The Choice 2004
Sound: American Public Media
Music: FRONTLINE theme
Deborah Amos: From American RadioWorks, this is a FRONTLINE special: The Choice 2004. I'm Deborah Amos.
Two candidates for president, offering two directions for America. Both Yale graduates from privileged New England families.
Clay Johnson: George had several nicknames. One of 'em was "The Lip" and he had the smirk.
Harvey Bundy: John's a fairly private person.
Daniel Barbiero: He was and is to this day a striver.
In part one of our two-hour report, George W. Bush and John Kerry as young men. Taking distinctive paths as they form their values and politics.
John Marttila: John was deeply committed to ending the war.
Jim Sale: George prayed that prayer. He said, "I want my name written in the Lamb's Book of Life."
In the coming hour, The Choice 2004, a FRONTLINE special from American RadioWorks. First, this news update.
Amos: This is The Choice 2004, a FRONTLINE special from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos. During this year's presidential campaign, the two major candidates have spent much of their time defending choices they made three decades ago during the Vietnam War. Despite similarities in their backgrounds, George W. Bush and John Kerry took starkly different paths through that turbulent time, and as they launched their political careers. In the first hour of a special report on the two major presidential candidates, a look at George W. Bush and John Kerry as young men. The producer for FRONTLINE is Martin Smith. The reporter for FRONTLINE is Nicholas Lemann. i>FRONTLINE's Will Lyman is the narrator.
Will Lyman: When John Kerry and George Bush attended Yale in the mid-'60s, educating young men was only one of the university's goals.
Beyond education, Yale saw its mission as cultivating values: idealism, self-sacrifice, and public service.
This was a school that prided itself on turning out leaders.
John Kerry, the son of a foreign service officer, came here in 1962. He was already earnest and intellectual.
Professor: Well, what would worry me would be to see any of you committed to something out of the gut.
The young John Kerry was filmed in a classroom discussion.
John Kerry: Well, I just wanted to say about this idea of commitment, which seems to be bantered around here, that, uh, commitment, you know, simply by the implication of the word commitment, is not something which someone can hand out. You know, just by the meaning of it, it's something that comes from within the individual when he is ready.
At Yale, John Kerry became head of the political union and was active in the debating club. He was a good student. At the same time, he was a mystery to his closest friends. All they knew was that he was driven. Harvey Bundy and Daniel Barbiero were Kerry's roommates.
Harvey Bundy: It's hard to explain John other than someone who really had a vision for himself, and didn't wanna slow down at all in life. Who knew all the things John was doing? He didn't tell you all the things he was doing. John's a fairly private person. But, you know, he was extraordinarily involved. ... It's like he felt it was his job to be a leader.
Daniel Barbiero: He was, and is to this day, a striver. He's a man who has just worked so hard at everything and puts so much energy into everything that, uh, it can easily be misunderstood, I think, by people who don't know him.
John Forbes Kerry was teased about his ambition and his admiration for the other JFK, who he'd once met - the summer before Yale.
George Bush came here two years after Kerry. He reacted very differently to Yale.
Professor 2: Now this morning, I want to discuss some of the social and philosophical implications of evolution.
For a boy who had been raised in West Texas, Yale was too self-righteous, too intellectually superior. "They thought they knew all the answers," Bush would say later.
Professor 2: Frankly I think this is the purpose of a college education: ... At Yale, every year to turn out 1,000 self-critical, questioning young men.
George was from a Yale family. His father had been a very big man on campus - a leader and an athlete. George, the prep school cheerleader, became a prankster, a "C" student. Once arrested for a misdemeanor, he was a wise guy. Clay Johnson is a longtime friend.
Clay Johnson: George had several nicknames. One of 'em was "The Lip," and he had the smirk. ... Some people have a twinkle in the eye; some people have a tilt to the head. George has a little lip defect, a little smirk, and, uh, it's always been there, and it's always been an endearing part of his personality - until he decided to run for president.
Though his grandfather was a former senator and his father a congressman, George steered clear of the high stakes student politics of the 60s.
Instead, George became president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Deke, the hardest partying, rowdiest frat house on campus.
Roland Betts: I think being elected the head of the fraternity was important to him.
Fellow Deke, Roland Betts.
Betts: George is a person who, when he decides to apply himself, he excels. I don't think he applied himself academically at Yale. I think he applied himself to friendships and, you know, just meeting and knowing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people - many more than anybody else in our class knew. That's what he cared about.
Outside of the ivy walls of Yale was another reality: the draft.
All young men over 18 faced it. College only bought a 4-year deferment.
In 1966, the year Kerry graduated from Yale, 382,000 men were drafted.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: We intend to convince the communists that we cannot be defeated by force of arms. This will make it necessary to increase our active fighting forces by raising the monthly draft call from 17,000 to 35,000 per month.
Kerry had expressed some opposition to the war in a class speech at graduation, but he was not ready quite ready to resist the draft, recalls his friend, Daniel Barbiero.
