Politics & Government

An unusual, close friendship strained

Those who know them say they once shared a genuine affection for each other, born in large part from their shared experiences in the Vietnam War and later working together to investigate the fate of prisoners of war and of those missing in action during the conflict.

Four years ago, Democratic Sen. John Kerry considered offering Republican Sen. John McCain the opportunity to be his running mate. But since then, their relationship has gradually deteriorated, and on Sunday, it reached a new low. Appearing on a news show, Kerry lambasted McCain for what he called a lack of judgment about the war in Iraq.

McCain “has proven that he has been wrong about every judgment he's made about the war,” Kerry said, “wrong about the Iraqis paying for the reconstruction, wrong about whether or not the oil would pay for it, wrong about Sunni and Shia violence through the years, wrong about the willingness of the Iraqis to stand up for themselves.”

Kerry insists that the senator from Arizona is “my friend and will always be my friend” but says that the person he considered for vice president in 2004 was a “very different John McCain” then. Kerry cites McCain's policy shifts on tax cuts, the treatment of detainees and the regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions.

McCain, through his staff, let it be known that he has no interest in talking about his relationship with Kerry. But Mark Salter, McCain's longtime chief of staff, rejected the idea of any tension between the two men.

At one time, the relationship was unusual for two senators from opposing parties. When Kerry faced an extremely tough re-election race in 1996 against Republican Gov. William Weld, McCain opted not to campaign against his Democratic friend. Four years later, Kerry returned the favor by organizing Senate combat veterans to defend McCain from criticism of his record during the Republican presidential primary fight against George W. Bush.

Given that history, when McCain's name was floated during Kerry's vice presidential search in 2004, many Democratic insiders said a Kerry-McCain ticket would be a winner.

And yet even as Kerry, a decorated Navy combat veteran, and McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, seemed on the verge of cementing their long friendship in a political pact, a rupture occurred and set the stage for everything that followed. But exactly what happened remains a matter of debate.

From the Kerry perspective, McCain had expressed genuine interest in the vice presidential nomination and then pulled away without warning, and while doing so leaked the story to the media, a Kerry friend recounted.

From the McCain perspective, Kerry was always overly optimistic about the possibility of McCain joining him on the Democratic ticket. “Kerry convinced himself that he could convince McCain to be on the ticket,” said one GOP strategist familiar with the discussions. “When that didn't happen, he took it really personally.”

Kerry insists that the miscommunication about his conversations with McCain was the fault of staff members and not the two senators.

If the vice presidential offer/non-offer strained Kerry and McCain's relationship, the ad that the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran during the 2004 campaign that attacked Kerry's military record threatened to end it entirely.

McCain quickly spoke out against the ad, calling it “dishonest” and “dishonorable” and comparing it to the criticism of his military service in 2000. But he refused to allow Kerry to use his image in rebuttal ads.

McCain's second campaign for the GOP presidential nomination and his support for more U.S. troops in Iraq were yet another strain. As the senator from Arizona grew more and more strident about increasing troop levels and about the danger of setting timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Kerry emerged as a leading voice in favor of beginning a drawdown of troops.

And Kerry's willingness to serve as the lead attack dog for Sen. Barack Obama, McCain's Democratic rival for the presidency, against McCain's policies is the clearest sign yet that the kinship that once existed between the two men is gone.