"He is what he is," says Scott Ferson, president of Liberty Square Group and former Kennedy press secretary. "He's not going to be Ted Kennedy or Scott Brown, so there's a kind of authenticity to what he is, with all his plusses and minuses."
Others — even some who are not fans of Kerry — say the same.
More important, the most powerful people in Washington see him that way. Kerry has become the trusted go-to guy in Congress for both Obama and Reid. He has expanded his portfolio to include foreign policy, job creation, health care, the environment, and, now, the budget. And, rather than merely posturing for headlines, he sets to work with that stereotypical Kerry earnestness, trying to find serious, bipartisan solutions.
It's admirable, and often impressive. But, in the current political world, when his GOP counterparts dance to their Tea Party and talk-radio masters, there seems to be no place for bipartisanship, compromise, honest debate, or even objective reality.
This leads to the question: has Kerry emerged as a statesman at a time when that concept is an anachronism?
Kerry's growth comes partly from within. Democratic observers such as Quinn say the senator has become more mature, and more appreciative of the need to cultivate relationships, including those that cross the partisan and ideological divide.
He has also been forced — as Kennedy was before him — to accept the failure of his presidential ambitions, and focus on his role in the Senate. Plus, the death of Kennedy two years ago allowed Kerry to step out from behind the legend's shadow, and take responsibility for many duties and issues that had previously been the prerogative of his senior delegate.
"Very sadly, my partner of 26 years is not here to be fighting the fight," Kerry says. "Therefore, I have to remember the lessons from him, and go out there and take on more."
But more important than all that, circumstances have finally caught up with Kerry's long-existing sense of self-importance.
Kerry, first elected in 1984, is now in the top 10 for seniority in the Senate, and sixth among the majority Democrats. A remarkable 43 of 100 senators are new since 2006, a level of inexperience that bestows additional authority on veterans like Kerry.
He also has, at long last, chairmanship of a major committee, having taken over Foreign Relations when Joe Biden became vice-president in 2009.
His years in Washington have also given Kerry a wealth of relationships that provide him almost unequaled access — especially in the current administration. Biden, with whom Kerry worked closely for many years, is just one example. Obama himself goes way back with Kerry, who plucked the then-state-senator from obscurity to deliver the keynote address at his nominating convention. Clinton has also worked with Kerry, both as senator and first lady, and now relies on him as almost a deputy secretary of sorts in missions around the world.
Kerry has also built up an impressive policy staff, including John Phillips, who focuses on appropriations, Ali Bonebrake on health policy, and Frank Lowenstein, who heads the foreign-relations staff. For the debt committee, he has Kathy Kerrigan, a tax-policy whiz who staffs him on the finance committee, and who has been nominated to be a judge on the US Tax Court.