Daniel Barbiero: We grew up believing ... our obligation was to serve our country when called on. I mean, that really was a lot of it. It sounds really corny, but that's what we believed.
The call for Kerry was personal. A few months before graduation, an architect of U.S. policy in Vietnam came to Yale to speak. William Bundy. He was the uncle of John's roommate, Harvey Bundy.
Harvey Bundy: So, you know, Bill comes to campus. And basically his message that he left with us was: We need you.
Barbiero: And after his speech, he came to our room to visit the three of us.
We asked him about Vietnam. You know, "What's the scoop here?" You know, "What - what - what do we - what's really going on?"
Bundy: We were thinking, "We don't wanna get shot." But we weren't thinking of, you know, "We gotta get outta this come hell or high water."
Barbiero: And he told us that that this was a very important part of American policy, that it was critical that we secure this part of the world.
Bundy: To have the Undersecretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs come to you and tell you, "Hey. Guys, I need you." That's gonna have an influence.
Barbiero: The other thing was, is that we had this rather juvenile attitude that the only way we're gonna find out what was going in Vietnam was to go there.
In 1966, 385,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam. 4,000 had already died there.
John Kerry enlisted in the Navy with another Yale buddy David Thorne. John had just become engaged to David's twin sister, Julia.
After eight months of officer training, Lieutenant Kerry was assigned to a guided missile frigate safely patrolling the coast of Southern California, the USS Gridley.
His first two-year tour passed uneventfully until, with only a week to go, the Gridley was ordered to Southeast Asia.
It was then that John received a telegram. One of his closest friends from Yale, Dick Pershing, had just been killed in combat.
Kerry wrote home from the Gridley.
Dear Mama and Papa,
What can I say? ... What a God-damn total waste. ... I was on the bridge. ... When I read the telegram it took moments to sink in. Then I just walked off the bridge and cried - a pathetic and very empty kind of crying that turned to anger and bitterness.
By 1968, the war had escalated. At year's end a total of 17,000 Americans had died.
But a few days before hearing of Pershing's death, Kerry had requested to serve his second tour in Vietnam.
When the Gridley put into port in DaNang, he wrote to his friend David Thorne.
David Thorne: There is no doubt now that I want to come back here for my next tour. It's the only way to feel close to what is going on and gain so much from what you see and hear. The whole atmosphere just pulsates with war in a fashion that papers and articles and movies on TV just don't capture.
Back at Yale, George Bush was preparing for graduation. So were his friends Roland Betts and Clay Johnson.
Roland Betts: By the time 1968 rolled around, everybody in the class of '68 was trying to figure out a) how they felt about Vietnam, and b) what they were going to do about it. ... Is this something you wanted to be a part of. Do you think - Did you feel that you had to be a part of this? And, you know, I think, for a lot of us, the decision was, "No."
Clay Johnson: There wasn't a lot of discussion in our group about the morality of the war: Was it the right thing or not?
Clay Johnson: It was a very practical matter for us. ... The goal was to have as much say on how you spent those post-Yale years as possible. Because if you didn't have a plan, somebody else was going to have one for you.
Just before graduation, George Bush applied to the Texas Air National Guard. A former Texas lieutenant governor, Democrat Ben Barnes, says he was asked by a now-deceased Bush family friend to help smooth the way.
Ben Barnes: I made a call because a friend asked me to, uh - for - to allow young George Bush to be considered for the National Guard. ... His father was a congressman. And that - that ... would be the reason, probably, that I made the call. But you know, you gotta look upon this and turn back the clock to 1967, '68, and '69. There was a war going on. There were many, many requests to get into the Reserves and National Guard at that time.
Nicholas Lemann: But it was clearly understood that by making the request, you were asking to spare someone having to go to Vietnam and fight there.
Barnes: Well, I think that's an interpretation that can be made.
George would be enrolled in the Guard for the next six years.
After a year and a half of full-time training, Bush was a certified fighter pilot. He was then obligated to show up one weekend a month at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. According to his friend Doug Hannah, George enjoyed himself.
Doug Hannah: I think he was on a high, at that point. He was a pilot. He was flying, ... and clearly enjoyed the aura of walking around in a flight suit and being a flyboy. ... He was pretty proud of himself.
Hannah says off duty, George W. often invited guardsmen to party with him.
Hannah: If you came to Houston and spent time with George, you were going to have a good time, and you were going to have it at a pretty high scale. And George had that to offer.
In November of 1968, Lieutenant John Kerry reported to Cam Ram Bay, Vietnam to take command of Swift Boat number 44 - and shipmates like Drew Whitlow.
Drew Whitlow: Well, here's this - as we called it in '68, "He's a long, tall preppy coming from New England. And what's this guy gonna teach me that I don't know since I'm a ridge runner from the hills in Arkansas?" You know, he kind of looked at us and, uh, I would say he humbled himself when he asked, uh, you know, says, "I don't - You all don't need me, but I need you. ... What can we do to make a team work?" You know, that - that triggers it in your mind that - "Hey, we can get along with this man."
