Whopper of the Week: John Kerry.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 7 2003 6:34 PM

Whopper of the Week: John Kerry

Did he pretend to be Irish?

"[John] Kerry acknowledged that some voters in Massachusetts, the nation's most Irish-American state, may have had the impression that he had Irish roots. He said that he knew of no Irish ancestry and that he had always tried to correct misstatements whenever he learned about them.

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"Numerous publications, including the Globe, have stated that Kerry is Irish-American.

"'I'm sure some people see the name and say, "Hey, I think it's this or that," but I've been clear as a bell,' Kerry said. 'I've always been absolutely straight up front about it.'

[…]

"Kerry 'has never indicated to anyone that he was Irish and corrected people over the years who assumed he was,' [spokeswoman Kelly] Benander said."

—Michael Kranish, "Search for Kerry's Roots Finds Surprising History," in the Feb. 2 Boston Globe.

''For those of us who are fortunate to share an Irish ancestry, we take great pride in the contributions that Irish-Americans …"

—Senate floor statement by John Kerry, March 18, 1986, as quoted in Frank Phillips' and Brian C. Mooney's "1986 Statement Counters Kerry's Stand on Heritage," in the March 6 Boston Globe.

"As some of you may know, I am part-English and part-Irish. And when my Kerry ancestors first came over to Massachusetts from the old country to find work in the New World, it was my English ancestors who refused to hire them."

—Draft remarks prepared for Kerry in 1984, quoted by Phillips and Mooney in the March 6 Globe. Kerry was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts at the time.

"[I]n 1982, at the state Democratic convention in Springfield, his campaign gave his convention floor workers emerald-green T-shirts and hats featuring the logo, 'Up Kerry'—a takeoff on the rallying cry for the first president of the Republic of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, whose supporters cried, 'Up de Valera!' "

Phillips and Mooney in the March 6 Globe.

Discussion. The question before the jury is whether Kerry has systematically sought to con Massachusetts voters (a great many of whom are Irish) into thinking that he's Irish. Kerry's spokesperson, Kelley Benander, told the Globe the erroneous Senate floor statement was staff-written and that Kerry neither recited nor saw it. (It's common for members of Congress to submit written floor statements in lieu of going to the Senate floor and saying the words out loud, and these statements are indeed often written by staff members.) Neither Kerry nor Benander nor Jonathan Winer, the Kerry aide who wrote the draft remarks prepared for Kerry when he was lieutenant governor, recall the speech being used. (But they don't seem specifically to recall it not being used, either.) As for the Irish-themed Kerry campaign paraphernalia, Benander said it was meant to attract Irish-American voters, not to con people into thinking Kerry was Irish.

Still, it's striking that the Globe was able to find two separate instances where Kerry's own staff thought he was Irish and a third where Kerry's campaign invited the public to believe he was Irish. (Benander's explanation about the hats and T-shirts fails to persuade because Kerry wasn't visiting an Irish neighborhood. He was at a state convention attended by people with all sorts of backgrounds.) And it is striking that Kerry has never attempted to correct various references to his Irish ancestry that have appeared in the Globe, which is the most important newspaper in his state.

Chatterbox's bottom line is that a political candidate and officeholder is responsible for whatever goes out under his name. So the Senate statement alone qualifies this as a Whopper. As to the larger question of whether Kerry habitually tells opportunistic lies about his background, or anything else, the jury's still out. But you can bet the Globe, and everyone else, will be watching.

[Correction, March 15: Winer, who was not contacted by the Globe for the story, says it misreported (secondhand, via Benander) his recollection about the 1984 draft comments. The Globe said Winer didn't remember Kerry giving the speech. Winer says he does remember that Kerry did not give the speech. "He refused to use it," Winer e-mailed Chatterbox. "Told me it wasn't funny." Chatterbox notes that Winer does not affirm that Kerry further said, "And besides, I'm not Irish," so he presumes that didn't happen.]

Got a whopper? Send it to chatterbox@slate.com. To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.

Whopper Archive:
Feb. 28, 2003: Ari Fleischer
Feb. 14, 2003: Bill O'Reilly
Feb. 7, 2003: Saddam Hussein
Jan. 31, 2003: Karl Rove
Jan. 23, 2003: Bill Frist
Jan. 17, 2003: Naji Sabri
Jan. 10, 2003: Rod Paige

(Click here to access the Whopper Archive for 2002 and here to access the Whopper Archive for 2001.) 

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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