Kerry ’66: ‘He was going to be president’

When Clark Abbott ’66 first met classmate John F. Kerry in September 1962, Kerry told his neighbor in Bingham Hall exactly what he was going to do in life.

“He told me he was going to be president,” Abbott said.

More than 40 years later, Kerry’s aspirations have not changed. Now a Massachusetts senator, Kerry is considered by many in Washington to be the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination next year. And while his career has not followed a straight path from Jonathan Edwards College to stump speeches in New Hampshire and Iowa, the 2004 campaign is, in many ways, the culmination of four decades of preparation.

As a three-sport athlete, president of the Yale Political Union, and a member of Skull and Bones, Kerry’s undergraduate experience was seen by many of his classmates as a grooming for public office. Even his roommate of four years, Daniel Barbiero ’66, joked with Kerry about his political hopes.

“I think I once told him if he was president, I wanted to be his secretary of state,” Barbiero said.

‘A senatorial accent’

Like Kerry, Michael Avery ’66 was one of the top members of the Yale debate team. But while Avery was a polished orator, he did not even bother to attend tryouts for the privilege of serving as Class Day speaker.

“To be honest, I fancied myself a good public speaker,” Avery said. “But I didn’t even go — I knew Kerry was going to go, and there wasn’t much point in going against him.”

Kerry’s selection as class orator surprised no one, since he had spent much of his Yale career speaking to classmates in his distinctive Massachusetts accent.

“I think it was a cultured accent, and it’s frankly a senatorial accent,” Abbott said. “It just sounded awfully funny to hear this accent out of an 18-year-old kid.”

Under the guidance of renowned speaking coach and history professor Rollin Osterweis, Kerry won dozens of competitions against college students from across the nation and even across the Atlantic. In February 1966, Kerry and his partner, William Stanberry, Jr., won a match against a previously undefeated traveling team from Britain. As the closing speaker, Kerry defended the importance of the United Nations, arguing that it had “supplied a meetingplace for harmonizing differences.”

And although Kerry was chairman of the Political Union’s smallest party — the Liberals — he gained enough support across the political spectrum to win the presidency late in his sophomore year. Presiding over the Political Union during the heated presidential elections of 1964, Kerry even earned the admiration of students on the other side of the aisle, said former Party of the Right chairman John McGonagle Jr. ’66.

“John was a person who took the process of politics very seriously and he gave it a great deal of respect,” McGonagle said.

But Kerry’s YPU presidency was not universally supported. During his tenure, a group of younger students split off from the Liberal Party to create a new Party of the Left. Members of the new party said Kerry’s vote against a measure supporting a progressive income tax helped instigate their secession.

Kerry said in an e-mail that the Political Union provided a way to get involved with the prominent issues of the day, like the civil rights movement and President Kennedy’s “New Frontier” program. But Kerry, who successfully underwent surgery for prostate cancer Wednesday, said he did not view his political activities in college as a springboard for his future plans.

“I was also caught up in the times and inspired by a lot of things happening which really made me want to get involved in public service, but I never thought of myself as on some kind of career track,” he said. “The Political Union was a great way to debate issues and play some small role in what was happening in the country and what Ivy League universities tend to be insulated from, particularly at that time.”

A reputation for seriousness

Kerry was, in many ways, a member of the old guard that had dominated Yale until the 1960s. His father graduated from Yale in 1937, and Kerry was one of 18 students to enter Yale from his graduating class at the prestigious St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H.

Kerry had traveled extensively as a child, and he was already fluent in French when he entered Yale. He played soccer, hockey, and lacrosse — sports most commonly played in New England prep schools at the time. While his family was not particularly wealthy, his father was a foreign service officer and his mother was a member of the prominent Forbes family.

“He was kind of preppy,” said John King ’66, a classmate of Kerry’s in Jonathan Edwards. “There was a little of that aristocratic sense that you still get with him.”

Many of Kerry’s friends at Yale, whether on the soccer team, in the Political Union, or in Fence Club, had attended prep schools. But Barbiero, who was a friend of Kerry’s at St. Paul’s, said Kerry “came more into his own” in college.

“In prep school, he had a pretty small group of friends — guys who were interested in philosophy and political science,” Barbiero said. “In college, he got to know everybody.”

Yet in Kerry’s day, as Yale President Kingman Brewster began liberalizing the Yale admissions process, a divide remained between prep school graduates and students who attended public schools. To some students who had not attended New England boarding schools, Kerry seemed like the “ultimate preppy,” Abbott said.

“At that time, I think he had a bit of a reputation for standoffishness, which I think was a bit well-deserved,” said Robin Landis ’66, who played with Kerry on the soccer team.