Initially, Kerry and his crewmates patrolled the coast.
But after two weeks, Kerry and his crew went from having one of the safest assignments in Vietnam to one of the most dangerous.
Del Sandusky and David Alston.
Del Sandusky The concept had changed completely because our boats were up rivers, up canals, where we were at on the west side of the Mekong Delta.
David Alston: You were always at the ready. We was always in our combat positions, you know, uh, so it was always tense. And that's the way it was with me. Once the shootin' start, hey! Okay. Now we do business.
John Kerry spent four months on the rivers of Vietnam, commanding two separate boats. Aboard his second command, Swift Boat 94, Kerry's crewmates remember one day above all.
Del Sandusky: Charlie was shooting at us from the jungle. John Kerry gave me the order, "Beach the boat."
Crew member Del Sandusky says they could see that one Vietcong had a B-40 grenade launcher.
Sandusky: We knew we had to go and get this guy. ... Lieutenant Kerry chased him down - uh, ran around a hutch to find this guy. And shot him. And retrieved the B-40. It was almost unprecedented for John Kerry to beach the boat and jump and go on ashore, ... but it saved our lives. You know, that was what counted.
The U.S. Navy awarded Kerry a silver star for his bravery that day.
But Kerry's diary at the time reveals growing disillusionment over "the ease" of killing, of futile missions, of absurdity. "Vietnam," he wrote, "just didn't have any meaning."
Amos: Coming up, John Kerry becomes a leading spokesman against the war in Vietnam.
John Kerry: What we have to decide is that we're going to keep coming back until this war ends.
While George W. Bush serves in the Air National Guard and works on his first political campaigns.
You're listening to The Choice 2004, a FRONTLINE special from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos. Hour one of our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Amos: This is The Choice 2004, a FRONTLINE report from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos. Having returned from Vietnam, John Kerry would carry his opposition to the war into his first political campaign. George W. Bush would take a longer route to his own political career. Our look at the two major presidential candidates continues with FRONTLINE narrator Will Lyman.
Lyman: In March of 1969, Kerry earned a bronze star for rescuing a fellow soldier under fire. Wounded for a third time, he was now eligible for non-combat duty. He would serve the remainder of his tour as an admiral's aide in New York.
The young Guard pilot George Bush would never see combat. But he was a hawk on the war. He told friends like Doug Hannah that the right approach in Vietnam was the one advocated by Barry Goldwater: Unleash America's full military might.
Doug Hannah: He and I were very strong Goldwater supporters, and we both had felt like if Goldwater had been elected in 1964, that the war would have been over in 1964. If it wasn't over, there wouldn't have been a Vietnam there for sure.
In 1970 George's father was running for the U.S. Senate. George W. was on board learning the family business.
Hannah: George was very active in the campaign. The beginnings of being his father's sounding board started in 1970. I could see that. When - when George had a thought, he could give it to his father. When his father had a thought, he'd bounce it off of George.
No one thought of him as a future candidate, but he was seeing what it took to get elected.
George H. W. Bush: It, it appears that we've lost this race and the only thing - uh, needless to say, I congratulate Lloyd Bentsen.
People remember that George W. had kept urging everyone to keep the faith. Until the end, he refused to accept his father would lose.
George H. W. Bush: I feel kinda like Custer, you know. There were too many Indians. Well, uh, there were too many Democrats in some of these counties I guess.
President Richard Nixon gave Bush senior a job, appointing him the next ambassador to the U.N.. George W. expressed relief that the Bush family was still in the political game.
George W. Bush: It's really great just to know that my family is so happy after kind-of a, a tough defeat in November. But now, you know, new life and new vigor has kinda sprung back into our veins.
In 1970, John Kerry was back in the U.S. but still in the Navy, and he was increasingly troubled by the war. News that one of his swift boat mates had been killed back in Vietnam was devastating. The war seemed a terrible mistake.
Returning to civilian life, he married his fiancee, Julia. He wanted to enter politics. He joined a small but vocal, anti-war group: Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Bobby Muller was an early member of the VVAW.
Bobby Muller: When veterans for the first time in American history, you know, came back from the war that they had fought in, took to the streets and openly condemned the very war that they had fought and had their buddies die and themselves wounded in. Well, it was stunning.
Soldier: And the next slide is a slide of myself. That's me holding a dead body, smiling. I'm, uh, extremely shameful of it.
In January of 1971, Kerry joined veterans in Detroit to talk about atrocities they had witnessed or committed while in service.
John Kerry: Is there something that you could - that you really kinda want to say in terms of, of the crimes and why they happened?
It was called the Winter Soldier Investigation.
Bobby Muller: People don't understand that the Winter Soldier hearings ... were held throughout the country. ... And it was very powerful, because in many cases it was the first time that guys would actually talk before an audience.
