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Column: John Kerry on Trump’s ‘disarray’ and how to fix our broken politics

PATT MORRISON ASKS

If President Trump had deliberately set out to help former Secretary of State John Kerry sell copies of his new memoir, “Every Day is Extra,” he probably could not have done more. In an interview about the book, Kerry had made reference to “three or four” meetings he’d had recently with Iran’s foreign minister about, among other matters, the nuclear deal that Trump has scrapped. Kerry says such meetings with foreign leaders are what many former secretaries of State do — including the peripatetic Henry Kissinger. But Trump tweeted that the meetings were “illegal” and “BAD!” Kerry’s retort to Bill Maher: that Trump has the “maturity of an 8-year-old boy with the insecurity of a teenage girl.”

Those were the headlines du jour when Kerry — the longtime Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate — came to the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange last weekend to talk about his life, his book and his thoughts about the approaching midterms and the man in the White House.


I want to start with your impression of January 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in, compared to January 2017, when Donald Trump was sworn in, after whose inauguration speech, former President George W. Bush was reliably quoted as saying: “That was some weird [expletive]. “ How did that 180 degrees come to pass in a short time in this country?

It came to pass, I think, because politics is so broken in our country, and it's broken for a lot of different reasons. But our democracy is not working. People on the right are mad, people on the left are mad, people in the center are mad.

And I watched the changes in the United States Senate begin probably really in the 1990s. The Senate in the 1990s began to receive people who were the product of the Gingrich revolution. They came over from the House [of Representatives] and they were more bomb throwers and people who [had a] “my way or the highway” kind of approach.

And you went through the Gingrich revolution to the tea party [movement] and the promise of the Gingrich revolution, the promise of the tea party, the promise of the Freedom Caucus was, we're going to have less government, we're going to have lower taxes, we're going to get rid of regulations, we're going to kill Roe vs. Wade.

And guess what? They didn't do it. None of it. So eventually what you had after the Freedom Caucus was a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Donald Trump.

But he did tap into a legitimate anger in our country, and if politicians don't begin to understand that anger, we're going to continue to not be in touch with the American people and with the real concerns and hopes of the people.

My book, it’s a life story of a journey from the 1960s, when President Kennedy was killed. It just was a profoundly convoluted time from that moment forward in the 1960s.

I think that was the beginning of the defining moment: the civil rights movement and the effort we made to send buses down to the South to break the back of Jim Crow, and the dogs were unleashed, and the hoses and the lynchings continued.

And then Vietnam descended on all of us. So there was turmoil and the turmoil was accompanied by this cultural revolution. And as the war grew in its intensity and the opposition grew, even those of us in the military began to feel this transition.

You could see it in what was happening with the troops in Vietnam, and the changes. But then I arrived back in the country from my first tour in [Vietnam’s] Gulf of Tonkin the night Robert Kennedy was killed. And [civil rights activist] Medgar Evers was shot. Martin Luther King was shot. And Detroit was burning.

It was a very difficult time and people forget that. So the reason I say all of this is, we can get through this now, because we've been through it before.

You and I spoke of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose mantra was, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.”

Our democracy will not function unless we have the ability to work through serious issues and, by the way, based on facts.

[The conspiracy website] Infowars put out a notice that Hurricane Lane that was heading and barreling down on Hawaii was split in two by an energy beam that was fired from Antarctica. By me.

And I was appalled because how could they get it so wrong? I did it from the North Pole!

But think about this: … We have lost the ability in the United States of America to have the same baseline of facts. And when Rudy Giuliani can stand up and say the truth is not the truth, when Trump can tweet and stand up from the podium of the White House and talk to America and lie, now reaching 5,000 times, … [as documented] by the Washington Post.

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Here's a simple reality. Our democracy is imperiled, No. 1, by too much money in American politics. No. 2, we don't have a genuine democratic national election for our Congress because of gerrymandering. You have to end the gerrymandering. So you have a legitimate election of Congress. And No. 3, it’s not the rules of the Senate that changed, folks; what has changed are the people.

If we have a democracy in which people can raise their right hand, take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution, uphold and protect the institutions of our country, and then they turn around and they show that they are more indebted and more beholden to power, to a president and party, we can't make our democracy work.