But Kerry’s friends say his reputation for aloofness — which led the New Republic to run a cover story last year asking, “Can John Kerry Make People Like Him?” — is inaccurate.

“I think John as an undergraduate at Yale had some of the same rap that he gets today, that he’s overly serious, that he takes himself too seriously,” said Frederick Smith ’66, a fellow member of Skull and Bones who later founded the FedEx Corporation. “I think that’s really a misnomer, because he’s actually a lot of fun.”

Kerry certainly was serious at Yale. Because he often woke up at 5 a.m., his suitemates gave him a single, Barbiero said. Between his sports teams, his political activities, and his classes, Kerry did not have much time to spare.

“John was just a guy who was very impatient,” Barbiero said. “He didn’t like lines — he had so much energy, he had no patience to queue up.”

Nearly everyone who knew Kerry expected him to enter public office, and he pursued his interests relentlessly. While he never shied away from attention, other members of the debate team and the Political Union said Kerry also worked hard behind the scenes.

“John was much more serious about the things he was interested in than most people,” Barbiero said. “He was really dedicated to the things he wanted to do.”

On the field and on the road

Kerry was perhaps best known on campus for his political activities, but when asked about his time at Yale, he emphasized his less serious interests.

“Playing hockey, soccer, taking flying lessons out at Tweed my senior year — those seemed to be my areas of focus too often,” Kerry said.

Although Kerry played three sports at Yale, he earned his only letter playing soccer his senior year. While he was not a star on the soccer team, he was a talented athlete, and he scored three goals against Harvard in his final game.

As one of the fastest players on the team, Kerry’s gawky running style occasionally earned him the nickname “The Camel” from his teammates, said David Thorne ’66, one of Kerry’s teammates and a fellow Bonesman.

But in contrast to Kerry’s other activities, he played more of a supporting role on the field, his teammate Landis said.

“He was not really a leader on the team,” Landis said. “Unless you were a really good player, it’s hard to be a leader on the team.”

Kerry said his time on the playing field was among the most valuable he spent at Yale.

“I loved playing hockey, soccer, and lacrosse, and I still play hockey,” Kerry said. “I have such great memories of it, and it taught me some terrific lessons: a team ethic, a sense of competitiveness and drive that is a part of who I am and everything I do.”

Off the field, Kerry tended to socialize with a small group of friends. While he was a member of the Fence Club fraternity, Kerry — who was not a heavy drinker — seldom attended the club’s weekend parties, Thorne said. Instead, Kerry and his friends would frequently go on road trips.

Kerry was an avid skier and sailor in college, and his roommate Harvey Bundy said he spent much of his free time seeking adventure. After their freshman year, Kerry and Bundy set off for Europe without a definite plan.

In London, Kerry delivered an impromptu speech from the famed Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. And in the Alps, he insisted on climbing a mountain at 5 a.m. — and then ran down the peak, Bundy said.

“He was not a frat boy, and he was not someone who was that sociable, necessarily,” Thorne said. “He was adventurous and liked doing interesting things, like flying and skiing and riding a motorcycle, but he didn’t like the social scene that much.”

Kerry also loved his parakeet, Dodi, whom he had taught to greet visitors in English, French and Italian. So when Dodi flew out Kerry’s window and into a tree early one Sunday morning, Kerry was prepared for another adventure, his roommates said.

Kerry found a ladder and climbed into the tree in pursuit of the bird. But while Kerry was in the tree, Yale police officers traveling down York Street became suspicious, Barbiero said.

“It took a good 10, 15 minutes for the police to look and see that there was actually a parakeet,” Barbiero said.

A sense of duty

In March 1965, as the war in Vietnam continued to escalate, Kerry won the Ten Eyck prize as the best orator in the junior class for a speech that criticized U.S foreign policy as arrogant and unrealistic.

“It is the specter of Western imperialism that causes more fear among Africans and Asians than communism, and thus it is self-defeating,” Kerry said in his speech. “We have grossly overextended ourselves in areas where we have no vital primary interest.”

The next year, Kerry discarded his original Class Day oration — which had already been published in the Yale Banner — for a new address echoing many of the sentiments of his prize-winning speech. In a speech that was unusually political for a Class Oration, he criticized the United States for intervening in Asian affairs and isolating itself from the world community.

“I think he was ahead of his time,” Smith said about Kerry’s attitude towards Vietnam. “I think he felt that the war was much more controversial at an earlier stage than anybody else.”

But even before delivering his oration, Kerry had enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Despite his public misgivings about Vietnam, Kerry was preparing to enter the military soon after commencement.

While Kerry criticized the war and its goals, he was committed in his decision to serve. In contrast to Yale students two or three years later who more frequently tried to avoid the service at all costs, many members of the Class of ’66 volunteered, Smith said.

