An interview with John Kerry, 68th U.S. Secretary of State

John Kerry has had a long and rich career in politics, culminating with him serving as Secretary of State for Barack Obama. He very nearly became president himself, having run for office in 2004 against George W Bush and come within one state of winning. Now retired, and promoting his memoir ‘Every Day is Extra’, he was at Central Hall Westminster tonight to be interviewed by Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a politician, Kerry always seemed to me like one of the good guys: a human being with integrity who (as much as any politician does) had the electorate’s best interests at heart. But would that make him an interesting speaker? Read on to find out…

The first surprise was Kerry’s close links with Europe. His mother was born in Paris and didn’t move to America until she was 24, and his grandmother lived in London during World War II, during which period her Chelsea flat was bombed. He grew up, Kerry told us, with that conflict in his head and vividly remembers visiting his family’s bombed-out house in Brittany in 1947, his mother in tears at his side.

Due to his father’s work, Kerry experienced a peripatetic childhood which, he says, instilled in him “a sense of over-confidence”. Moving from one European country to another, he learned to speak French and German (“Not a good idea for an American president”, he cracked) and had “a remarkable capacity for adventure”. Said sense of adventure could and did lead him into trouble; for example his foray, aged 12, into East Berlin on a diplomatic passport. “I was scared”, he recalled, “Everything was grey, dark and forbidding”. Slipping back into West Berlin and rushing home full of pride at his ambitious outing, Kerry was most surprised to be grounded by his horrified parents.

His relationship with his father, Kerry says, was always difficult. “We shared certain interests, such as sailing and skiing – but he was a remote figure”. In some ways, that wasn’t surprising; Kerry’s paternal grandfather had committed suicide when his son was just six years old.

The Vietnam War remains one of the most seismic events in John Kerry’s life. Graduating from university in 1966, just as Lyndon Johnson was requesting an additional 500,000 troops, Kerry enlisted – not, at that point, an opponent of the war. Posted to Vietnam, he was made skipper of a gunboat on the Mekong Delta.

Exposed to the horrors of that unwinnable conflict, Kerry’s views soon changed. “It was a civil war we shouldn’t have been in”, he reflected, “and which occurred because America had been on autopilot since World War II. That whole era was about Communism: McCarthy, Eisenhower, the Rosenbergs, nuclear bunkers…”.

Recommending ‘A Bright Shining Lie’ as the best book he’s ever read about Vietnam, Kerry talked of his anti-war activities: of leading Vietnam veterans on a march to Washington despite President Nixon’s threat to arrest them all – and of introducing John Lennon at an anti-war rally in 1971.

Arguably, that was the beginning of John Kerry’s political career, although he wasn’t elected to the Senate until 1984 (teaming up six years later with John McCain to repair America’s relationship with Vietnam). But it was the present day – “This extraordinary time in all our lives” – that Andrew Rawnsley was most keen to discuss, bluntly asking Kerry (and here I apologise to my American followers: you know I cherish you all): “What on earth has gone wrong in American politics?”

“It’s a very complicated situation”, was Kerry’s measured response. His take on the past couple of decades is that since Newt Gingrich’s election, in 1994, people have entered the Houses with different agendas and less tolerant policies, attracting voters with promises of smaller government and reduced taxes. Gingrich was eventually ejected, but then the Tea Party arrived…leading, eventually, to the hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Donald Trump. “It’s interesting”, Kerry mused; “The rules of the Senate haven’t changed since I started working there – but the people have”.

With President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, March 2016

Donald Trump is far from being the only politician who continues to fascinate/appal on a global basis. What does America’s former Secretary State make of Vladimir Putin? “I did manage to negotiate some agreements as regards the Paris Agreement and the Iran deal. And between us, we created the largest marine-protected area on the planet”.

There’s always a “but” and in this case it was a massive one: Ukraine. Kerry’s response to Russia’s acts of aggression was to implement tough sanctions, aided by America’s allies.

Asked about his political regrets, Kerry gave a one-word response: “Syria”. At the time of his appointment as Secretary of State, 100,000 Syrians had already died and he blames a collective lack of will to take risks in bringing the relevant parties to the negotiating table. “The 21st century’s greatest stain right now is the failure of international states to use diplomacy towards Syria”.

Powerful words – from a man who has wielded great power. And yet, I came away from this talk feeling somewhat underwhelmed. John Kerry has  participated in a number of key events in recent history, but a brilliant orator he is not. That doesn’t mean that I don’t admire him, or wish that there were more politicians like him: far from it. He is clearly a decent and, I imagine, kind man. But he lacks the (dreaded word) charisma so crucial these days in political life.

To an extent, that may be because he is uncomfortable talking about his private life and family – interestingly, he was far more animated on the subject of climate change, lambasting the “climate change-denying President of the USA” and beseeching us to use our votes to ensure that every politician going into office understands the environmental threat we are facing.

Tonight’s interview gave a modicum of insight into how the U.S. government is run but also, upon reflection, showed why John Kerry never quite made it to the highest office in that land. Unfair it may be, but “nice” guys rarely finish first.

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