Who Is John Kerry?

Dec. 17, 2004 -- In 1971, when 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer asked John Kerry, an antiwar movement leader, "Do you want to be president?," the now Democratic White House hopeful replied, "Of the United States? No."

Now, after 19 years in the Senate, Kerry is biting his words as he wages a political battle for the presidency in 2004.

Kerry was born in Colorado, but he learned, as he puts it, to walk and talk in Massachusetts. Raised in a well-off family, he said he never thought of himself as rich or took it for granted.

"I thought of myself as privileged," he told ABCNEWS' Peter Jennings. "I had opportunity, but my parents were really clear about the sense of responsibility that one had to the world around you and that you give back. And we were all raised — all of us were raised — in that sense."

Because his father was in the Foreign Service, Kerry was sent to a series of boarding schools. He said it was sometimes lonely.

"At times, and I think particularly with my parents away, I mean that made me feel a little strange," he said. While other students' parents would visit on weekends, he said, "I don't think my parents ever came to one sporting event that I ever was involved in, or any other event, while I was there. They just weren't there."

The challenges of his youth were coupled with great opportunity. "How many kids get to ride a bike through the Brandenburg Gate and go into East Berlin and see the difference between Communism and the West at age 12?" Kerry observed.

An Unforgettable Encounter

As a young man, Kerry was serious. And excited, he says, by President John F. Kennedy.

Kerry told Jennings how he first met JFK while visiting in Rhode Island. "I happened to wind up at the house where he was staying," said Kerry. "[He] wanted to go sailing and we went out. I had an incredible moment of meeting the president and of having this just down-to-earth conversation with the guy."

When Kerry told Kennedy he was about to start college at Yale, Kennedy grimaced because he had gone to Ivy League rival Harvard. "He smiled at me, laughed and said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. You know I'm a Yale man too now,' " said Kerry. "[The president] uttered that famous comment about how he had the best of two worlds now: a Harvard education and Yale degree," referring to the fact he had received an honorary degree from Yale in 1962.

"It was an interesting moment, and one that I obviously would never forget," said Kerry.

Vietnam: ‘I Was Very Lucky’

After graduating from Yale, Kerry enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. He served two tours of duty and won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. "I was very lucky," he said. "I was one of the walking wounded each time. And very blessed."

Kerry came home bitterly opposed to the war. Testifying before Congress on April 22, 1971, he inquired, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

"I think it's a question that lingers on to this day," Kerry said. "It's the test before you send people to war. It's a sad question to ask. But I thought it was the question."

Change of Heart

After unsuccessful bids for Congress in 1970 and 1972, he become a state prosecutor and later served briefly as Massachusetts' lieutenant governor. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984. After serving 19 years in the Senate, he has now changed his mind about running for president.

"I did not, you know, decide to run for president four years after I'd been in the Senate or eight years after I'd been in the Senate, or 12 years after I'd been in the Senate," said Kerry. "[I've] been there 19 years. So I don't think what I'm doing is somehow bizarre."