Waiting … and Waiting … for Kerry

Posted November 16, 2004 at 6:50pm

A three-ring circus it was not. Although at times it appeared that way.

In a day that saw Senate careers rise and fall — and the future of one Senator from Pennsylvania hang in the balance — Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the defeated Democratic presidential candidate, returned to the chamber and hunkered down.

Literally.

Coiffed and confident, Kerry strolled into Tuesday’s Democratic organizational meeting in the Old Senate Chamber at about 20 minutes to 10 a.m. He was hardly in a hurry to spill his guts.

How is it to be back?

“I’m going to talk about it later,” he says, touching this scribe’s arm affectionately, as if there is more to come.

Not long after, the doors slammed shut.

Outside, about a dozen scribes stood vigil, aides paced, and periodically a GOP Senator strolled by.

A pair of curious Frist interns wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

“I should have him sign my Bill Frist T-shirt,” quipped one of the interns.

Sustained applause could be heard. Then more applause.

“Every time his name was mentioned, there was applause,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) explained later.

Two doors down from the Democratic gathering, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was seen leaving the Mansfield Room and darting into Frist’s leadership office, where he huddled with GOP leaders over the fate of his impending ascension to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairmanship.

Around 11 a.m., a call from the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms resulted in reporters being exiled to the Ohio Clock area of the corridor.

There was no Kerry. But in the other rings, Specter and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who will be the new Minority Leader in the 109th Congress — were holding court.

Meanwhile, Kerry exited, almost unnoticed, to his third-floor hideaway to conduct interviews with Boston television stations.

He had “stuff” to do, he told a small passel of reporters who managed to elude the quarantine.

He’ll be out soon, an aide later explained — just as soon as the interviews were over. The aide described Kerry’s mood as light and upbeat. “He was cracking jokes,” this morning, the aide noted.

As Kerry hunkered down in his third-floor hideaway, dozens of activists parked themselves across from the Dirksen Senate Office Building to hold a pray-in, urging Frist to block Specter’s impending elevation to Judiciary chairman.

Kerry still wasn’t talking, but his Senatorial colleagues had plenty of their own ideas about how he should proceed.

“It was good to [go] … right back to work,” recalled Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who followed up his failed vice presidential bid with a return to his former home in the Senate. Lieberman said he always made a point of returning “the next day” after each defeat.

Lott — who emerged from the GOP meeting with Specter to proclaim his support for the Pennsylvania Senator’s chairmanship — says Kerry needs “to get back up on the horse.”

With that in mind, perhaps, Kerry could refocus his energy on an issue near and dear to Lott’s heart: a rail relocation bill they’d sponsored together earlier in the 108th Congress.

“Maybe he’ll come back and help me get it done,” he said.

And did Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a potential Democratic presidential contender in 2008, have any words for Kerry?

“Oh, we had a lot of words,” she said, although apparently none for this reporter.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who sports a large bandage on his forehead from a skin-cancer operation, later described Kerry’s mood as “forceful” and forward-looking.

“We all went and talked to him,” said Harkin, adding that he chatted with Kerry about his home-state favorite for Democratic National Committee chairman, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. And no, the question of Dean — whom the Iowa Senator supported in the primaries — did not come up, Harkin said.

At the foot of the stairway leading to Kerry’s hideaway, a clutch of reporters waited and waited and waited. There were camera-flashing tourists, CVC workers in hard hats, and even the occasional mother with a baby stroller. But no Kerry.

Sometime after 1 p.m., a Kerry aide headed upstairs with a smiley-face plastic bag of Chinese take-out from Hunan Dynasty.

There had been reports that Kerry would emerge for the weekly Democratic luncheon. But while trays of ice cream were served in the LBJ Room, Kerry instead opted to feast on shrimp and broccoli with top aides upstairs.

Indeed, Members present later reported that the name of the junior Senator from Massachusetts did not come up often during the luncheon.

The emphasis was “on the future,” says retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who ran against Kerry in the Democratic presidential primary.

If anything, added Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) the focus of the luncheon was “on Daschle,” the recently defeated Minority Leader, who led Democrats for roughly a decade.

For his part, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) appeared more concerned about the menu. It was his last luncheon, after all, and “they didn’t even serve gumbo.”

Kerry’s spokesman David Wade later told reporters that Kerry spent much of the afternoon making phone calls and meeting with staff about legislation for the upcoming Congress. A floor speech would come, but not likely today, he said. And when it did, Kerry would be discussing “the debt ceiling,” of all things.

Kerry’s self-imposed exile apparently did not rub off on his former running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). At the luncheon, Edwards regaled his fellow Senators with lessons learned from the recent presidential election.

After the luncheon, a grinning Edwards waved to reporters. “It’s nice to see you all,” he said. But he did not stop to take questions before heading onto the Senate floor.

Above all, Harkin said, Edwards impressed on them the need to show red states “that we are really on their side.”

Back at the stairwell, a visibly preoccupied Kerry finally emerged from his hideaway more than three hours after first taking refuge there. But he still wasn’t in much of a mood to jawbone. His mind seemed elsewhere.

What did he miss most about the campaign trail?” asked one reporter.

“Not doing an interview right now.”

Was he glad to be back?

“I’m always happy to be back.”

So what was on the agenda for his first day back?

“Work.” And after that? “More work.”

And the final word?

“We’ll catch up with you later.” The elevator doors slammed shut.

Stay tuned.