclear proliferation, seems to be the one with the longest-standing rapport. "I’ve known John Kerry for 25 years. He’s been an excellent Senator," Mr. Allison said enthusiastically as he ate sushi at the reception, hunching over a little so as not to drop any on his goldenrod-yellow tie. "I’ve had dinner at his house in Washington and here with groups where he’s kicking around a topic. People say, ‘Who’s advising him about this?’ Well, he’s been in the Senate for 20 years. When you say ‘nuclear terrorism,’ he doesn’t ask, ‘What’s nuclear? What’s terrorism? Where is Pakistan?’" Discussing policy with Mr. Kerry involves "much less shaping his views than reacting to his questions." According to Mr. Allison, the Senator is wont to say, "Here’s what I said—do you disagree?" Mr. Allison said he’d advised Mr. Kerry on an investigation he launched in the late 1980′s into BCCI, a Middle Eastern bank that Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was said to be using for money laundering, and that he helped Mr. Kerry work on a "far-sighted" policy speech the candidate delivered in West Palm Beach this spring. In it, Mr. Kerry discussed the preventable threat of nuclear terrorism. Mr. Allison, it just so happens, is the author of a forthcoming book called Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

Mr. Nye said that he’d been "a member of a continuing conversation" with Mr. Kerry at dinners over the years and had advised him on foreign-policy issues.

Nearby, Ted Carr, a former member of Mr. Clinton’s advance team who now directs the Progressive Government Institute, was chatting with Sam Natapoff, an exchange-rate expert who also worked in the Clinton administration, and who said he had just signed on as a Kerry speechwriter. The Progressive Government Institute’s Web site says that it intended to "look at the unelected presidential appointees who make decisions that affect the lives of all of us." As he eyed a room filled with a dozen such Presidential appointees—albeit from the Clinton administration—Mr. Carr had this to say about Mr. Kerry: "Harvard should look to get along with him better."