As a five-term U.S. senator, the son of a diplomat and former secretary of state, John Kerry has been placed in rare and often unique situations allowing him to become skillfully adept in the art of successful negotiation.
And in a candid conversation with Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius on Saturday, Kerry, 74, emphasized the importance of diplomacy and U.S. leadership in the wake of mounting, complex challenges that have taken center stage in today’s globalized world.
Kerry also shared vignettes from his newly-released memoir, “Every Day Is Extra,” in which he shares his personal journey of a life dedicated to public service, discussed his close friendship with the late Sen. John McCain and revealed what has motivated him to recently embark on the campaign trail in support of his fellow Democrats in his party’s push to regain the House.
“‘Every Day Is Extra’ is an attitude about life, an expression that summarizes how a bunch of guys I served with in Vietnam felt about coming home alive and a pledge accepting responsibility to live a life of purpose,” he said before a packed audience at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in northwest D.C.
“When I started campaigning against Vietnam in 1969, we took on a powerful and popular president, Richard Nixon, in a turbulent time marked by assassinations, cities like Detroit burning and the possibility of being added to a list of enemies of the state, but we got through it,” he said. “And I’m confident that we will again. That’s why I take to heart the lesson I learned when I was a young veteran opposed to the war: you can always make a difference.”
“The key is America’s communities where you’ll find some of the most remarkable people — folks who are willing to get off their [butts], exercise their right to vote and pull up their sleeves to make democracy work,” he noted, adding that he has no plans to mount another bid for president in 2020 after losing to George W. Bush in 2004.
“As I said in the author’s note in my book, ‘every day is extra’ means living with the liberating truth of knowing there are worse things than losing an argument or even an election — the worst thing of all would be to waste the gift of an extra day by sitting on the sidelines indifferent to a problem.”
“Over the next several months, I’m going to campaign for people and also make sure America gets the person we need in the Supreme Court. Due to a long sequence of events that began before Nixon and his eventual fall and has allowed for the recent surge of populist notions and the hostile takeover of the White House by Donald Trump, people have become thoroughly dissatisfied with Democrats and Republicans, left, right or center. Washington has utterly failed to deliver.”
“I think it’s a big mistake for Democrats to plan for 2020 when the outcome of the field in 2018 is so critical to what the world will even look like two years from now. The work has to be done now.”
Asked about his views on Trump, Kerry said he’s chosen not to respond to the many tweets the president shares about the former secretary of state because “it doesn’t take you anywhere.”
“If you sleep with dogs, you will get up with fleas,” he said.
“The rules of the senate have not dramatically changed over the past 34 years — the people have. In the 80s, we worked together, we ate dinner together and we were able to cross the aisle without fear of being punished. Even if we disagreed with someone from the other party, we didn’t go after them and publicly criticize them — there was a sense of respect under which we operated.”
“I didn’t know John McCain — not until I found myself sitting across from him on an airplane bound for Kuwait. We talked until very late into the night, discussing the family legacy he faced at Annapolis, sharing how we both loved our country so much and why we had both decided to try to be of service. America was still torn apart over Vietnam and we agreed that as long as any POWs remained unaccounted for there was no way this country could move on.”
“We worked together and promised to break down barriers so that we could provide families with answers. Vietnam had been experienced quite differently by each of us. We were two very different people but we became friends. It was a long, 10-year process that we traveled together but one that was eventually successful. In the end, we were able to account for over 700 families who were able to have the remains of their loved ones returned home for burial.”
“We proved that bipartisan efforts were possible and could effectively result in the betterment of the country. Nowadays, it seems that many of our leaders are more concerned about keeping their seats than doing what’s right — what’s best for their own constituents.”
Kerry, who said he didn’t want to discuss the “I” word — impeachment — did, however, weigh in on the special investigation being led by his longtime friend, college classmate and soccer teammate, Robert Mueller, and his belief that while he “has a huge trail to lay out before the American people, he will get the job done thoroughly.”
“I’m confident that Robert will get to the truth,” he said. “He’s a professional’s professional who doesn’t go for any tomfoolery. As the captain of our soccer team, he terrorized the defense. And in similar fashion, he’s terrorizing the defense now.”
Then, he returned to some of the thoughts he shares in his book about the role and importance of “real” leaders.
“I’ve seen what happens when America leads,” he exclaimed, referencing then country’s years under Barack Obama’s presidency. “Sanctions against Russia stopped Putin. We stopped the spread of Ebola. We saw the first generation of AIDS-free children born in Africa because of Pepfar and we reduced world hunger by an amazing percentage. We can do even more and I’m confident that we can improve the quality of life for all Americans.”
“We’ve allowed for the making of an unsustainable equation in which 50 percent of the world’s wealth is owned by one percent of the world’s population. I’m not sure how long people in America or abroad will allow such wealth disparity to go on before something tragic happens. That really concerns me.”
“Despite Trump’s damaging effect, most countries are worried about our abandoning our long-held role as a leader on the world stage and fear what our absence may mean. Still, I think we can make it through a one-term presidency with him. But two? I don’t know about that,” he concluded.