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For Kerry, Decisions Are Found Only in the Details

The candidate consults widely and deliberates carefully before reaching any conclusion on strategy or policy, his confidants say.

June 21, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry has divulged little about his process of selecting a running mate. But if past behavior is a guide, he will spend the coming days immersing himself in information and debating the merits of contenders with a disparate group of confidants.

The Democratic presidential hopeful will make the case against his favored choice just to test the strength of his own arguments. Only when he is confident that he has thought through all the considerations will Kerry settle on a vice presidential nominee -- no matter how long it takes.

Kerry's deliberative decision-making process, described by 20 friends, advisors, colleagues and aides in a series of interviews, is the hallmark of his approach to political and policy matters.

How the Massachusetts senator has approached issues such as campaign strategy, oil drilling in Alaska and postwar developments in Iraq offers a glimpse of how a President Kerry would make decisions in the White House.

Those who have observed him up close describe a man who is fundamentally more pragmatic than ideological, who delves into details, and who often surprises new aides by arguing his opposition's case, when in fact he is merely playing devil's advocate.

Kerry has an almost compulsive need to seek out feedback from a circle of advisors so large and diverse that those closest to him have trouble estimating its size. (By his own count, the candidate says he consults with hundreds of people.)

The core group consists of many who have been with him since his early days in Massachusetts politics: his brother Cameron; his former brother-in-law David Thorne; fellow Bay State Sen. Edward M. Kennedy; strategist John Marttila; and Ron Rosenblith, his first chief of staff in the Senate.

But Kerry says he also seeks perspective from people he has met on the campaign trail, from hospital administrators to Wall Street analysts.

Regardless of the issue, "he wants to get his arms around it and isn't comfortable unless he feels he has expertise in it," Cameron Kerry said.

"I've certainly had the experience of going in and saying, 'You should say the following.' ... But he's not accepted that easily. He's apt to pick up the phone and call any number of people who have an independent judgment."

Kerry's style stands in contrast with the man he is hoping to replace in the White House, a president who is known for leaving details to his aides. It's also an approach that has fed the criticism of Republican opponents, who say Kerry lacks clarity and certainty.

Those close to the senator say his decision-making is one of his greatest strengths, demonstrating thoughtfulness, intellectual prowess and an ability to broker dissent. But because of his thoroughness, Kerry can also come across as overly cautious, some acknowledge.

"It's exhaustive and it's detail-oriented, so by its nature it's not an intellectual process given to speedy decision-making," one former Senate aide said.

Sometimes, Kerry's deliberations cause his staff consternation. Last fall, the candidate considered whether to opt out of the public campaign finance system, a decision that would mean foregoing public matching funds in order to spend unlimited amounts of money raised from private donors during the primaries.

Kerry pondered the matter for more than three months, consulting as many as three dozen fundraisers, political strategists and attorneys. It was a politically delicate issue, since rejecting public funds could open Kerry up to criticism that he was abandoning campaign finance reform.

The lengthy process caused aides to fret that they wouldn't have enough time to adjust their fundraising strategy once he made a decision. Finally, in mid-November, a week after former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean opted out of the system, Kerry followed suit, saying Dean's move left him with no choice.

Those who know him best say Kerry's style is one of diligence, not hesitation.

In the Senate, he would make a decision "sometimes six months before a vote, sometimes six minutes before a vote," said Jonathan M. Winer, who worked for a decade as Kerry's Senate counsel and legislative assistant. "He is not going to delegate his decision-making to somebody else's opinion."

Though "this can easily be caricatured as indecisiveness," Winer added, "it's a choice not to make a decision prematurely that could be wrong or inadequate."

In an interview with The Times, Kerry said his method stemmed from what he learned from lively discussions at his family's dinner table, where "everybody had an opinion, and you'd argue and listen and talk about things."

It was refined by three years of law school and his experience as a Middlesex County prosecutor in the late 1970s.

"The Socratic teaching of the law really forces you to look for that truth ... and helps you understand sometimes how difficult it is to find in certain instances," Kerry said.

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