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Public Life and the Law

an interview with candidate john kerry '76

John Kerry Illustration
(Illustration by Barrie Maguire)

Senator John Kerry ’76 is running for President of the United States. We caught up with him on the campaign trail to ask him how a legal background has informed his thinking and political career.

Q.: What drew you to the law, and how has that early interest shaped you intellectually and professionally?

A.: My dad was a lawyer who also served as a diplomat in the US State Department. Advocacy and debate about politics and public issues were the norm around our dinner table. And I’m not just talking about me—my sisters and my brother [Cameron Kerry ’78] were passionate about issues and their points of view.

Those early family experiences had a lot to do with my being a debater in high school and college. I like grappling with issues and I like being an advocate. And being an advocate in the courtroom—persuading a judge or a jury—has always had a lot in common with persuading voters or other decision makers.

Along the way, I learned to do more than argue a position persuasively. At BC Law, I learned what it means to apply critical thinking, to approach intellectual problems using the Socratic method, to try to come up with the answers for questions I’d never even thought to ask before. In other words, I learned to learn to think like a lawyer. Once I honed the skill of critical thinking, I found that it could be applied in a lot of contexts. I’m sure it comes as no surprise when I say that legal thinking and training are just as useful to government and politics as they are to the practice of law.

Q.: Before you even got to law school, you served in the Navy in Vietnam. Did you consider that an extension of your intellectual development or a contradiction of it?

A.: It was both. Vietnam was one of the truly formative experiences of my life. It was about as far away as you can get from the classroom. But I learned a great deal about human nature, about instincts, about values. I learned enormously from my crewmates and about the capacity of people of every background to come together like family. Yes, I grew intellectually there because it made me think about what I wanted to do with my life, about how a government’s policies can affect the people it sends to fight, and it taught me to ask tough questions of my government. Some of those experiences led me to read philosophy, particularly St. Thomas Aquinas on war, and others on the subject of loss. That changes the way you think.

Q.: What drew you to Boston College Law School in particular?

A.: Although my family lived in a lot of places as I was growing up, Boston’s always been home. I was drawn to BC Law mostly because of Father [Robert] Drinan, whose first campaign for Congress I ended up chairing after I got out of the Navy and got involved in politics. In fact, the first time I ever came to BC Law was to meet with Father Drinan about his campaign.

He had left his position as dean of the Law School by the time I enrolled, but he made me aware of the Law School and its commitment to public service. I had expected to go to law school after college but got diverted by the Navy and then by my involvement in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I went back to the law school path after I lost a race for Congress in 1972. At that point, Father Drinan helped me to get into BC Law late in the process.

The experiences I still treasure most from my BC Law days weren’t in the classroom, they were the ULL [Urban Legal Lab] in third year, trying cases in the Middlesex D.A.’s Office, and the Grimes Moot Court Competition, which my partner Ronna Schneider and I won. I’d never focused more intensely on one issue, so that I’d be able to argue either side of the case, literally on the toss of a coin.

Q.: Earlier, you mentioned learning the Socratic method. Has that influenced how you’ve performed your job as a United States Senator?

A.: It’s had an effect, definitely. To me, the Socratic method, in a nutshell, means not simply accepting the answers that you’re given. Instead, you keep asking questions until you arrive at a place in your own mind, and your own conscience, where you feel you can make a decision. Sometimes I drive my staff crazy asking questions. Sometimes you may feel in retrospect that you didn’t reach the perfect decision because you didn’t ask exactly the right questions—or you weren’t given complete and honest answers. But at least you’ll have the comfort of knowing that you didn’t just rush in unthinking.

Critical legal thinking is enormously helpful in allowing me to reach a decision on a controversial vote. What’s also helpful, whether in committee or on the Senate floor, is hearing my fellow senators who are also lawyers go through their own Socratic process. Committee hearings can be just a show, but I think colleagues who have been in a courtroom often are able to get more out of them. The ability to hear an answer, and know what questions should follow from that answer, is important.

Q.: You won your first elected office in 1982 when you became Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, but prior to that you worked as a state prosecutor and private attorney. What impact did those experiences have on you?

A.: I can’t even count the number of times my experience as a prosecutor has given me a special perspective on my work in the Senate. For example, I’ve undertaken a fair amount of investigative work—the Iran-Contra affair, to name one, leading the POW-MIA investigation with John McCain, to name another. A lot like what prosecutors do. The prosecutorial experience also gave me an understanding of the work our public safety personnel do. That’s why I initiated the COPS program to put 100,000 cops on the streets under Bill Clinton.

My work in the criminal justice system in Massachusetts has taught me the limitations of that system. When I was in private practice, I represented George Reissfelder, who was convicted of a felony he did not commit. That experience has given me a special perspective on the death penalty.

Q.: Do you believe your background as a lawyer makes you more qualified than a non-lawyer for the job of President? If so, why?

A.: Absolutely. The most basic premise is that the President of the United States takes an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Through practicing law, my respect for the Constitution, for the American experiment in balancing rights and responsibilities, became very personal. I think if President Bush had that experience, he probably wouldn’t have appointed an Attorney General named John Ashcroft.