An Adult Speaks: Four Takeaways from John Kerry at Georgetown

MAX MAGID: On Thursday night Former Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at Georgetown about his new autobiography Every Day is Extra. Long-winded, detailed, and animated, Kerry cut a stark contrast with the incompetence so often displayed in the highest levels of our country today.  Here are my quick takeaways from the evening.

Kerry doesn’t sugarcoat the facts.

Oftentimes animated, and occasionally angry, Secretary Kerry did not shy away from describing the current political climate as a dangerous moment for our democracy. He discussed the naked partisanship coming from the majority party and how it was a betrayal of their sworn oaths.  The Kavanaugh debacle was clearly on his mind, but he also mentioned how the White House blatantly lied while described its reasoning from the Paris Climate Agreement, and how withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal empowered Iranian hardliners while accomplishing no clear goal.  He also discussed the challenges of climate change, and how even before Trump we weren’t doing enough, stating emphatically “because of decisions made by this administration, people will die.”

War has had a profound impact on Kerry’s life.

Secretary Kerry’s book, and his talk at Georgetown, started with a recollection about visiting the ruins of his mother’s house in France following WWII.  He describes the crunch of glass beneath his feet and seeing a staircase leading to nowhere as a formative memory teaching him the destruction of war. As a young man he lived through the national traumas of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Ultimately, he volunteered to fight in Vietnam where he served with distinction. He described how he maintained close ties to veterans throughout his subsequent political career, including a friendship with the late Senator John McCain.

Kerry’s book ends with facing the issue of Syria as Secretary of State, which was an issue he discussed in depth. He made it very clear that he clashed with members of Obama’s cabinet by advocating for a more aggressive stance early on, before ISIS and Russia complicated the picture. While he applauds the bombing of Assad’s forces by the Trump administration, Kerry is frustrated with the lack of diplomatic follow up which rendered the bombings useless. He frequently described the humanitarian disaster in Syria as an “open sore” on humanity, which was a phrase he also described to the situation in Yemen. While he is no longer Secretary of State, these issues clearly still keep Kerry up at night, and he is still reaching out to his connections to help solve issues of violence and strengthen America’s hand in negotiations.

Despite his warnings he sees some reasons for hope.

While Secretary Kerry raised numerous daunting issues facing America and the world, he made sure to point out reasons for hope. He mentioned many times his enthusiasm over the record number of women and veterans running for office. He said that when he first joined the senate he had as many daughters as there were female senators. Now that the situation is changing he hopes to see less of the confrontational, macho attitude that has paralyzed congress. Despite his dire warnings on climate change, Kerry also listed it as a reason for hope. When Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement most states, and nearly every major city, made local commitments to meeting the agreement anyway.  While Trump’s move no doubt hurt the fight against climate change, local actors have largely ameliorated the damage.

Kerry also maintains a firm belief that America’s institutions can withstand the barrage of attacks and challenges it faces.  He mentioned how he has lived through much worse, with the assassinations of the 60’s, domestic terrorism, Vietnam, and Watergate.  Throughout all of this, America endured. When people rise up and express their “felt consequences” politicians act. He used the example of the very first Earth Day, talking about how demonstrations and labeling 12 senators the “Dirty Dozen” lead to environmental regulations and the creation of the EPA.  These institutions and citizen actions will carry the nation through its present difficulties. This lead to what he described as his most important piece of advice: Vote. Voting rates at 52% in 2016 are a disgrace, but he believes that we can fix this issue with more awareness about its importance.

Secretary Kerry presents a stark contrast to recent Republican speakers.

Listening to Secretary Kerry, it is impossible to miss the contrast between him and current policy makers. While Trump is at an extreme with his inability to form grammatical sentences, proud ignorance, and disdain for facts, many other Republican figures wither in comparison to this statesman. While at times visibly passionate, it is impossible to picture this man blubbering and screaming in a Senate confirmation hearing. Secretary Kerry would not emptily criticize the partisan divide while having created “hand size” based invectives or hurled insults at victims of a mass shooting. This man who vocally worked for what he believed, even admitting where he clashed with Obama would never have to defend his role as a sycophant like Spicer. Secretary Kerry may have faith that we will get through this difficult moment, but I foresee a very long road ahead.

Max Magid