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In conversation with John Kerry: ’There’s no hope for the Trump administration’

The former secretary of state and presidential candidate on the future of the Democratic Party, Trump’s record on Iran and climate, and defending Ted Kennedy’s complicated legacy
John Kerry Addresses San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 13: Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Commonwealth Club of California event at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre on September 13, 2018 in San Francisco, California. John Kerry spoke in conversation with Commonwealth Club of California president and CEO Gloria Duffy. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Alexander Bisley’s political dialogues include conversations with Michael McFaul and Howard Dean.

John Kerry, who narrowly and controversially lost the 2004 U.S. presidential election to George W. Bush in Ohio, is back in the news with a new biography, Every Day is Extra. It features newsworthy commentary on his impressive achievements as Barack Obama’s second-term secretary of state, including the Iran Deal and the Paris climate accord. The 622-page tome also includes interesting reflections on Kerry’s 2004 run, his decorated service in Vietnam, and his courageous leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

But the book, like his 2004 campaign, has its weaknesses. A former Massachusetts prosecutor, Kerry romanticizes Ted Kennedy, despite his bad behaviours continuing after the damning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick that should have ended his political career. Kerry’s rose-tinted lenses are bipartisan, too: he’s also bizarrely generous to the Bush dynasty.

Over the phone from his Boston home, Kerry talks about voter suppression, climate change, the future of the Democratic Party, Russia and his hockey teammate Robert Mueller, who now leads a very different kind of team. (This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Q: It is quite vivid reading about your time in Vietnam in Every Day is Extra, especially commanding the river gunboat. It reminded me somewhat of Apocalypse Now.

A: Well, that’s where Apocalypse Now came from—the river war, the PBRs and the Swift boats. I remember watching Apocalypse Now when it first came out, there were a lot of reminders [of my time there]. All the way up until they went under the [Do Lung] bridge and got up into Marlon Brando country where it became a little psychedelic, it rang pretty true. But that got a little crazy.

Q: Apocalypse Now seemed so realistic and detailed, with all its different aspects, including that talky French family dinner—it really put one there.

A: Very, very much so. No question about that. It was an interesting time. It was very much the last vestige of the colonial struggle in many ways, which we didn’t understand originally when we went in. More people in the government should have read Graham Greene and Bernard Fall and people, they would’ve had a better sense of what was really going on.

Q: You took to Twitter not long after Donald Trump slammed your meetings with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif as “illegal”: “Mr. President, you should be more worried about Paul Manafort meeting with Robert Mueller than me meeting with Iran’s FM.”

A: The Art of the Deal has become The Art of the Squeal. For God’s sake, what are the deals that have been made? They’re squealing about North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, they have a love affair. They haven’t got an understanding yet of what denuclearization means, but they’re talking ’happy talk’. The same thing with day-to-day, in terms of the way they’re governing right now. People are deeply concerned about the division, and there’s a lot more squeal than there is deal. I write about Paul Manafort in the book. I mentioned that way back in the Philippines when I was first involved as a young senator, old Paul Manafort and Roger Stone show up.

READ MORE: Scott Gilmore on Trump’s ‘diplomatic treason’

Q: You’ve alleged that “Donald Trump is the worst president ever.” And Barack Obama recently said that Trump is “a symptom, not the cause,” an addendum to his comments during the 2016 presidential campaign: “The problem is that they’ve been riding this tiger for a long time. Republicans have been feeding their base all kinds of crazy for years. Donald Trump, as he’s prone to do, he didn’t build the building himself, but he just slapped his name on it and took credit for it.” What is your take on the wider problem of Republican extremism?

A: Yeah, there is a wider problem. The wider problem is the extreme orthodoxy of ideology that is being policed within the caucuses of the House and Senate where senators are threatened by the prospect of a primary from the right. They fear it enough that they are gridlocked. The president, Donald Trump, is exploiting it fairly well: he’s taken to new levels the mendacity that accompanies some of the theories of the right, he is distorting and outright misleading Americans with respect to many different choices that he’s made. For instance, he claims that the Paris agreement is a burden on our country: Every country accepted it. We’re not being forced to do things. We voluntarily accept certain responsibilities which we’ve defined. Nobody defined for us.

