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John Kerry, Teen Outcast

This article from The New Republic was written by Franklin Foer.

High school reunions are inherently unkind. But, for John Kerry, the fortieth gathering of the St. Paul's class of 1962 was particularly bad.

The key episode took place in a Concord, New Hampshire, restaurant, not far from the school itself. Kerry wasn't at the dinner. That, however, didn't prevent him from looming over the evening.

Toward the meal's end, the class president, a Boston lawyer named Lloyd Macdonald, rose to give a toast. He wanted to celebrate his classmates who had devoted their careers to public service. As he ticked off the names - FBI Director Robert Mueller; the State Department's top lawyer, Will Taft; federal Judge Alvin A. Schall - the sexagenarians bathed the room in loud applause. But, when Macdonald uttered the name of the junior senator from Massachusetts, the response was somewhat different. According to witnesses, only scattered boos broke the silence.

Kerry didn't leave boarding school a popular man. Forty-two years after the fact, many of his classmates still mock him. They chide him for being a teachers' pet and a selfish hockey player. ("What you need to remember," says Macdonald, "is that John never passed [the puck].") In fact, they dislike him so much that they've frequently helped his political opponents. Haven Pell, a St. Paul's graduate and Washington financial adviser who raised cash for William Weld's 1996 race against Kerry, told me, "It was very interesting, the number of the St. Paul's class of 1962 who went out of their way to be supportive of Bill Weld."

High school social status, of course, should be meaningless in a presidential race. But, in at least one way, Kerry's boarding-school years do matter: They contradict the conventional portrait of him.

According to most newspaper profiles, Kerry is the ultimate establishmentarian. "Mr. Kerry fit right in with the Northeastern elite," John Tierney wrote last month in The New York Times. On paper, this is certainly true. Kerry's middle name is Forbes, as in the Forbes shipping fortune. Winthrop blood ties him to the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And, at every stage in life, the establishment has seemingly renewed his membership; first by admitting him to one of its fanciest boarding schools, then by accepting him to Yale, and then again by tapping him to join Skull & Bones.

But, for all these patrician trappings, Kerry has never been fully accepted into the blue-blood world. In fact, during his time at St. Paul's, a cradle of the old WASP aristocracy, Kerry was an outsider: an unwelcome Catholic among high-church Episcopalians; the son of a Foreign Service officer and, thus, a relative poor boy; an earnest liberal among rock-ribbed Republicans. "He felt like he didn't fit," says Kerry's best boarding-school friend, Daniel Barbiero. In response to his estrangement, Kerry followed the pattern set by generations of immigrants. He became an ambitious, hard-working striver -- the opposite of the ideal of effortlessly achieving aristocracy. Douglas Brinkley writes in his biography of Kerry, Tour of Duty, "Given [the] class-consciousness of St. Paul's School, Kerry felt especially compelled to prove himself." It's this work ethic and craving for approval, shaped by his inability to easily assimilate into the elite, that has come to define Kerry's persona and his candidacy.

St. Paul's is one of the few places in the United States where a Forbes scion could feel like an outsider. The school was born in 1856, about 70 years after nearby Exeter and Andover academies had begun accepting students. But, because the older schools were founded in revolutionary times, they had cultivated a distinctly American ethos, wrapping themselves in democratic rhetoric. St. Paul's, on the other hand, bore all the marks of Henry James's and Edith Wharton's times. Above all, it had a Jamesian fetish for English aristocracy. Unlike the academies, St. Paul's explicitly affiliated itself with the Episcopal Church. (For many years, the school's catalogue began, "St. Paul's is a church school ... .") English nomenclature, borrowed directly from Eton and Harrow, penetrated the institution's every cranny. St. Paul's doesn't have "eleventh and twelfth grade"; it has "fifth and sixth form." It is led by a rector, not a headmaster. For a time, as baseball was emerging as the national pastime in the latter half of the nineteenth century, St. Paul's forbid the game, only permitting students to play cricket. In other words, even by the standards of Choate, the Knickerbocker Club, and Porcellian, St. Paul's was a stuffy place.

By the time Kerry arrived at the school in 1958, the old WASP establishment was coming under assault. World War II had given birth to a new spirit of egalitarianism. But that spirit had hardly begun to infiltrate St. Paul's. In his 1961 annual report, the school's rector assured alumni that he hadn't introduced meritocratic admissions standards: "We have not sought to comb the country for the very ablest boys attainable nor have we used scholarship funds to entice the unusually able boys to our school." And it showed. John Kerry's class hardly represented America. It had no Jews -- at least, no self-identified Jews -- or African Americans. His schoolmates included a descendent of President William Howard Taft, an heir to the Corning glass fortune, and a host of kids with names like Whitney and Pierpont. Barbiero arrived at the school from Far Rockaway, New York. Introducing himself to a classmate, Chad Floyd, he mentioned his Long Island roots: "He said, 'Long Island? I have a relative who has a parkway named after him on Long Island,' which is the William Floyd Parkway. And Phil Heckscher [another new classmate] told me the same. I thought they were both joking. Two guys in a row who say that they have a parkway named after them in Long Island? You've got to be kidding."

