After traveling with John Kerry and his campaign first in Iowa and a few weeks later in Virginia and Tennessee, one thing has become clear: the John Kerry I thought I knew from three years of covering him in Congress turns out to have been a very different John Kerry from the one I've observed up close in his quest for the presidency.
It doesn't take long to sense who's approachable and who's not when you report on the 100 members of the Senate — our Yankee version of the House of Lords. There's a time-honored ritual for informal meetings with the press outside the Senate chamber. We reporters stand by the bank of elevators that most senators use to come and go, and when they show up for a vote, we intercept them and seek their comments. Most senators graciously — yea, even eagerly — oblige.
Not John Kerry. He would typically arrive at Interview Alley not by elevator, facilitating the ambush, but by bounding up two flights of marble steps on the Capitol's east side. As reporters spotted him and converged, Kerry (usually accompanied by an aide/bouncer) would tuck in his chin, mumble something about being late (or maybe it was just "later"), and disappear into the inner sanctum of the Senate chamber without breaking stride. There are a few other doors to exit that chamber, and you could count on Kerry using one of them to skirt the gantlet of journalists. After 19 years in the Senate, Kerry was the perennial man in a hurry, too busy to be bothered by nosy reporters.
What a difference a presidential campaign makes. Kerry now has time every day for reporters — not just for interview sessions or press conferences, but also for wandering down from the first-class cabin of his chartered Boeing 737 and schmoozing with the several dozen scribes, photographers, sound recorders and cameramen flying behind in steerage. This is a John Kerry I'd never known before: affable, funny, relaxed. Most striking of all, he is not so self-absorbed. Presidential candidate Kerry is, as Tom Wolfe might put it, a man in full — rather than full of himself, as he seemed in the halls of Congress.
So what gives with this transformation? Sure, he needs the media more now. But here's my theory: Kerry has, for better or worse, the natural temperament of a leader, a loner in charge. That's his manner whether he's in charge of a gunboat, a movement of anti-war veterans, or, if things keep going his way, of the nation that brought you the Electoral College.
Being just one of 100 never seemed to quite suit the guy all these years in the Senate. His ambitions to lead were constantly thwarted by the realities of a collegial body where nobody ever really leads. It's decision-making by committee, legislating by compromise. Striking a pose there of being above that fray just may have been Kerry's way of saying "this isn't really me." Now with the brass ring of the Democratic presidential nomination within reach, we see the other Kerry, the one who's finally hit his stride.
NPR's David Welna has been congressional correspondent since the final days of the Clinton administration. He previously reported from NPR's Chicago bureau and overseas.