So it protects our sovereignty and it’s within our capacity, but he misleads Americans and scares them, telling them that it’s a burden placed on us by other nations and we’re not going to give up our rights, et cetera. So he’s exploiting it to a huge degree. He’s making judgments that will cost the lives of Americans and other people around the world—the prolonging and aggravating of climate change is going to cost lives. It’s going to cost billions of dollars in damage to property. Trump is responsible for pulling out of the Iran agreement, pulling out of Paris, and making disastrous choices about trade, and injuring the alliance that we’ve relied on since World War Two to try to lift the behaviour of nations on this planet. People are very worried about the individual choices that this president makes, even as most of the members of the House and Senate on the Republican side know the irrationality and the dubious nature of process in this administration. Very specifically, Bob Corker said it’s an “adult daycare centre,” and Lindsey Graham is famous for having summed up Donald Trump, prior to succumbing to what’s happening.

Q: But no Republican in Congress is doing anything meaningful to counteract the Trump agenda, in terms of their votes.

A: That’s absolutely correct. And I’ve commented on that. It’s a sad day when people privately will sit around and tell you how terrible things are and how off-base he is, and then publicly they will vote to support power presidency and party above the constitutional oath to defend the Constitution and defend the institutions of our government.

READ MORE: Former U.S. ambassador to Russia on Putin: ‘He thinks we’re out to get him’

Q: You write that you were “furious” about voter suppression and voting machine irregularities in Ohio, which handed George W. Bush the 2004 election. But you ultimately decided that there was no point fighting because the Supreme Court would just rule 5-4 again.

A: Well, it was very clear to me that we were mostly on constitutional grounds in any kind of challenge. The courts in Ohio refused to let us ascertain the veracity of the algorithm by which those machines were run. The court decided that that was proprietary information, so we were left at the end of the election having to make arguments that it was very clear the makeup of the [Supreme] Court would have done precisely what it did when it first appointed George Bush after Al Gore clearly achieved more votes but they weren’t all counted.

Q: Given all this, when and how are the Democrats going to fight back against the Republicans winning dirty through the Supreme Court?

A: Well, you have to win. If you believe in the system and if you believe in democracy and you believe in the values which we talk about, you have to win at the ballot box. In 27 days, we have a course correction election. My hope is that the American people are going to take advantage of that and correct the course. That’s how you do it in a democracy. There’s no shortcut, if you want to sustain your democracy. If you take the shortcuts that the Republicans have taken, you diminish it and you drag the country down and I don’t think we [Democrats] want to get into that process. I think that would be very dangerous.

Q: But you also write, Mr. Secretary, that “it was no secret that Republicans have worked hard in many states to suppress the vote,” including with questionable legislation, especially voter suppression targeting minorities that overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Eighteen years on from the Florida scandal, and it’s still unacceptable. Don’t the Democrats need to employ legislative measures as well, to have a fighting chance?

A: Yes. In other ways it’s winning back governorships, winning back legislatures at the state level. Because the states still define a lot of those rules in their own states. That’s still an anomaly of our system, it’s not all federally administered or mandated. And so the Secretary of State of Ohio [Ken Blackwell] was the administrator of the election in Ohio when I ran, and that’s one of the reasons we had problems and challenges, because he was the chairman of the Bush campaign.

But the bottom line is that you still got to win it at the ballot box, you’ve got to have a better idea. You’ve got to mobilize the American people and you’ve got to get them to vote. And the truth is that in the 2016 election, only 54.2 per cent of eligible voters in America saw fit to come out to vote for president. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it was 62.3. So that’s the difference. It’s not just a story of some of the people who did vote. It’s largely a story of people who didn’t vote.

Q: Sure, but aren’t there legal tactics the Democrats could use, for example, voting-rights legislation?

A: Yes, of course, there are all kinds of things we could do within the legislative process to make it better. But you’ve got to have 60 votes [in the Senate], not 49.

Q: Let’s talk about why some people maybe didn’t vote, then. What is an important lesson from the Hillary Clinton campaign’s failings for Democrats, running both in November and in 2020?

A: Well, I don’t want to get into addressing a specific failing here or there! Just give you generic lessons I learned in my campaign and watching all the campaigns since. You got to have a 50-state strategy, you’ve got to be able to fund adequately in all of those states, which we weren’t able to do when I ran, as I wrote about. You’ve got to go to states. You can’t take any state for granted. People need to hear from you. Every time you do that, you build up the popular vote. Most importantly, you’ve got to excite people around an agenda that is going to actually improve their lives, and to address the concerns they have about the willingness of Washington to respond to their needs.

Right now people are disenfranchised, disaffected, discontent, pissed-off! All because they don’t feel people are listening to them and responding to their life needs. A lot of people are finding that life is a hell of a lot harder. They can’t pay their bills. They don’t have a better job. They are not earning more money. They see the chunk of tax cuts going to the wealthiest people, and it breeds an anger. The Democrats need to be very clear, in a very powerful way, that they understand exactly what is going on at the grassroots level and that they have a plan to address it.