Soldier: Everybody in our platoon took two bodies, ... drove them through a village for show ... and ah, dumped them off at the edge of the village.
Bobby Muller: It was just an incredible, emotional release - sort of like a confessional.
Muller: You know, for these guys to just publicly admit to what had gone down in the war.
They continued to hold hearings and organize veterans in other cities. Muller says Kerry, who still looked like a preppie, became their spokesperson.
Muller: He was clean-shaven. ... Presentable. [giggle] And, uh, rational. [laughter] And I could say a lot of us were irrational, you know, and really, you know, caricatures of the counter-culture of the day. You know, ... think of Woodstock. ... John was very presentable, in all seriousness. You know, he spoke eloquently. He spoke in measured terms. And he was somebody that didn't turn off a lot of the people that we, at the end of the day, really needed to be talking to.
John Kerry: Veterans have the chance of saying, of telling the truth about this war - more than any other group in the country. Businessmen have protested. Students have protested. Mothers have protested. Everybody has. But the men who fought the war, who know what it's like, who know what we're fighting, who know what they've been made to do, haven't. And it's the first time in history that they're going to do that.
Demonstrators: Peace Now. Peace Now.
On April 18, 1971, 1,000 Vietnam veterans marched on Washington.
Demonstrators: Bring our brothers home. Bring 'em home. Bring our brothers home.
Senator William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked the Veterans' leader to come up to the Hill.
John Kerry: Several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation.
Kerry recounted some of the atrocities he had heard in Detroit.
John Kerry: Cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Gengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.
Kerry's descriptions of other soldiers' accounts of atrocities angered many veterans. He was calling for an immediate end to the war.
John Kerry: Because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? ... We are here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently: "Where are the leaders of our country?"
The next day, White House aide Bob Haldeman told President Nixon, Kerry was impressive. Nixon's office recorded the conversation.
President Richard M. Nixon: This fellow they put in the front row, real star, this Kerry ...
Bob Haldeman: Kerry? He is. He did a superb job on it at Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. He looks like a Kennedy and he, and he talks exactly like a Kennedy.
Nixon: Where did he serve?
Haldeman: He was a Navy lieutenant, on a gunboat. This guy got a Purple Heart with two clusters and the Navy Star. He's got a hell of a bundle of lettuce up there.
Vietnam Vet: My name is John Murrow and here's a bunch of bullshit.
While Haldeman and Nixon were discussing Kerry's Purple Hearts -
Vietnam Vet 2: More bullshit!
Kerry and 800 veterans stood before the Capitol and threw their war decorations away.
Vietnam Vet 3: And I got a Purple Heart here and I hope I get another one fighting these mother ... [laughter and cheers].
Kerry threw away his ribbons. He left his medals at home.
Country Joe McDonald: Come on all you big strong men. Uncle Sam needs our help again. He got us into a terrible jam.
By the week's end, 250,000 protesters marched, danced, and partied on the Mall.
McDonald: And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Demonstrators: Peace Now. Peace Now.
Speaker: And now, John Kerry.
John Kerry: What we have to decide is that we're going to keep coming back until this war ends.
John O'Neill: I don't agree with Mr. Kerry's testimony. 500,000 Vietnam veterans have joined the VFW and the American Legion. Certainly Mr. Kerry does not speak for them.
John O'Neill was another Navy swift boat captain who had served in the Mekong Delta.
O'Neill: I never saw one war crime committed by allied forces. ... To say that war crimes are commonly committed in Vietnam as a matter of public policy is a lie.
O'Neill headed a newly formed group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace.
O'Neill: The president does our talking for us, as with most Americans. Mr. Kerry certainly does not.
According to Nixon's aide Charles Colson, O'Neill's group had been created by the White House. O'Neill denies this. Nevertheless, Nixon's office recorded the president urging O'Neill to keep after Kerry.
Nixon: Give it to him, give it to him. And you can do it because you have a pleasant manner, and I think it is a great service to the country.
After the meeting, Colson wrote in a White House memo, "I think we have Kerry on the run. ... But let's not let up. Let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader."
Announcer: The Dick Cavett show.
Two weeks later O'Neill debated Kerry on national television.
[melody of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"]
O'Neill: You obviously are quite good on the polished rhetoric. But I did serve in the same place you did.
The conversation revolved around the issue of war crimes.
O'Neill: I never saw anything. And I'd like you to tell me about the war crimes you saw committed there, and also why you didn't do something about them.
John Kerry: Did you serve in a free-fire zone?
O'Neill: I certainly did serve in free-fire zones.
John Kerry: [Reading] Free-fire zone, in which we kill anything that moves - man, woman or child. This practice suspends the distinction between combatant and noncombatant and contravenes Geneva Convention Article 3.1.
O'Neill: Where is that from, John?
John Kerry: Geneva Conventions. You've heard of those, I presume.
[Crowd claps and laughs]
O'Neill: I suggest, uh, now I suggest ...