Kerry may have had a moneyed pedigree, but he didn't have money. By the time the Forbes family fortune reached his mother, it had been subdivided into an extremely modest sum. (Kerry's mother, Rosemary, who trained to be a nurse, was one of eleven children.) Nor was his father's Foreign Service salary robust enough to foot the school's exorbitant tuition. Kerry attended St. Paul's thanks to the beneficence of his childless great-aunt, Clara Winthrop, who volunteered to cover the costs. "We weren't rich," Kerry's sister Diana told The Boston Globe last summer. Or, as Joe Klein put it in The New Yorker, Kerry's family belonged to "a threadbare, erstwhile aristocracy."

Under most circumstances, and in most U.S. settings, Kerry's shabby gentility would not have disadvantaged him. But St. Paul's was an extremely status-conscious place. As Brinkley writes in his biography, "At St. Paul's, unless you had a lot of money and wore the right clothes and had parents who belonged to the right clubs, you could be made to feel inadequate, born on the wrong side of the tracks." Fitting in -- to be a "reg," or regular guy, as the St. Paul's kids said -- meant having the right pair of loafers, the right Brooks Brothers suit, and the right ring belt. Kerry certainly dressed the preppy part. But there were obvious ways in which he could not keep up. While his classmates summered in Europe (or even took private jets to the Continent for long weekends), Kerry spent his breaks working as a Teamster in Somerville, Massachusetts, for the First National Stores, loading food onto trucks. He frequently borrowed money from friends. And, if his relative poverty weren't apparent enough, Kerry always had richer classmates issuing reminders of their bigger bank accounts. Barbiero recounted to me a symbolic incident. One of Kerry's poorer classmates had carefully compiled a record collection that was his proudest possession -- and everyone in the school knew it. But a rich classmate couldn't stomach the satisfaction felt by Kerry's friend, so he ventured into Concord and bought out the record store. According to Barbiero, Kerry empathized with the collector. "John was upset about this and thought it was a nasty thing to do."

Kerry's lack of wealth wasn't all that separated him from his classmates. As a child, Kerry had been deeply Catholic, serving as an altar boy and toying with joining the priesthood. At St. Paul's, it wasn't easy for Kerry to keep his faith. On Sunday mornings, he would take a taxi into Concord for Mass -- and then have to return to attend two mandatory Episcopal services at school. In other words, every week, he was forced to remind his classmates of his religious affiliation. And, given his classmates' attitudes toward Catholicism, Kerry would probably have preferred to keep his faith to himself. When Bobby Kennedy attended St. Paul's in 1939, his mother, Rose, pulled him from the school after only a month because she couldn't stomach its anti-Catholic ethos. While that attitude atrophied somewhat, it hadn't entirely disappeared by the late '50s. Barbiero told me, "There were jokes about Catholics. I had more than one classmate tell me that 'those people' had their own clubs and own societies, and they weren't part of our society."

Even though Barbiero wasn't Catholic himself, many classmates simply assumed he was because of his Italian name. It didn't make for an easy social life. Together, he'd join Kerry in the study of the school's chaplain, where they would commiserate over their shared social exclusion. Kerry responded strongly to his outsider status, compensating for it by working hard and intensely craving success. "He acted like Horatio Alger on the make," writes Brinkley, "believing that the social order should be based on temerity and merit." Like the character Max Fischer in Rushmore, he went about St. Paul's founding and joining clubs, from the Concordian Literary Society to the debating team. He created a political union called the John Winant Society, where he would deliver earnest perorations with titles like "The Plight of the Negro." Where most of his colleagues viewed admission to Harvard and Yale as a fait accompli, Kerry stressed over his collegiate future. "He desperately wanted to get into Yale and worked hard to get there," says Barbiero.

Unfortunately for Kerry, his boarding-school comrades regarded ambition as a cardinal sin. His schoolmate Stanley Resor says, "A lot of people resented his ambition." Achievement wasn't frowned upon. But you were supposed to downplay your accomplishments, to make them look effortless. At Yale, during the blue-blood heyday, the attitude was symbolized by varsity athletes, who wore their letter sweaters inside out to de-emphasize their achievement -- never mind that the sweaters' interior stitching kept the letters perfectly clear to all observers.

So, instead of winning him respect, Kerry's hard work earned him the derision of his classmates. In fact, St. Paul's created an entire folklore about Kerry, much of it embellished. More than anything, they mocked Kerry for styling himself after John Kennedy, imitating the president's voice and haircut, as well as exploiting his identical initials. "He signed his papers JFK," says Macdonald. According to Pell, Kerry would practice writing his initials on his blue jeans and "just kinda went around telling people that he's going to be president." What irked so much about this comparison? To them, this ambitiousness was selfish and self-indulgent. As they liked to joke, JFK means "Just for Kerry."

