John Kerry yawned and asked for a chocolate cupcake.
He was wrapping up yet another interview about his and his wife’s new global-warming book, This Moment on Earth, by talking about the “scientific community,” how toxins were “threatening species and threatening air quality,” and how the “grassroots are changing things.” A camera flash lit the room as Mr. Kerry drummed his hands on his knees. He looked bored.
It was around 6 p.m. on the evening of April 16. He finished his interview in one room of the 57th Street headquarters of the PublicAffairs publishing house and was walking down a long corridor to conduct another, with The Observer.
Dressed in a dark blue suit and green silk tie mottled with motorcycles, he passed a filing cabinet adorned with magnets of old Newsweek covers. One featured his own hangdog face beside his 2004 battle cry of “Bring It On.”
Mr. Kerry didn’t notice it.
He was asked what lessons his ill-fated run in 2004 held for the current crop of Democratic candidates.
“The most important thing—in any issue, and everything—is, given the nature of today’s media and the scurrilousness of the other side’s advertising, that you can’t overstate how important it is to have a dollar-for-dollar match on any issue that arises,” he said.
The Democratic candidates are now out-raising the Republicans by significant margins, in no small part because many of them attribute Mr. Kerry’s defeat to his failure to respond in kind to the less-than-truthful attacks on his military record by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
“They spent a lot of money telling a lie,” Mr. Kerry said.
Is that it, as far as the lessons go?
“It’s not just responding right away; it’s a broader thing than just responding,” said Mr. Kerry, as he accepted a cup of coffee and a plate with two brownies and a chocolate-chip cookie from a publicist. “It’s commanding the definition.”
“Everything,” he said. “Who you are, what you say and what it’s about. And they are all part and parcel of the same thing.”
In terms of actual substance, Mr. Kerry doesn’t see much difference between his 2004 candidacy and those of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and the rest.
“I am very, very proud of what we did on issues,” he said. “Every issue I talked about, if you go look at what they are talking about today, there isn’t one thing that they are saying that is fundamentally different.”
Leaning back in a black swivel chair in the art director’s corner office, Mr. Kerry boasted about his health-care plan, which “Time magazine judged to be the best new idea of the campaign”—he was referring to a 2003 article by Michael Kinsley saying that the plan “may be the first significant new idea of this political season”—and about his own foretelling of the chaos in Iraq, which was “exactly as it has now come to be seen.”
He did indeed get ahead of the Democratic curve on Iraq—eventually.
Although his revelation came far too late to save his 2004 campaign, Mr. Kerry did arrive at a position in 2006 that was far ahead of much of his party in first setting a deadline for bringing the troops home. He then co-authored a proposal that mandated the withdrawal of American combat troops by July 2007. Only 12 other members of the Senate Democratic caucus voted for his legislation at the time, though combat-troop withdrawal has now become the party’s default position on Iraq.
Mr. Kerry—whose campaign suffered after his straight-faced pronouncement that he had voted for a measure to provide money to the troops in Iraq before he voted against it—said he had no advice to offer his Democratic colleagues this year about the danger of a convoluted message. “Our plan was a real plan,” he said. “It wasn’t complicated.”
He explained further. “You’ve got to have a clarity, and all three are critical components of the clarity: the persona, the issues, the message and the way it is played. I now know how to do that with much greater effect than then, and have a much greater sense of it.”
Mr. Kerry said that he plans to go after his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain on the floor of the Senate next week.
“I’m going to show how, when McCain says there is no option B—that all there is an option A, and that’s escalating—that he is absolutely dead wrong,” Mr. Kerry said, lowering his voice. “There is an option B.” Mr. Kerry rejected the notion suggested by Mr. McCain, that option B—which calls for the imminent withdrawal of American combat forces and a regional political conference—is tantamount to admitting defeat.
“That’s not where I would go—‘Have we lost the war, won the war?’—because the resolution of this is going to be in the diplomacy,” he said. “The war is not what this is about. This is about the civil struggle in Iraq.”
On the issue of Iran’s nuclear program—which the major Democratic Presidential contenders, like their Republican counterparts, have suggested might be dealt with through the use of force—Mr. Kerry suggested that his party’s approach was distinct in a procedural way.
“The difference is significantly in all the in-between—how you get from here to there,” said Mr. Kerry. “What the Republicans have is a rhetorical policy, which in fact widens the divide. What we have is two end posts, if you will, to a policy, with a lot of in between from how you get from here to there.”
When asked whether there were any issues at all that the Democrats should emphasize in 2008 that he didn’t stress enough in 2004, Mr. Kerry said, in essence, no.
“I talked about them everywhere I went,” he said of the key issues of 2008. “There is not one speech I gave, not one sub-speech I gave—not my acceptance speech at the convention, nothing—where I didn’t talk about the basics of the war in Iraq, America’s foreign policy, re-establishing our credibility in the world, energy independence, global climate change, alternative renewable fuels.”
It wasn’t the issues, Mr. Kerry re-emphasized.
“I learned after the campaign that, in the last week of the campaign, the lying advertisers in Ohio spent $4 million, and we spent 50,000 or something,” he said. “That was the imbalance. I think we laid out, everywhere we went, a vision for America’s role in the world. One of the reasons I feel that is that when I travel abroad, I get an extraordinary welcome from these countries, because they understood.”
He looked up at his daughter Alexandra, who appeared leaning against the office’s door frame wearing dark pants tucked into her black boots and her brown hair pulled back.
“These candidates are going to have to pick their own road,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell them what to do.”
Vincent Morris, Mr. Kerry’s communications director, said that the interview was over. Mr. Kerry rose to greet his daughter. Josh Marshall and a couple of editors from Talking Points Memo waited in yet another nearby room to accompany him to the studio of Comedy Central, where he was to be a guest on The Colbert Report.
But there was one more question.
In an interview a day earl
ier with a Denver NBC affiliate that had been picked up by the Drudge Report, Mr. Kerry appeared to reopen the door to a Presidential bid in 2008—a possibility he had foreclosed this year in an emotional speech on the Senate floor.
On his way out the door, Mr. Kerry answered.
“Someday, I may wind up making the choice to run again,” he said.
In time for the 2008 election?
“No,” said Mr. Kerry. “I am not talking about this election.”
Then which one?
“Who knows? I am just speaking philosophically,” he said. “If I said no to whatever possibility, I don’t know what those possibilities will be.”
A few minutes later, Mr. Kerry stepped out of the PublicAffairs offices and into the hallway. He was holding a key to the floor’s restroom. He inserted it into the door handles of several offices before Mr. Morris pointed him towards the men’s room by the elevators. Mr. Kerry waved goodbye and went in.
Then Mr. Morris explained what his boss had really meant.
“He said, ‘Right now, I am not running for re-election,’” he explained. “You can never say never.”