John Kerry: May I complete my statement for once this evening?
O'Neill: Sure. Go ahead.
John Kerry: Thank you.
[a few laughs from crowd]
John Kerry: Uh, yes, we did participate in war crimes in Coastal Division 11 because, as I said earlier, we took part in free-fire zones, harassment, interdiction fire, and search and destroy missions.
In the spring of 1972, George W. Bush left Houston and moved to Montgomery, Alabama. He was sent there to be political director for the Senate campaign of one of his father's friends.
He was obligated to continue his military service. He requested a transfer to the Alabama Air National Guard.
Pilots with the 187th were told to expect someone important.
Bob Mintz: I was in the hangar, up on the catwalk, one day ... and someone said to me, I don't remember who it was, but he said that there was someone coming to drill with us, maybe a lieutenant.
Guardsman Bob Mintz.
Bob Mintz: And I was excited, because we were kinda short on young officers, and looking forward to meeting someone from outta town. ... But come drill weekend, he wasn't there.
The base was small. There were only about 25 pilots. A newcomer should have been noticed.
Penalties for not showing up for Guard duty could be harsh.
Mintz: Back then, during the Vietnam War, anyone that didn't maintain their currency could be ordered into the Army. Active. And most absolutely positive, the next stop would be, uh, Saigon.
Fellow campaign worker Murphy Archibald also got the impression that Bush was not doing any flight duty.
Murphy Archibald: I didn't see anything there at the office that indicated that George was having any - had any Guard responsibilities while he was in Alabama. I didn't, you know, never saw 'im in uniform. Never heard him talk about it.
Archibald says that Bush didn't seem that interested in the campaign of Winton Red Blount either. Blount was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Archibald says Bush went out to bars at night and slept until noon.
Archibald: He, almost every day, would come in and laugh and talk about - that he'd had a really tough night the night before. I thought it was odd that someone would feel comfortable coming into a political campaign and talk about how drunk they'd gotten the night before.
Winton Blount III: He might rub some people wrong that don't like that kind of style, but that's who he is.
Red Blount's son, Winton Blount III, insists Bush pulled his weight.
Winton Blount III: Campaigns are erratic to start with. If you're a person that's in at 8:00 and leaves at 5:00, are you pulling your weight more than in at 12:00 and out at midnight? Ah, you know, he pulled his weight and he was, uh - Did he have a good time when he was here in Alabama? I hope so.
Blount lost the campaign, and by the time George moved back to Texas, he'd lost his flying status for failing to show up for a required physical.
1972 has been called Bush's lost year.
Then in the summer of 1973, George applied for and got an early discharge from the Guard and enrolled in Harvard Business School.
George's mother, Barbara Bush, says, "Harvard was a great turning point for him. I think he learned structure."
Some fellow students remember him as popular and irreverent. What he didn't have was a career.
Nicholas Lemann: In the world that he was from, you really needed to be a businessman to get respect. That was the honored position in life.
Reporter Nicholas Lemman has covered Bush for the New Yorker.
Lemann: You know, the Bush family ... had a long, long history as businessmen. And ... the ethos among the Republicans is: first you go out and make your fortune, then you enter public life. ... It's totally unsurprising that he would decide to sort of get himself set up to be an independent businessman ... because that's the place of honor.
In 1972, John Kerry, the young Democrat, was going directly into public life. A seat opened up in Lowell, the fifth district in Massachusetts.
John Marttila (in 1972): I think for, you know, for beginning a campaign we're doing very, very well in terms of events.
John Kerry's chief strategist was John Marttila
Marttila: The incumbent congressman resigned, so it was an open seat, and that was terrific. It was 1972. It was McGovern/Nixon. The war was still a very powerful presence in our country. John was deeply committed to ending the war. This was the year after his famous speech at the Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. So, I - the strategy was pretty simple. You know, the campaign was based upon ending the war.
John Kerry had one problem: He wasn't from Lowell. Dan Payne worked for the Kerry campaign.
Dan Payne: He ran in a district that was very blue collar, very kind of down and out - that had a word, a phrase, for people from the outside. They called them "Blow-ins."
John Kerry: John Kerry, running for U.S. Congress. How ya doing? This is my wife, Julia Kerry.
Payne: And here comes John Kerry with his national reputation and his fancy haircut.
John Kerry: I'm John Kerry. How are you? I'm running for U.S. Congressman.
Payne: This is not exactly a welcoming, melting pot kind of place.
John Kerry: No, not for senator, for Congress.
Woman: Nice to meet you, and good luck.
John Kerry: Thank you. I need it. How are you doing?
He ran on reviving the economy and, of course, against the war.
John Kerry: I think you've got to reflect for a moment on the meaning of what's happening in South East Asia today.
To many of his supporters, John was a rock star.
John Kerry: Stay with it. All right?
Over 6,000 volunteers joined the Kerry campaign. By October, he was leading the polls by a 2-to-1 margin.