READ MORE: The rise of the radical left in the Democratic Party

Q: On your 2004 campaign, you didn’t disrespect voters with language like “baskets of deplorables.”

A: Again, I’m not going to go back and start picking out things. I made my own share of mistakes and we all are capable of doing that. What’s important is, as I just laid out the formula, we have to speak in a way that excites the imagination of people who are very angry and very disenfranchised and get them to believe there’s a reason worth voting for. If our agenda is clear, and I believe it is, not taking away healthcare because of pre-existing conditions, not seeing people unable to send their kids to school because they can’t earn enough money, because the minimum wage is still too low.

Q: So raising the minimum wage is a key idea for Democrats, running both in November and in 2020?

A: I’m for it. I think we need to raise the minimum wage. I was glad to see Amazon do what it did the other day and I hope that’ll set an example for a lot of other people. You can’t live on seven bucks—it’s just not realistic.

Q: So $15 hourly would work as a national minimum wage, as Amazon is now promising?

A: I’d have to evaluate the latest economic data. The last amount that people have been talking about is in the $15 range, but I’d have to see the latest data to evaluate that. I don’t want to lock myself into a number without going through that process.

Q: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report is now out. Is there hope America’s federal government will robustly tackle climate change?

A: Well, there’s no hope for the Trump administration. No really measurable, palpable hope. The administration has taken a policy that has got to cost people’s lives, it’s going to cost billions of dollars of damage. It’s an enormous miscalculation, a mistake for the world. The science is very clear. The science is telling us exactly what is going to happen, and it has been happening. This is one of the single most important issues we have to tackle. And there’s nowhere that I go that I don’t talk about the available tools to deal with climate change, the most important of which is energy policy. We have the means of dealing with climate.

Q: Do you still believe in bipartisanship?

A: Of course I do. I believe in the possibility because I’ve lived it. I have a chapter in the book about John McCain and I working on the Vietnam issue, POW MIA, and on climate change.

Q: And you still believe that after the 2004 Bush campaign trashed your much-decorated war service in Vietnam?

A: Well, that was the first great significant fake news campaign, and it’s become de rigeur now I guess. But the answer is that it doesn’t serve our country well. I describe it in Everyday Is Extra. I describe the progression of the Senate from the early 1990s through the different upheavals politically, of the Contract for America Gingrich Revolution, the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and then Donald Trump. It’s a clear progression of growing anger and disenchantment—a clear progression, also, of lies and alternative facts and obfuscation and distortion which is leaving America’s democracy high and dry.

Q: Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between the president’s associates and the Russian government, was the captain of your high-school hockey team; you also played soccer and lacrosse with him for a few years. What’s something you learned from him?

A: He’s a determined guy. He’s a very strong minded, high-purpose individual. America can rely on him to do justice and to be fair.

Q: He’s a man who knows how to shred a defence?

A: Yes indeed! A man who knows how to shred a defence, which is what he’s doing today. Also a man who knows how to stand up to pressure and navigate difficult choices and lead people to decent outcomes. To uphold the law. He’s a strong-willed, best of America citizenship guy who is committed to the rule of law and justice and to do what’s right. He doesn’t have much patience for people who flaunt the law and think it’s made differently for them. He’ll give this [Russia investigation] the most honest evaluation that he can, and crown a very long and successful and important career in law enforcement with a very difficult task.

Q: What’s it like being in a room negotiating head-to-head with Vladimir Putin?

A: I’ve had some tough conversations with Vladimir Putin. We got a lot of things done. We got the support of Russia for many things we had to do. Did we win on everything? No. Were there still real differences over Ukraine or Crimea or menacing our elections or mucking around in other countries? You bet ya, there were! We pushed those very forcefully. But at the same time we got Russia to cooperate with us. So the Iran nuclear agreement, we got Russia to cooperate on getting chemical weapons out of Syria. We got Russia to cooperate on the Paris climate accord agreement. We got Russia to help us create the largest marine protected area on earth, in the Ross Sea.

Q: You write rosily about your colleague Ted Kennedy in Every Day Is Extra. In the age of #MeToo, do we need to reconsider Ted Kennedy’s lesser moments?

A: Well, I think Ted Kennedy faced some of that very publicly when he was serving. It’s not as if the bumps he had along the way weren’t noticed by all of America. I dare to say that that’s why he wasn’t able to win the nomination and didn’t become president. It’s not something new.

He talked very directly to the people of Massachusetts about it on several occasions, including in his last race against Mitt Romney. So I think yeah, the times have changed and there’s this greater level of scrutiny, but it’s not as if he didn’t have a few days of reckoning along the way.