It's shameful what they are doing in Washington today. It’s just shameful.

The toll that politics has taken on this is the example you write about in the Senate where you had Lindsey Graham on your side for a climate change agreement, but the threat of losing his seat was enough to frighten him into backing away from it.

I was leading the efforts in the Senate after President Obama was elected; we began the effort to get a climate change bill. We got up to 55 votes. I got the major oil companies — Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil — and we got the companies to agree they were going to accept the price on carbon.

The Friday before the Monday press conference where we were prepared to stand up and announce this, BP had the blowout in the Gulf [of Mexico]. The BP president had to call me and say: “We're not able to be at the press conference.” We had to postpone it.

In the ensuing few weeks, we were getting whispers. Peabody Coal led the charge and a couple of other coal companies started slamming Lindsey Graham down in South Carolina, to the point that Lindsey called me on the phone, the most distraught I've ever heard — a United States senator, imperiled and frightened by virtue of what they were doing to him with these ads in the state of South Carolina.

And that's the money in politics. The American people overwhelmingly would have supported doing something, but a few companies spending a lot of money and targeting it can scare the hell out of people. So that's why we have to fight back.

What we need to do is get back to the basics of democracy. The story of the last election was not the people who voted for somebody; it was the people who didn't vote.

We've got to stop getting agitated by daily tweets. There's much more important stuff to be talking about than these stupid tweets. And frankly, that's what the guy wants. He wants to distract everybody.

The serious conversation is, how do we have a president in the United States still who clearly is ill-equipped to do the job and clearly has been on the brink of illegal activities all his life and is now doing it in the White House?

You do not think, though, that impeachment at this point is the route to take?

Well, impeachment is for high crimes and misdemeanors. And I don't think that incompetence fits under the definition of it. I do think that we have to wait to see what [special counsel Robert] Mueller comes up with.

The Republicans did the impeachment thing when a Democratic president had behavior problems in the White House and it became an issue. And I don't think that we should be making it a political issue, which it will be if we start talking about it in the middle of the general election now.

Folks, we have the greatest course correction opportunity we could have, two months from now, and the best thing people can do is be involved, be engaged.

Drive a car on election day. Take somebody to the polls. Call a campaign. Adopt a campaign. Drive this election to a place where Americans reclaim the values that define our country.

This is the first time I've interviewed you, which means it's a journalistic first date. On first dates, you get the big awkward questions out of the way. So: Are you even thinking about going for president again?

Look, folks, I’m not being disingenuous. I don't think any talk about 2020 makes sense right now. We need to see how the playing field comes out, what we are capable of doing in the next couple of months.

If we make that course correction, it's a whole different ballgame as to how 2020 may play out. If we don't make it, it's also a whole different ballgame.

We’ve got to be disciplined here and I'm going to stay disciplined. And I've said I haven’t ruled anything out, but I'm not sitting around talking about it or working on it right now.

The 2004 election was a razor-thin margin. It was Ohio. There were a lot of conspiracy theories about the Diebold voting machines owned by a company that supported George W. Bush. But did it come down to what we saw before — the location of polling places? The gerrymandering? Voter I.D. laws? All of these obstacles that seem to be thrown up to voting. What happened in Ohio?

Well, I'll tell you what happened in Ohio. But let me just put one blunt concept in front of everybody. We cannot be the democracy that we say we are or that we aspire to be, and we certainly can't represent all of the people of our country, if we remain a country that, singularly among democracies in the world, has a party that goes out of its way to prevent people from voting.

To have these laws being passed and the suppression efforts that they engage in openly and overtly is stunning.

Now, on election day, we went to court to try to test the algorithms of the Diebold machines, and we were denied. The court said we can't grant that right because it's proprietary information.

And I said to myself, What are you telling me? That in the United States of America, the election of the president of the United States has machines owned by two brothers from Nebraska who [support] the Bush campaign and they have the right to say that the algorithm by which you judge whether votes are being siphoned off or it's hackable belongs to them and not the American people. That's a disgrace.