John Marttila: The truth is that we were a very young group.
John Marttila: And, uh, John has said that we were a bunch of young and stupid kids. And I would say that we were a bunch of young and very stupid kids.
Aides Dan Payne and David Thorne say the Kerry campaign was overconfident. It got blindsided by the local newspaper, The Lowell Sun, and its publisher, Clem Costello.
Payne: Costello was a very right-wing, conservative guy who hated the idea of Kerry. I don't even know that he had much opportunity to meet John, but it was the idea of John Kerry that offended Clem Costello so much.
David Thorne: Day after day, the papers printed full-page editorials that were treated like hard news about John Kerry in Vietnam, John Kerry the carpetbagger, John Kerry the radical - all these kinds of things.
Payne: One of the stories they delighted in writing was who's given money to John Kerry. You know, Leonard Bernstein is a contributor. And that's all you should need to know if you're from Lowell.
Kerry's early lead vanished. He lost by almost nine percentage points.
Tom Vallely: Loss is an important lesson.
Campaign aide Tom Vallely.
Vallely: I remember election night. When John lost. ... He says to the crowd, "I want to tell Clem Costello one thing. If I had it to do all over again, I'd be on the Mall tomorrow with the veterans."
David Thorne says it's easy to imagine how the loss felt to John Kerry.
Thorne: You know, you had everything going for you. And then suddenly you, you know, you were defeated. And you were defeated, and you had no base. You came outta nowhere. You had no, um, you know, technical training of any kind, as a lawyer or anything else. You, you know, you had to go find a job. You were married; you had this small kid on the way. You know, you had to completely re-adjust your sights. And it was just, it was a very difficult period.
After the campaign, Kerry opted for the more conventional path to political office. He entered Boston College Law School in September of 1973.
Amos: Still to come, John Kerry, having failed in his first run for office, turns to the law. George W. Bush embraces Christianity, and a new beginning to his life.
Laura Bush: I think there were a lot of things that came together that made him a more serious person.
You're listening to a FRONTLINE special: The Choice 2004, distributed by American RadioWorks. To find audio and a transcript for all two hours of this program, visit americanradioworks.org. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Amos: This is The Choice 2004, a FRONTLINE special from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos. Having failed in his first run for office, John Kerry would start a career as a prosecutor before returning to politics. George Bush would work on the campaigns of his father and other politicians while trying his hand as a businessman. In the final segment of this hour, retracing the early careers of John Kerry and George W. Bush.
Film narrator: The high plains of west Texas, a land where courageous men and women kindled growth and prosperity, and a spirit of individualism which still reflects the open, unfettered expanses of the land of the high sky.
Will Lyman: In Midland, Texas, in the mid-1970s, the oil business was booming. With his Harvard MBA, George Bush came to make his fortune. His friends Jim Sale and Don Evans.
Jim Sale: Oh, it was wild. It was affectionately called ... the Doo Dah Days. I mean it was just kind of fairyland.
Don Evans: Price of oil was, uh, increasing around the world. Price of natural gas was increasing. Things were, uh, looking up in Midland, Texas.
George W. Bush started out at the bottom, as a landman, trying to buy up the drilling rights to the next hot property.
It meant running around, meeting people, and hoping to get lucky and cut a deal.
But, after three years with little success, Bush decided to try that other family business.
Not long after he decided to run for the U.S. Congress, Bush's friends Jan and Joe O'Neill introduced George to a friend of theirs, Laura Welch.
Laura Bush: I knew it was a setup. I mean, I knew I was being invited over to meet George.
Laura Bush: Really, for a couple of years, Jan and Joey O'Neill had mentioned to me that they wanted me to meet George. They wanted us to get together. I think, literally, we were their last two friends who hadn't married.
Three months later they were. But there was no time for a honeymoon.
George W. Bush: I'll say one thing about campaigning for office in West Texas: You sure do get to do plenty of driving.
After the wedding, George went right back out on campaign trail.
George W. Bush: Somebody asked me the other day how many miles I thought I had driven since I had announced I was running for Congress over a year ago. "You know," I said, "I couldn't even begin to guess." It really is the only way I know how to campaign: Get out every day and meet the people; tell 'em who I am.
Howdy. I'm George Bush. Running for the Congress.
Don Evans: I saw the natural. During the election process, I saw one that had a, uh - had these skills to be a very powerful candidate. ... He just loves it. He loves people, and people love him. He connects so well with them. He'll go through Plainview, Texas, and he'll meet however many people. And, you know what? He goes back through Plainview a month later? He knows them all. He knows 'em by their first name. He knows about their kids.
George W. Bush: I guess the thing we need, less government.
With his family connections, Bush also raised lots of money, 40 percent more than his chief opponent and much of it from oil interests.
George W. Bush: I feel sure I can be an effective congressman.
In the end, Bush was seen as an outsider who'd been to Yale and Harvard. In West Texas, he did well to lose by only six percentage points.
