The Softer Side of John Kerry

Jim Rassmann stood in a California bookstore in January with tears in his eyes, clutching a copy of Tour of Duty, Douglas Brinkley’s biography of John Kerry.

The story of how Kerry saved Rassmann’s life in Vietnam 35 years ago was all in there in the book—how, on March 13, 1969, Rassmann was blown into the Bay Hap River by a mine detonated under a nearby boat, and how Kerry, a patrol-boat commander, wounded by the same explosion, turned back for Rassmann and pulled him aboard.

That day in the bookstore, Rassmann, a former Army Green Beret and a registered Republican, decided to pledge his support for the Democratic presidential contender. His call reached the Kerry campaign on Jan. 16, three days before the Iowa caucuses.

At the time, Kerry had been airing several emotional ads in Iowa that it believed were connecting with voters. One featured Del Sandusky, the pilot who steered Kerry’s boat back to rescue Rassmann. (In the spot, Sandusky says, “The decisions that he made saved our lives. He had unfailing instinct and unchallengeable leadership.”) On Saturday, Jan. 17, Kerry shook Rassmann’s hand for the first time in more than 30 years before a crowd of Iowa voters. Both men were in tears.

“It was just an amazing thing, and it reinforced the advertising,” says Jim Margolis, a senior partner at political consulting firm GMMB in Washington, D.C., and a top Kerry media strategist. “The combination of the Del Sandusky advertising on the air and the Rassmann story was very powerful to Iowa voters.”

The human dimension that Rassmann gave to Kerry’s war record came unexpectedly. But it fit well into a strategy that Kerry’s image handlers were already implementing: of adding a measure of likability to Kerry’s electability—of giving him a softer side. In ads and in person, the Massachusetts senator is working to present himself as an everyday guy. Still, it is a balancing act: He must be seen as both personable and strong, down to earth and presidential. In essence, he must become a man of the people, while remaining a man of dignity and stature.

Early on in the campaign, convincing the public of Kerry’s tough side was a challenge all its own. In November, with his campaign flagging and his speeches often falling flat, Kerry fired his campaign manager and named Mary Beth Cahill, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s former chief of staff, to the position. She chose to focus strongly on Iowa.

At the same time, Mike Donilon, a partner at Washington political consultancy Shrum, Devine & Donilon, who has worked on a number of Kerry’s ads, believed the campaign should stress Kerry’s qualifications with a spot focusing on what he would do in his first 100 days as president.

For Donilon, it was a natural tack. “We don’t look at it as branding,” he says. “You look at what are the strengths that your candidate has, and what are the issues facing the country, and how can that person provide the leadership and meet the challenges. Most voters today believe Kerry is up to the job of being president, which is a very unusual thing for a challenger. When voters look at him, there is a sense that this is a guy who for 35 years has fought for his country and for people. That kind of strength in leadership is one of the cornerstones of his candidacy going forward.”

But in terms of image, there is a downside to Kerry’s personal history, too. He was born to a life of privilege and wealth. His mother was a descendent of John Winthrop, one of the original settlers of Boston. He attended boarding school as a teenager and graduated from Yale. All of which feeds the notion that he is a Boston Brahmin who is out of touch with working-class Americans.

To counter this, says Donna Brazile, who served as Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, the campaign must “paint this image of an average guy who can go bowling with his neighbors and is comfortable having lunch with construction workers.”

It is already happening. Kerry has surrounded himself with a “band of brothers,” as they are known inside the campaign. Sandusky travels with him practically every day the candidate is on the road. The latest addition to the group is former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and part of an arm in Vietnam.

Cleland appeared in a Kerry ad that broke in Georgia on Feb. 25. “John is a fighter,” Cleland says in the spot. “He’s experienced, he has character, he has courage. He stands head and shoulders above anybody else running for president.”

Voters can expect the campaign to feature more Vietnam veterans to show that Kerry is comfortable with everyday people, Brazile says. “That will blunt the portrait that he is richer than God and doesn’t share the values of people who work every day,” she says.

In addition to developing this group dynamic, Kerry’s strategists are helping to give him a personal makeover. When he is not smiling, Kerry’s long face can make him seem daunting and aloof. At 6 feet 4, he is also physically imposing. To soften this, Kerry has begun to dress down for some events—wearing casual boots and throwing a barn coat over his suits when talking to workers in the heartland, for example. He is also weaving some folksy language into his speeches. In ads, he is shown in casual environments, talking to people about issues they are struggling with.

Two commercials that helped Kerry win Iowa and New Hampshire, for example, show a woman struggling with breast cancer and Kerry talking about his own battle with prostate cancer. “I’m cured now, but I was lucky,” he says in the ad. “As a United States senator, I could get the best healthcare in the world. Most people aren’t so lucky, and we need to change that.”

Again, such ads aim to present both sides of Kerry. They show him as a caring human being—but also as a knowledgable and dedicated public servant. “He has ideas for what you do about healthcare, job loss, taxes,” says Margolis. “One of the key attributes Kerry has is you can imagine him as president of the United States. You can imagine him going toe-to-toe with George Bush in a debate. In the advertising, we simply tried to show the personal strengths John Kerry has and let those strengths speak for themselves.”

Going foward, ad experts say, Kerry would do well to keep hammering away at his war experience and make himself appear as presidential as possible as he continues to develop his softer side. “I would play up the war stuff,” says Bill Hillsman, founder and chief creative officer of Northwoods Advertising in Minneapolis, who worked on Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000. “The more that Kerry can be seen as an excellent commander in chief, the more they take that away from Bush. If you can checkmate Bush on that, you have moved a long way toward victory, because that is the best argument the Republicans have.”

“The more general issue of serving active combat duty versus [Bush] being in the National Guard is not gone at all,” adds Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University. “Having a position in the National Guard is like having an office job—it’s the soft way out of war.”

The Republicans have avoided addressing Kerry’s war record or the anti-war position he took after Vietnam. Instead, they have gone after what they call Kerry’s “terrible voting record” on defense and intelligence funding. “Sen. Kerry has repeatedly voted to make America weaker in the face of threats from abroad and weaken intelligence,” says Scott Stanzel, Bush’s press secretary. “President Bush has provided steady leadership in these times of historic change.” (“Steady leadership in times of change,” in fact, is the tagline of first Bush TV advertising of the campaign, launched last week.)

John Hurley, national director of Veterans for Kerry, says Kerry will continue to surround himself with veterans for the duration of the campaign. “In Iowa, we ran a phone-bank operation where we had 20-25 guys on the phones talking to other veterans,” Hurley said when reached on his cell phone as he was traveling on the Kerry veterans’ bus in Georgia the day before Super Tuesday. “A supporter calling a supporter is like a telemarketing call. But a veteran calling a veteran is like a friend-to-friend call because of the bond that exists. There is a sense that this is our time, this is our guy.”

Come November, Kerry’s media strategists hope their makeover helps a majority of Americans to feel the same.