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."
Droney gave his top assistant a relatively free hand. And Kerry made one of his most important changes almost immediately.
Although Droney was wary of the fickle nature of financial support from the U.S. government, Kerry vigorously pursued funding from the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.
Kerry saw the money as fuel for change. He hired a full-time grant writer to go after the funds. Nearly $4 million flowed to the office in a single year, and the money helped expand the staff to more than 100 lawyers.
Two attributes stood out about the new hires. First, Kerry sought out top-notch lawyers, including some who turned away from more lucrative work in private firms or from the greater prestige of the U.S. attorney's office. And for the first time, many were women.
Rikki Klieman, a young lawyer who had worked in a corporate firm and served a clerkship with a federal judge, said Kerry lured her to the district attorney's office by persuading her that she "would be working on the side of the just."
"For a lot of us children of the 1960s, we felt this was a golden moment," said Klieman, a Court TV analyst and wife of Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton. "We wanted to make a difference, and here was this charismatic leader to follow."
Kerry also used the federal funds to expand the office's specialized units — hiring professionals who focused on helping victims of domestic violence, pursuing white-collar criminals and bringing violent felons quickly to trial.
Such units, commonplace now, were novel 30 years ago. One made a particular mark by pledging to bring serious cases to trial within 90 days, rather than shoveling them into the maw of other pending criminal cases, said Peter W. Agnes Jr., then a prosecutor with Kerry and now a Worcester Superior Court judge.
Even the upstate Lowell Sun — the conservative newspaper that had excoriated Kerry as little more than a carpetbagging hippie during his 1972 run for Congress — warmed to him. The newspaper editorialized that Kerry had "turned the District Attorney's office from a traditional, non-aggressive agency into a first-rate, exciting prosecutor's staff that is now among the best in the state."
Kerry's detractors continued to see a man of more style than substance. They thought he spent too much time before television cameras talking about the office's work. And there were lingering digs that Kerry wore the title of prosecutor loosely. He had tried relatively few cases, mostly misdemeanors.
Kerry sought to change that perception. He set aside his executive duties long enough to win a murder conviction. And he took on what former colleague Markey called "the hardest case in the office."
Under indictment was George Edgerly, who had been an infamous figure in Massachusetts since 1959, when his wife's headless body turned up in the Merrimack River. Although Edgerly was charged as the "Torso Killer," luck delivered him a young defense lawyer named F. Lee Bailey. He was acquitted.
Not long after he was freed, Edgerly took a job as service manager for a Chevrolet dealership in Lowell, north of Boston. Soon, it was suspected that he organized a scheme to submit hundreds of thousands of dollars of overblown warranty claims to General Motors.
The automaker sent an investigator to look into the alleged fraud and, in short order, the company sleuth turned up dead. Again, Edgerly fell under suspicion. And he had more trouble: an accusation that he had raped a Lowell woman.
It was at this point that Kerry stepped in, taking the rape case himself. He risked a difficult prosecution against a seemingly Teflon-plated defendant, said several of Kerry's former co-workers. And he had to make his case on behalf of the victim, a prostitute, who might prove unsympathetic to a jury.
"I gave him a lot of credit for that, because if he failed it would have proved what a lot of people said: that he was a political assistant and that he never made his chops as a trial lawyer," said J. William Codhina, a former Kerry colleague who now oversees a 300-member litigation team at a Boston law firm.
Kerry threw himself into the case. He says today that he was persuaded "of what had happened to this woman and that it was wrong." He fought, in particular, to convince the jury that a prostitute could reject unwanted sexual advances. He ended the case, Markey recalled, with a show-stopping final argument.
"This is one of his first felony trials in Superior Court, and he probably gave a better closing than any assistant district attorney in the office could have given, just using his innate skills," Markey said. "I said to myself, 'Wow, he just won this case.' "
The jury convicted Edgerly, and the judge sentenced him to a minimum of 18 years in prison. (Later convictions for the murder of the General Motors investigator, and other crimes, would extend the sentence. Edgerly, 76, remains in prison.)
The reserved Kerry had never been one of the guys in the office, a colleague said. But on the night of the conviction, he dropped by the Barrister, a tavern where Middlesex's prosecutors often went to celebrate their victories.
One by one, the crowd of attorneys drifted to Kerry's end of the bar to offer their congratulations. "I think he became accepted that night," Markey recalled. "He was accepted as a peer — someone who had gone into the trenches and won."
Kerry helped engineer a political victory as well. His improvements to the district attorney's office were widely seen as key to Droney's narrow win in 1978 over an aggressive public-interest lawyer, Scott Harshbarger, who later served as Massachusetts' attorney general.
Soon after the election, Kerry found his responsibilities reduced. He has said that Droney was feeling better, and was more able to resume a larger role in the office. Some news reports at the time, however, suggested that Droney had decided Kerry had served his purpose and could become a threat.
Kerry and Assistant Dist. Atty. Roanne Sragow left the office to start their own law firm. They developed a thriving practice. Among their victories was a successful appeal on behalf of a Boston man, who spent 16 years in prison for a murder they showed he did not commit.
Republican strategists say they intend, when they focus on law and order, to talk less about Kerry's record in Middlesex County and more about his record in the Senate and his current positions.
They plan, for example, to charge that after voting for the Patriot Act, the controversial anti-terrorism law passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, he no longer supports it.
Kerry has said he wants to fine-tune the Patriot Act, not overturn it.
And he said his hands-on years in the criminal justice system were pertinent.
"I think it shows that I take my responsibilities seriously — that I worked hard and that I tried to deliver a product to the citizens of the county," Kerry said. "I took risks and I was able to be an administrator, to show leadership and to fight for the things I believed in."
In early 1982, his years as a prosecutor provided the springboard for him to reenter politics. As he announced his run for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts that year, his campaign cited first his "leadership in fighting crime in the state." Only after that was his service in Vietnam mentioned.
Kerry had found another important chapter for his biography, one on which he would rely for years to come, even as he set his sights on the White House.