George W. Bush: As you say, our campaign - our days were long, our nights were long, and, uh, Laura and I are now getting to know each other in a different way. ... I welcome the relaxation, and welcome the chance to be alone with Laura in the house. But it has been tough to unwind.
Afterwards, Bush went back to the oil business. But Roland Betts says Bush's bad luck didn't change.
Roland Betts: I think more than anything, he was frustrated. He wanted the whole experience in the oil business to be more lucrative, uh, and better for his investors. I think he was a little embarrassed ... that he wasn't generating the kind of returns that he wanted to for his investors. So he's frustrated.
Reporter Nicholas Lemann says for George W. Bush, success was elusive.
Nicholas Lemann: He didn't do real well at Yale, at least compared to his father. Um, didn't do real well in the oil business, certainly compared to his father. Lost his first race for office. You know, he didn't have a lot of experiences ... that just were, you know, ... you're getting the message back: "Wow. You aced it." You know, there just weren't a lot of things like that.
Then, in 1982, the price of oil began to decline.
Jim Sale: In fact it tumbled. And it just wouldn't stop.
Fellow oilmen Jim Sale and Don Evans.
Don Evans: We saw companies starting to go bankrupt. We had friends going bankrupt. We had banks going bankrupt.
Bush had two new responsibilities: twin daughters. But, family and friends were worried about him. He was still drinking, and wasn't making enough money. It wasn't clear where he was headed.
In the midst of those dark days, a traveling evangelist came to Midland. His name was Arthur Blessitt.
Bush wanted to see him, and they agreed to meet off hours at the coffee shop of Midland's Holiday Inn. After about a hour, Blessitt asked Bush if he was ready to accept Jesus as his personal savior. Jim Sale was there.
Sale: Arthur asked him to pray a prayer of acceptance. It's many times dubbed as the Sinner's Prayer, but the prayer is ... just an acknowledgment of anybody who realizes that they're a sinner and they're sorry. ... George prayed that prayer. He said, "You know, I want my name written in the Lamb's Book of Life."
In his autobiography, Bush tells of another conversion - with Reverend Billy Graham in Kennebunkport, Maine, one year after his encounter with Blessitt. Regardless, Bush says he began a new walk. He began by quitting drinking.
Laura Bush: He just said, "I'm not going to have another drink."
Laura Bush: It was a time in his life when he had started going to a Bible study with a number of his very good friends in Midland. And I think all of those things together - his dad was running for president - was getting ready to run for president of the United States - I think there were a lot of things that came together that made him a more serious person. And quitting alcohol was a result of that.
While Bush struggled to find his footing, John Kerry was on the move. Even before he graduated from law school in 1976, he got a job in the Middlesex county DA's office, a large district northwest of Boston. Bill Codinha was a fellow prosecutor.
Bill Codinha: John had incredible administrative skills. ... He worked incredibly hard. He wouldn't take no for an answer.
By all accounts, Kerry was an effective prosecutor and administrator. He also spent two-and-a-half years in private law practice.
Sargeant in Arms: John F. Kerry, Lt. Governor Elect of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Then in 1982, Kerry was ready to return to politics. He ran successfully as Michael Dukakis' running mate and became lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.
Success had its price. Kerry's wife, Julia, wanted to separate.
Cameron Kerry: I think she found that ... politics and public life just really wasn't to her taste.
Kerry's brother, Cameron.
Cameron Kerry: John is somebody who rarely failed at anything. And, you know, here was this enormous failure at something that's very central to his life, and had been part of his being since he was a young man. They worked very hard for several years to try to pull it together.
Justice: I will bear true faith and allegiance
John Kerry: I will bear true faith and allegiance
Justice: To the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
John Kerry: To the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Justice: And will support -
A few years later they divorced.
John Kerry: And I will support the Constitution of the United States.
Justice: Congratulations, Governor.
After just 13 months as lieutenant governor, Kerry spotted another opportunity.
John Kerry: I am announcing my candidacy today for the United States Senate.
A Senate seat had opened up for the 1984 election.
John Kerry: We are living in a greater state of international tension and danger than ever before.
Running in a liberal state with a highly organized nuclear freeze movement, Kerry placed arms reduction above all other issues.
John Kerry: But none of that matters if we don't do something to stop the nuclear arms race and create lasting peace.
He promised big cut-backs in Ronald Reagan's defense spending.
John Kerry: And this 20-cent Allen wrench. The Navy spent over $9,000 for it.
Kerry won easily over Ray Shamie, a Republican millionaire.
Kerry would take office in January 1985. The former activist was now a member of a very exclusive club.
Massachussets senior senator, Ted Kennedy, was a prolific legislator. Kerry had a different idea about what he wanted to do.
His aide, Jack Blum, says Kerry lobbied for a seat on the same committee he spoke to 13 years earlier about the war in Vietnam.
