Defining experience

DEFINING EXPERIENCE: John F. Kerry’s colleagues said that in the Middlesex County, Mass., district attorney’s office, he showed qualities that would become his trademarks in the Senate. (Courtesy of Sen. John F. Kerry)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the summer of 1976, John F. Kerry's run as a young man of destiny seemed in danger of running its course.

He'd skipped around his home state in a hunt for political office, only to get clobbered in his quest for a House seat. His telegenic testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, protesting the Vietnam War, had faded five years into the past.

In his 33rd year and fresh out of Boston College Law School, Kerry needed to make a reputation for something other than soaring ambition, a short if illustrious military career and a knack for winning Hollywood celebrities to the antiwar cause.

To settle and regroup, the future Democratic presidential candidate found a place in the sleepy headquarters of the district attorney of Middlesex County, Mass. In a corner office in Cambridge — across the Charles River from the high-rises and glamour of his native Boston — Kerry hunkered down to nurture his political aspirations, to learn the legal profession and to prove himself as a prosecutor and an administrator.

The public has yet to learn much about Kerry's six years as a practicing attorney. But that is about to change.

Beginning at the Democratic National Convention this month, the Kerry campaign plans to highlight this part of his resume to help show that he has the toughness to be the nation's chief executive. Republicans, meanwhile, say that will hardly deter them from continuing to depict Kerry as a fuzzy-headed, unreformed liberal.

It was at the Middlesex district attorney's office that Kerry got his first extensive management experience. He nearly tripled the size of the operation, introduced specialized units and won a conviction of the man once suspected to be the state's notorious "Torso Killer."

And it was there that he displayed qualities that would become trademarks of his almost 20-year U.S. Senate career — a willingness to work long hours, an enormous appetite for the details of policy and an interest in digging deep into controversial topics.

It did not surprise his fellow lawyers that Kerry went on to lead a series of congressional inquiries — into alleged drug-running by Nicaraguan Contra rebels, the fate of prisoners of war and those missing in action in Vietnam, and the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International. More than any legislation, those probes have been the signature of his Senate career.

On its face, the job of an assistant prosecutor might have seemed inglorious — too humdrum for a man who had led thousands in Vietnam War protests and been featured on "60 Minutes" as a future American leader. But Kerry said he saw the job as a respite from the hurly-burly of politics.

"I was excited about it. I had already done some trial work while I was in law school and I loved it," he said in a recent interview. "I loved the sense you were delivering justice — providing some justice in people's lives."

Kerry found a willing patron in Middlesex County Dist. Atty. John J. Droney.

Droney was an old-line pol in the Bay State tradition, one who first made a name for himself not long after World War II. He was Cambridge coordinator in the first congressional campaign of a fellow fledgling Irish-Catholic politician, John F. Kennedy.

According to Droney family lore, Kennedy later returned the favor. As a U.S. senator in 1959, he leaned on Massachusetts Gov. Foster Furcolo to appoint Droney to the D.A.'s job in Middlesex County.

By the time Kerry took his post as one of Droney's assistants in 1976, the county had grown to 1.3 million residents and included more than 50 communities. The prosecutor's office had not kept pace; it was handling thousands of criminal cases with fewer than three dozen assistant district attorneys, many of them part-timers who practiced law privately on the side.

Droney had another problem after nearly two decades in office. Although he had a reputation for honesty and a tough-minded attitude toward criminals, he was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, which left him unable to adequately give voice to his still-agile mind.

An election stood on the horizon in 1977, when Droney made Kerry his first assistant, the operational head of the district attorney's office. Some veteran prosecutors were jealous and angry about the office upstart's elevation.

"A lot of people's faces fell to the floor," one colleague told a newspaper at the time of Kerry's rapid ascent months out of law school. But others saw perfect sense in the frail Droney's decision to make the hard-charging young lawyer with a souffle of thick hair the office's public face.

"Mr. Droney, in his mind, saw someone who had already demonstrated the skills," said John Markey, then a deputy district attorney and now a prominent Boston lawyer. "John Droney was a very, very shrewd individual."