These accusations of selfishness trailed Kerry wherever he went, especially in sports. Kerry's enemies contend he was a disaster in the hockey rink and on the soccer pitch -- a puck and ball hog who cared more about looking stylish than scoring. Pell says, "You couldn't get that kid to pass the salt. A ball or puck delivered to John Kerry was into a black hole. It never came back again." Most damningly, as Resor describes, Kerry used to take "big rink turns." Playing hockey requires quickly switching directions on the ice, shifts that require an expenditure of considerable energy. But this wasn't Kerry's preferred tactic. Instead, he refrained from suddenly changing his course and took more circuitous, less efficient routes to find his way back to the action.

But, despite the prevalence of JFK-fixation and rink-turn stories among Kerry's classmates, it's not at all clear they're true. Many of his friends deny he was a selfish player. "He just wasn't a ball hog," says his soccer teammate Larry Rand. Or consider the JFK charge. There's no doubt that Kerry had enormous affection for Kennedy. He represented the Democratic candidate in a class debate. Outside the school dining hall, during the election year, he would emphatically make Kennedy's case. (This wasn't a popular argument to make. In the school's mock elections, Republican presidential candidates had triumphed in every election after 1860, when St. Paul's voted against Abraham Lincoln.) But, for all Kerry's Kennedy worship, it's not clear that he ever went as far as his critics allege. Almost everyone who mentions Kerry's rampant use of his initials admits the stories are hearsay. And his friends tell a very different tale. They testify that Kerry never vocalized his desire to become Kennedy and never exploited his initials. "I never heard him talking about being president," says Rand. According to Barbiero, "It was other people who teased him about the JFK thing; that was just a coincidence of time and place. Here you got this young guy very interested in politics, ... and then at the same time his initials were JFK, and there was hysteria for Kennedy. That was coincidence, and that was something he had to deal with. But that wasn't something of his making."

How then to explain the preppy hatred for Kerry? In part, the answer has to do with the changing times. During the late '50s and early '60s, the blue bloods' grip on power was coming to an end. For a long time, St. Paul's and the other New England boarding schools were the Ivy League's main pipeline. Every year, St. Paul's sent about half its class to Harvard and Yale. By the end of the '60s, with the introduction of the SAT and a new democratic spirit in the admissions offices, that era of dominance had ended. As William F. Buckley lamented in a 1968 Atlantic piece, "You will laugh, but it is true that a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement tests, and identically ardent recommendations from the headmaster, has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul's School." With his hardworking style, Kerry represented the new meritocratic ethic, where success wouldn't depend on blood and charm but the earnest accumulation of achievements. Of course, Kerry may simply not have been very likeable. But, at least in part, Kerry was hated because he embodied the emerging reality that the old insular world could no longer afford to be so insular.

Strangely, the decline of the New England boarding schools' prestige has hardly diminished their capacity for producing politicians, from Middlesex's William Weld to St. George's Howard Dean to Andover's George W. Bush. In fact, the political strength of this group has a lot to do with their adherence to boarding-school mores. Instead of acting like "Horatio Alger on the make," they have embodied the old aristocratic spirit of "effortless achievement." They've successfully convinced the public that they are not conventional Washington politicians guided by personal ambition. During his campaign for Kerry's Senate seat, Weld famously jumped into the Charles River, highlighting his devil-may-care attitude toward politics. For his part, Bush has made an art form of his ability to efface his ambition, even saying during the 2000 campaign that he'd be fine if he lost the race. Inevitably, this effortless style elicits praise from the press: These boarding-school pols are "comfortable in their own skin."

While the boarding-school style may lend itself to campaigning, the striver's style has a decidedly mixed record. A whole other genre of politicians has been penalized for trying too hard, as Al Gore will testify. And now the classic gripes about the striver are being lobbed at Kerry yet again. According to the reporters on the trail, not to mention the Bush campaign, Kerry's great character flaw is his ambitiousness, manifesting itself in a willingness to say whatever it takes to please crowds. The New York Times' David Halbfinger wrote last month, "[Kerry] may tailor his stands to an audience or even run away from past positions." By trying too hard to win audiences, he is said to project a phony persona. As the political consultant Donna Brazile told The Washington Post last year, "It's like someone put him in clothes that don't fit."

There's an irony in this criticism of Kerry. In their profiles, journalists attribute his "aloofness" to his Brahman heritage and chalk up his "stiffness" to his patrician style. But this diagnosis misunderstands the true nature of the elite nurtured by places like St. Paul's. The media actually wants Kerry to become more patrician, not less; to discover his inner WASP; and to adopt a carefree attitude. In a way, it's profoundly unfair. He has spent a lifetime overcoming the St. Paul's ethos. But, now, that's exactly what's demanded of him.

Franklin Foer is an associate editor at TNR.


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