ONE of the surest ways to get the phones ringing on any Massachusetts talk-radio show is to ask people to call in and tell their John Kerry stories. The phone lines are soon filled, and most of the stories have a common theme: our junior senator pulling rank on one of his constituents, breaking in line, demanding to pay less (or nothing) or ducking out before the bill arrives.
The tales often have one other common thread. Most end with Sen. Kerry inquiring of the lesser mortal: "Do you know who I am?"
And now he's running for president as a populist. His first wife came from a Philadelphia Main Line family worth $300 million. His second wife is a pickle-and-ketchup heiress.
Kerry lives in a mansion on Beacon Hill on which he has borrowed $6 million to finance his campaign. A fire hydrant that prevented him and his wife from parking their SUV in front of their tony digs was removed by the city of Boston at his behest.
The Kerrys ski at a spa the widow Heinz owns in Aspen, and they summer on Nantucket in a sprawling seaside "cottage" on Hurlbert Avenue, which is so well-appointed that at a recent fund-raiser, they imported porta-toilets onto the front lawn so the donors wouldn't use the inside bathrooms. (They later claimed the decision was made on septic, not social, considerations).
It's a wonderful life these days for John Kerry. He sails Nantucket Sound in "the Scaramouche," a 42-foot Hinckley powerboat. Martha Stewart has a similar boat; the no-frills model reportedly starts at $695,000. Sen. Kerry bought it new, for cash.
Every Tuesday night, the local politicians here that Kerry elbowed out of his way on his march to the top watch, fascinated, as he claims victory in more primaries and denounces the special interests, the "millionaires" and "the overprivileged."
"His initials are JFK," longtime state Senate President William M. Bulger used to muse on St. Patrick's Day, "Just for Kerry. He's only Irish every sixth year." And now it turns out that he's not Irish at all.
But in the parochial world of Bay State politics, he was never really seen as Irish, even when he was claiming to be (although now, of course, he says that any references to his alleged Hibernian heritage were mistakenly put into the Congressional Record by an aide who apparently didn't know that on his paternal side he is, in fact, part-Jewish).
Kerry is, in fact, a Brahmin - his mother was a Forbes, from one of Massachusetts' oldest WASP families. The ancestor who wed Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter was marrying down.
At the risk of engaging in ethnic stereotyping, Yankees have a reputation for, shall we say, frugality. And Kerry tosses around quarters like they were manhole covers. In 1993, for instance, living on a senator's salary of about $100,000, he managed to give a total of $135 to charity.
Yet that same year, he was somehow able to scrape together $8,600 for a brand-new, imported Italian motorcycle, a Ducati Paso 907 IE. He kept it for years, until he decided to run for president, at which time he traded it in for a Harley-Davidson like the one he rode onto "The Tonight Show" set a couple of months ago as Jay Leno applauded his fellow Bay Stater.
Of course, in 1993 he was between his first and second heiresses - a time he now calls "the wandering years," although an equally apt description might be "the freeloading years."
For some of the time, he was, for all practical purposes, homeless. His friends allowed him into a real-estate deal in which he flipped a condo for quick resale, netting a $21,000 profit on a cash investment of exactly nothing. For months he rode around in a new car supplied by a shady local Buick dealer. When the dealer's ties to a congressman who was later indicted for racketeering were exposed, Kerry quickly explained that the non-payment was a mere oversight, and wrote out a check.
In the Senate, his record of his constituent services has been lackluster, and most of his colleagues, despite their public support, are hard-pressed to list an accomplishment. Just last fall, a Boston TV reporter ambushed three congressmen with the question, name something John Kerry has accomplished in Congress. After a few nervous giggles, two could think of nothing, and a third mentioned a baseball field, and then misidentified Kerry as "Sen. Kennedy."
Many of his constituents see him in person only when he is cutting them in line - at an airport, a clam shack or the Registry of Motor Vehicles. One talk-show caller a few weeks back recalled standing behind a police barricade in 2002 as the Rolling Stones played the Orpheum Theater, a short limousine ride from Kerry's Louisburg Square mansion.
The caller, Jay, said he began heckling Kerry and his wife as they attempted to enter the theater. Finally, he said, the senator turned to him and asked him the eternal question.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Yeah," said Jay. "You're a gold-digger."
John Kerry. First he looks at the purse.
Howie Carr, a Boston Herald columnist and syndicated talk-radio host, has been covering John Kerry for 25 years.