“I was very proud of my decision to go into the Navy and I still am,” Kerry said. “But keep in mind, when I joined the Navy, the first draft card hadn’t been burned. Vietnam was nebulous. It wasn’t yet the war it would become.”

By volunteering, students could avoid the draft and enter the officer corps. But for the Class of ’66, graduate school deferments were still available. If Kerry had not wanted to serve, he could have entered law school immediately after graduation.

Yet for a class that grew up in the wake of World War II and the Korean War, military service seemed a patriotic duty that few of Kerry’s classmates questioned despite growing ambivalence concerning the war itself, said his classmate Peter Day ’66.

“There was a much larger sense of obligation, that it was your turn just as the generations before had done it,” Day said.

So when William Bundy — assistant secretary of state and uncle of Harvey Bundy — visited Kerry and his suitemates and said the country needed them to enlist in the officer corps, Kerry listened.

“I think that — it would have been almost five times harder for him not to have gone than to go,” Smith said. “The predilection of our class was much more old-school.”

Although Kerry could have avoided more dangerous combat as a naval officer, he volunteered to captain river boats in Vietnam. He was wounded three times in only four months and awarded the Silver Star for significant acts of courage.

But it was Kerry’s actions after he returned home that eventually thrust him into the national limelight. By 1971, Kerry was the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He spoke at protest rallies and led a group of veterans in throwing their medals at the Capitol steps.

Thorne, who also served in the Navy and remained close friends with Kerry after the war, said Kerry’s military experience profoundly affected him.

“Anyone confronted by the actuality of combat is deeply changed forever,” Thorne said. “It’s terrifying — people are hurt badly and killed. It makes you grow up, and most of us began to deeply question what we were doing.”

At the age of only 27, Kerry was already a national celebrity. He was featured in Time magazine, and he denounced the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After two unsuccessful runs for the House of Representatives, Kerry attended Boston College Law School. In 1982, he won his first statewide election; two years later, Kerry was a U.S. senator.

Facing the Kennedy legacy

It is by historical accident that John Forbes Kerry shares his initials with the most influential politician of his youth. But since before Kerry entered Yale, he has shared more than a monogram with President John F. Kennedy.

Like Kennedy, Kerry is a handsome Massachusetts Democrat with an Ivy League pedigree. Like Kennedy, Kerry is a decorated veteran who gained national recognition shortly after returning home from military service.

“He came of age in a time when many of us were inspired by the visionary aspects of the Kennedy administration,” said Duncan Campbell ’66, one of Kerry’s fellow debaters. “He was in a way very much influenced by the Kennedy government and the Kennedy era.”

Kerry also spoke with an accent and certain rhetorical flourishes that evoked Kennedy’s oratorical style, Campbell said. Whether intentionally or not, both Kerry’s manner of speaking and his political views invited comparisons to President Kennedy.

He had met Kennedy personally, and he had sailed with the president at a Kennedy family retreat in Newport, R.I., Thorne said. Kerry first met Thorne at the retreat, where both were interested in the same woman — Janet Auschincloss, Jacqueline Kennedy’s half-sister.

Kerry and Auschincloss dated while he attended Yale, and his personal interactions with Kennedy led him to view the president as “larger than life,” Bundy said.

But in the fall of Kerry’s sophomore year, Kennedy was assassinated. Kerry and Thorne were playing in a soccer game against Princeton when they heard the news. Kerry went straight from the game to church, Thorne said.

Bundy, who first met Kerry at a Kennedy rally on the New Haven Green during their freshman year, said Nov. 22, 1963, was one of the most difficult days of the young Kerry’s life.

“I remember John lying on the floor of the room focusing on this little black-and-white TV,” Bundy said. “He didn’t take his eyes off of it.”

Forty years later, Kerry still invites comparisons to Kennedy — not merely because of his mannerisms and personal biography, but also because Kennedy was the last New Englander to win a presidential election. And of course, the senior senator from Massachusetts is Ted Kennedy, one of Kerry’s most ardent supporters for the Democratic nomination.

On the campaign trail, Kerry frequently invokes President Kennedy’s name and accomplishments, and he said politicians need to return to the idealism that made Kennedy a compelling leader.

“We must be ready to refuse the course of least resistance — confront the seemingly popular — and offer a vision that looks beyond the next poll to the next decade and the next generation,” Kerry said. “That means not just quoting the words of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, but matching their leadership with our own, with daring and commitment, with new thinking equal to a new and different time.”

Left, U.S. Sen. John Kerry ’66 speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 11. At right, the Democratic presidential hopeful as an undergraduate at Yale.
afp, stephenbillard
Left, U.S. Sen. John Kerry ’66 speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 11. At right, the Democratic presidential hopeful as an undergraduate at Yale.

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