The Making Of John Kerry

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THEN, NOW: Kerry as a schoolboy in Switzerland in 1954 and campaigning in Florida last March

If you were looking to capture the essence of John Kerry's relationship with his father, it's hard to beat the story of how he learned to sail. Forget about going out on the waters off Cape Cod and having fun and bonding. This was a test of courage and character, in which Richard Kerry would blindfold his 12-year-old son John and leave it to him to find the way home through fog and turbulent seas.

At least, that's how the legend goes, being such a handy window on the life of the boy who was left to sink or swim as he was tossed between boarding schools and across time zones by his hard-driven diplomat father. Perfect story, admits Kerry, except that it's not exactly true. "There is so much mythology out there," Kerry says, with evident frustration. "Let's clear this one up." Yes, his father was an austere man, hard to please and even harder to know. But sailing was one of the things John and his father could share, like skiing, fishing, piloting a plane. Richard was all about mastery. It was not enough to guide the boat by sight around the rocks and into the harbor; the goal was to be able to navigate entirely by the charts and compass. It was not young John who was "blindfolded" that day in the boat, but Richard; he sat covered by a tarp reading his maps and instruments by flashlight and calling out a course for John, at the helm, to follow. Every now and then he offered to switch places, and John guided the vessel by what sailors call dead reckoning.

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It is tempting to mine the political metaphor here, since Kerry, the serious, cerebral Senator, is trying to steer a course to victory in a race against a President who is so often guided by his instincts. But that's not why Kerry seems so intent in an interview with TIME on setting the record straight about the whole blindfolded-sailing anecdote. Talk to Kerry about his childhood and he quickly goes on defense, making a point of describing his family as very normal and fun loving. When informed how consistently his friends and siblings described him as a serious kid ("not just serious; very serious," says brother Cameron), Kerry's features head in two directions: his lips smile but his brow knits, and he immediately pushes back. Rather than spin the quality into a virtue for anyone running for President, particularly in these serious times, Kerry makes himself out to be Huck Finn, recounts his childhood larks and prep school shenanigans and love of "vegging out" during college.

Maybe that's because some of the most memorable story lines emerging from profiles and biographies and especially G.O.P. ads — the tales of his attending a Swiss boarding school, teaching his parakeet to speak French, allegedly flaunting his initials, J.F.K., as a politically precocious and impossibly earnest high school student — do not serve him well, especially in a race against a candidate like George W. Bush. Voters know where Bush comes from, in a way few generations have known about their Presidents. They knew the brand before they knew the man himself, got to watch his family in the White House for 12 years and on the public stage for many more. They are reminded where W. is from every time he opens his mouth. And in any case, Bush's biography is not likely to matter as much this time around; it's his presidency on which he will be judged. But the public is still getting to know John Kerry and may be surprised by his story.

Kerry offers his bio as the story of a devoted family in which the children, by virtue of their father's foreign-service career, got to explore other cultures and acquire early on a commitment to serious public service. His detractors tell the story of an effete snob who "looks French" and can't possibly understand the concerns of average Americans. An ad by the conservative group Citizens United mocked Kerry for his $75 haircuts and million-dollar yacht and closed on this note: "Another rich, liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a 'man of the people' ... Priceless."

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