Sen. John Kerry has been called many things during his high-profile 20-year career in the U.S. Senate, but the lasting legacy of the junior Democrat from Massachusetts may be easy to define: He’s more an investigator than a legislator.
His defining moments have included a progression of signature investigations that, by design, thrust him into the national spotlight. Some, mostly Democrats, have called his investigative efforts relentless and groundbreaking. Others, mostly Republicans, have labeled them as shameless grandstanding.
Both could be right.
But the four-term Democrat, now his party’s presidential nominee, has held a number of key leadership roles involving a host of Senate committee investigations, many of which grabbed headlines, three minutes on the evening news and, ultimately, the attention of the voters.
“I always had a prosecutor’s mind and a prosecutor’s bent,” Mr. Kerry said in a New Yorker profile in May. “It was always what I wanted to do, even in law school.”
Even the Kerry for President Web page cites his Senate investigations as why he is “well regarded as a national leader in foreign affairs and national security.” It said he “closely investigated” terrorism, global threats to national security, international espionage, weapons of mass destruction, trafficking of drugs and arms, nuclear security, international banking scandals, the Vietnam POW/MIA situation and the Iran-Contra affair.
A hardy claim.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, described Mr. Kerry’s investigative talents — particularly as a member of the Senate POW/MIA Select Committee and in a separate investigation of the infamous Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) — as well-grounded, aggressive and successful.
“His Senate investigative work bears many of the same hallmarks of his long road to the presidential nomination — a willingness to take on tough assignments, a talent for hiring good people, and success at building coalitions and in getting more done than anyone would have thought possible at the start,” Mr. Leahy said.
But Barbara Comstock, former chief counsel and chief investigator to the House Government Reform Committee, which targeted, among other things, campaign-finance abuses in the Clinton administration, called Mr. Kerry’s investigative record “an extension of his 1970s, left-wing anti-military agenda.”
“Investigations at this level are really done by the staff, not the members,” said Mrs. Comstock, now a government-relations specialist at the Washington-based law firm of Blank Rome. “You have to go into the weeds, look at all the documents, put together in plain language something that already happened.
“After Watergate, many politicians discovered that investigations were something that got you headlines,” she said. “What John Kerry did was aimed solely at getting attention. He has no record as a legislator or a leader, and his investigations were consistent with his record as a left-wing follower.”
Mr. Kerry came to the Senate by way of the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, Massachusetts’ largest, where his nonstop media appearances as a prosecutor earned him the moniker “live-shot Kerry.” And while he has used his Senate seat to bring attention to a number of headline-popping issues, including the Iran-Contra scandal, drug trafficking by then-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the illegal financial dealings of BCCI, there was little legislative follow-up.
While championing one Senate investigation or another, Mr. Kerry’s name has appeared on 56 bills and resolutions since his freshman year, 11 of which were signed by the president or otherwise became law.
Six successful bills awarded a congressional gold medal to Jackie Robinson posthumously; reauthorized funds for the small business technology-transfer program; amended the Small Business Act regarding women’s business programs; authorized funds for the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972; authorized funds for the National Sea Grant College Program Act; and redesignated the federal building in Waltham, Mass., as the “Frederick C. Murphy Federal Center.”
But as a newly appointed member of the subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations in 1985, Mr. Kerry immediately sought to establish his investigative credentials. The subcommittee had targeted the Reagan White House, particularly Vice President George Bush, father of the current president, and a little-known Marine Corps lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, accused of dealing arms to Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
While the subcommittee’s findings of a Contra drug connection ultimately were validated, Mr. Kerry was left off the special Senate committee later named to investigate Iran-Contra when some of his colleagues viewed him as too outspoken.
Others were angered by his unofficial 1985 trip to Nicaragua, where — just three months after his election — he visited Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, accompanied by several reporters. The visit preceded by only a few days a trip by Mr. Ortega to the Soviet Union, where he collected $200 million to help finance Marxist rebels in Nicaragua.
Republicans at the time also questioned the Kerry-led probe, coming in the middle of the 1988 presidential election, with Vice President Bush running against Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, for whom Mr. Kerry had served as lieutenant governor.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said at the time the hearings had “deteriorated into a biased, partisan agenda” focused on derailing Mr. Bush’s presidential bid. But Jack Blum, Mr. Kerry’s special counsel, said it was the Kerry investigation that changed the public’s perception of foreign-policy issues.
“We did begin to get people to understand the dimension of the drug problem and refocus on the drug problem,” Mr. Blum told the select committee, adding that Mr. Kerry closely reviewed documents during the Senate investigations, not leaving the work solely to staffers.
Mr. Kerry’s investigative efforts dwindled after the 1994 elections, when Republicans assumed control of the Senate and committee assignments. But it was Mr. Kerry’s probe of Noriega’s ties to international drug smugglers that led to the financial shenanigans of BCCI, which had laundered billions of dollars in illicit cash from drug and arms dealers to political leaders and international bankers, some of whom helped finance terrorism.
The 1988 Kerry BCCI probe was capped three years later, when federal prosecutors closed the bank and brought criminal charges in the case.
But Mr. Kerry fell out of favor with some of his Democratic colleagues after the BCCI hearing targeted some prominent Democrats — including former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, whose Washington-based bank had been used as a BCCI shell. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Claiborne Pell, Rhode Island Democrat, called on Mr. Kerry to bring the inquiry to a close, and several key Democrats spoke with him personally to back off on Mr. Clifford.
When the 84-year-old Mr. Clifford was called to testify, Mr. Kerry did not vigorously pursue the elder statesman, although he later told his staff — according to a book on Mr. Clifford by David McKean, a Kerry cousin and a staff member — the committee had proven its case, and he did not intend to “humiliate an old man.”