Alexandra Kerry Relives Her Father’s 2004 Campaign

Alexandra Kerry was never a big fan of politics. Still, Kerry, the oldest daughter of Sen. John Kerry and  his first wife, Julia Thorne, agreed to hit the campaign trail for her dad during his unsuccessful 2004 presidential  bid. A filmmaker and former actress, Kerry, 34, traveled to 33 states in four months but was a reluctant public figure. In "Notes From the Trail: Presidential Politics From the Inside Out," a poignant and candid new memoir and art book, Kerry describes what it was like to be part of a presidential campaign but still feel like an outsider. Her intimate prose is complemented by evocative photos from Kerry and photographers CJ Gunther, Hector Mata and Dina Rudick. In a statement to NEWSWEEK, Senator Kerry calls the book "a wonderful, personal insight" and says it "provides an opportunity to view an exceptional experience through a unique lens--that of an artist." NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno spoke to Alexandra Kerry about the book and how her time on the campaign changed her perspective on politics, America and even herself. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You struck a delicate balance on the campaign trail and in this book between insider and detached observer. How were you able to negotiate these two very different identities?
Alexandra Kerry:
I was very happy to support my father, but sometimes when I was campaigning and up on the stage, it was awkward for me. I would do some stage standing, with the queen's wave, but often I'd jump off the stage and start shooting video.

You say in the book that you really weren't that interested in politics when you were growing up, even with a political father. What changed?
I'm still not particularly interested in politics in terms of Red and Blue States or the "he said, she said" aspects. But in traveling to 33 states I got to know the issues and so many different perspectives. The blur of politics and media distracted from that, but I broke through that barrier and saw what people really cared about outside the bubble. But I still have a mixed relationship with politics.

How did the campaign experience change you as a person?
I think I'm more compassionate now as a result of connecting with other people's lives in a detailed, specific way. And I have a better understanding now of how political decisions relate to individuals. It sounds lofty and trite, but shaking hands with people and hearing their stories grounds you. I am less innocent.

Less innocent in what way?
I met so many people who took issue with the war, for example. It was interesting to see how the war was affecting them and their family members. To see that and not just read it in the newspaper definitely stayed with me. When you meet people in these circumstances and talk to them about their needs, it's not like a typical social conversation.

You mean it's less superficial?
Yes, there's a quick breakdown and much more familiarity. It very quickly gets down to a person's immediate needs, what their real hopes are in the world. These stories are used by politicians, they're trivialized in the retelling, but when you're out there and you hear them, it's powerful.

I say this with tongue in cheek because I think I know your attitude toward politics, but the way you're talking sounds as if you might want to run for office.
That isn't tongue in cheek, that's cheeky. [Laughs.] No, no, no. That's not happening. I still see all of this as an observer, a storyteller.

Both the narrative and the images in your book remind me of the 1972 Michael Ritchie film "The Candidate" starring Robert Redford as a reluctant senatorial candidate. That movie, like your book, is an interesting blend of hope and cynicism.
I loved that movie. There's a stark, compelling realism to it, a [John] Cassavetes feel to it. I also love that period of filmmaking. For me, this book is very much like scenes in a film. But I didn't plan that tone of cynicism and hope, I was just conveying the surrealism of the experience as I saw it. I actually could have had a more cynical voice than I had. I might have toned that down a bit to make it accessible.

Your book is also a chronicle of the road, and as an Iowa native I was particularly taken by your touching descriptions of Iowa, your first stop on the trail.
I encountered an incredible level of compassion and sophistication in Iowa. Iowans are so kind. Iowans listen like nobody else on the campaign trail.

You had a video camera all the while, but you've chosen not to use it other than taking stills from it for this book. What was the video for?
I shot more than 300 hours, logged it all and filed it away. After the election, I didn't feel like objectification. I got a job directing a feature, I've always wanted to do that. I'm focusing on fiction for now, but I may revisit the footage at some point.

With your observations of the reporters covering your father's campaign, this book is as much an essay on modern journalism as it is modern politics. How would you describe your take on the media?
Some of my best friends are journalists! There are people I really respect whom I met along the trail. The problem is the media is now run by corporations and conglomerates, it's tough to do in-depth reporting. But I watched journalists leave their families to ride on the back of that airplane, they were removed from the people they love, they were forced to file under file crazy deadlines and in tough circumstances and try to come up with interesting stories every day.

In the book you talk about how harsh the political process is on the losers and how this country is not trained to accept or deal with losing. Why is that, do you think?
I think because we are a very external, performance-based country. There's just this too-quick need to sum things up and fit them into a box so it's palatable. The nuance is harder for us to negotiate. Covering politics is like the box-office reports of a movie: they don't look closely at the losers.

How hard was it for you to read the press coverage of your father's 2004 campaign?
I know who he is, so it's odd to know someone, to know his character and his layers, and then see him portrayed in such two-dimensional ways.

What does your dad think of the book? Was there anything in it that surprised him?
He was supportive of it. There were a couple times where he wondered if something might be a little too controversial.

For example?
My discussions of the media, which I did from the point of view of someone who participates in the media. He just posed the question to me.

In the epilogue, you mentioned that you've campaigned for Barack Obama. How much have you done?
I spent a couple weekends in Pennsylvania and did some other things with my dad, but I'm mostly an observer in this process. I'm directing the video for a song by Lenny Kravitz that will be around in time for the [Democratic] convention. That's how I participate, that's how I contribute.

Have you observed Obama's daughters?
Yes, but Obama's daughters are 7 and 10; it's a different situation for them than it was for me. At that age, it's not the easiest thing in the world to participate in, but the family seems to be doing a graceful job.

What would you say is the prevailing message of your book?
The most I could hope for is that someone reads it and comes away with a better understanding of the political system and the media, as well. Just today I read an article about Obama's time in Hawaii that talked about how much he paid for an ice-cream cone and how many waves he caught. It's important for people to try to sift through those superficials.

And what does your book say to those who are very cynical about the American political system?
For cynics, the message from the book is that the political process is not all bad. It is problematic, but it is also vital. I would also say that I think the conclusions of the book are very personal. I never like reading literature or seeing films that sum something up in the end, that retell the story at the end of the story. There really isn't a conclusion.

Join the Discussion