Jack Blum: He saw the Foreign Relations Committee as a place where, if something like this happened again, he could stand up and do something. He could be a member of that committee, which had so changed the course of America's perceptions of Vietnam.
Foreign policy was front and center. The Reagan administration was then engaged in supporting a proxy army, the Contras, to help fight a left-wing government in Nicaragua.
President Ronald Reagan: I've spoken recently of the freedom fighters of Nicaragua. You know the truth about them. You know who they're fighting and why. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance. We cannot turn away from them. For the struggle here is not right versus left; it is right versus wrong.
On the eve of a Congressional vote on aid to the Contras, Kerry flew to Managua with his colleague Tom Harkin of Iowa. Kerry was just three-and-a-half months into his first term as a senator.
John Kerry: We're here to clarify a larger set of issues regarding how you peacefully resolve what's happening down here.
The stay culminated with a five-hour meeting at the home of Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega.
John Kerry: We are excited because there's an oportunity here to sit down and talk. And to stop people from being killed on either side.
Jonathan Winer: Ortega had given John a set of negotiating points.
Kerry aide Jonathan Winer.
Jonathan Winer: Things to take back to the administration to potentially see if they could cut a deal.
John Kerry: Both of us having been through Vietnam, I think the notion that the United States has an opportunity to demilitarize, not to escalate, to be able to sit down and talk, is, uh, you know, one of most important kinds of opportunities that you fight for in the process of trying to create a foreign policy.
Winer: The Reagan administration didn't want to negotiate anything with Daniel Ortega. They wanted the Contra War. The last thing they wanted was a negotiation. So, John got smashed.
Caspar Weinberger: If anybody is worried about another Vietnam, it seems to me the thing they ought to be worried about is another Cuba.
Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, attacked Harkin and Kerry.
Caspar Weinberger: And for the life of me, I cannot understand why a communist regime in Nicaragua has so much support in the Congress.
A few days after Kerry and Harkin returned, Ortega flew to Moscow where he was seen embracing Soviet leaders and accepting communist aid. Kerry looked as if he'd been duped.
When the Iran-Contra scandal broke a year later, Kerry was left off an important investigating committee. Winer says that after a fast start, the freshman senator was temporarily sidelined.
Jonathan Winer: So what they were telling him was, "You now support the party. Be part of the institutional Senate. Do that for a while. Oh, bit by bit, uh, you'll get there. Not so fast, John Kerry."
In time, Kerry would establish himself as a solid investigator. He pursued several high profile investigations of drug running and money laundering, leading to the indictment of Panama's dictator, Manuel Noriega, and the demise of a corrupt international bank, BCCI.
Cheer leaders: B-U-S-H. Bush, Bush, Bush! Louder!
Crowd: B-U-S-H. Bush, Bush, Bush!
In 1988, George W. Bush came out of Texas to work on his father's campaign for president.
Early on in Iowa, they were facing an unexpected challenge from the Reverend Pat Robertson.
Robertson was demonstrating a new fact of political life: The religious right had become a very potent force.
Pat Robertson: Because you and I know, we must restore the greatness of America through moral strength.
Doug Wead worked closely with George W. on the campaign.
Pat Robertson: Thank you all, it's been wonderful. I appreciate it.
Doug Wead: Just before the vote in Iowa, when we saw we were going down, I convinced G.W. that he oughtta fly into Des Moines and visit with some of Robertson's people, and see how easy it is to build a relationship ... for his dad.
George flew to Iowa with Wead and met with evangelicals. The fact that the candidate's son was a born-again Christian made a real difference.
George W. Bush: No matter how busy George Bush has been in his past, he's never let us down as a father.
Wead: And the conclusion was afterwards, I said to G.W., we could take out every one of those churches, which are the foundation of the Robertson campaign, and we can emasculate his effort in the South. And you see we could do it very easily. And he saw it.
George W. campaigned all across the country that year, including Texas.
George W. Bush: Because East Texas and Texas are gonna be George Bush Country this November.
Wead says, along the way, George W. caught a glimpse of his own future.
Doug Wead: And sometimes he'd even say out loud, "Gaw, I could do this in Texas. This is what I could do in Texas." Almost salivate. "Wow." Say, "I could win the governorship of Texas with just the evangelical vote."
Amos: Kerry and Bush would take their early experiences with them as they came of age as politicians. John Kerry, the Vietnam veteran, would maintain a deep skepticism about any use of military force that he considered unnecessary. George W. Bush, determined to avoid his father's mistakes, would adopt a bare-knuckles political style. Coming up in hour two of this report, the shaping of Bush and Kerry as politicians, and as competing candidates for the presidency.
This is The Choice 2004, a FRONTLINE special from American RadioWorks. I'm Deborah Amos.
Funding for The Choice 2004 is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting/PBS Program Challenge Fund. Major funding for American RadioWorks also comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. American RadioWorks is the documentary unit of American Public Media.
Back to The Choice 2004 or continue to Hour 2.