I know the virtues of technology. I believe in technology. There's a lot of good things that come from it. But de minimis, no elections should take place without a paper trail to the technology.

The United States of America should vote by federally provided ballot with federally provided machines. And if there are going to be machines, we should vote by paper ballot in the United States. If there is a recount or any doubts about what happened, that is the best way possible to know that we're genuinely electing the person that we want to.

You write about the retreat from the world that this administration is beginning to represent. But you also show that the word “treaty” has been a dirty word for Republicans — pulling out of the Iran deal even though other countries remain in it, pulling out of the Paris climate accord even though it remains as an international accord. Where does this animus come from and what are its consequences?

It’s clearly not a very well thought-out and articulated strategy. It comes from the expression of an emotion that is something we've tried to suppress in our country, which is bigotry, which is hatred, which is nativism, which is white supremacism, which is an appreciation of Nazism. That's what we're battling against now.

And so the answer is, Democrats need to be honest about it. We're not going to earn the trust of the country if we sit around and give people reason to believe that we're for, quote, open borders. We have to have a sufficient level of common sense in our approach that we're dealing with a reality. Borders need to mean something.

In the book, you describe a young woman in the Foreign Service who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. She was delivering books to schoolchildren in the Zabul province. I think this is why it's hard to make a case for foreign engagement to Americans who say, if they don't like us there, why should we bother? Why do we need a role in the world? Why not just retreat to ourselves?

Anne Spedinghoff was the young woman. She was my control officer when I went to Afghanistan as secretary of State, and she did a brilliant job.

I think that we have to connect the dots. If we want to be engaged as we are in the world, if we want our citizens to be protected when they go around the world, if we don't want to be Fortress America shutting ourselves off — which by the way will never work economically in today's world — you have to be involved.

Jobs depend on it. Life depends on it. And the future depends on it. And solving problems like climate change and terrorism depend on your ability to be able to work together.

China under President Xi and Russia and President Putin are very busy promulgating a new narrative, and the narrative is that the liberal order in the West is dying. The United States is in decline and we're in the rise, and they are rising.

But I think it's incumbent on us therefore to have a vision for our nation which moves in a much stronger, much clearer direction.

This is big: I saw it reinforced as secretary of State, and it's a beautiful thing. The degree to which America as an ideal and as a reality is an aspiration for everybody in the world, frankly.

Not for Putin, but for many Russians. Not for Xi, but for many Chinese. And what we do for the world is extraordinary. We're on the brink of being the first generation born in Africa AIDS-free. That is because of our program, $30 billion that we put in, and that we reach out and help people.

We can do these things. So I say unabashedly that during the Obama administration, we dealt with more crises in more places to greater advantage for our nation and the world than any other administration in history.

Trump is just pulling out of all of that, stripping the State Department, roiling our allies, attacking NATO, making adversaries of our best friends like Canada, Justin Trudeau. You run around the world and look at the disarray that he has created.

So he's not making America great again. What he's doing is making America alone for the first time in recent history.

And it's a very dangerous thing.

You mentioned Putin. If he’s saying that the West is in decline, he's the one who is meddling, who may be responsible.

Absolutely, he is. He's trying to hasten it. Putin lives with a deep sense of grievance over the loss of the Soviet Union. He’s a KGB guy and he is still a KGB guy in that regard.

And yes, he is trying to hasten our decline, and China, frankly, is a competitor in that regard.

I think both can be managed. But they can't be managed by a president who clearly has the inability to hold Putin accountable.

A passage you wrote really brought me to tears, and I'd like you to read that.

Tiny background — those of you who have been to Normandy, to the beaches of Normandy, you know what sacred ground that is, an American property deeded to us in France, and it's the resting place mostly of the guys who lost their lives on the beach.

I was visiting with my wife to be — we weren't married yet, but I had taken her there in order to share this place with her, because of the emotional and historical sweep of the place and here's what happened:

“The entire time we were there, mesmerized by the stillness and the beauty, an older gentleman and, we presumed, his wife, were sitting together in an embrace, looking out at the water, not moving, lost in thought. I am certain he was a returned veteran, someone who survived that extraordinary landing, someone who had come back to find peace and perhaps remember the friends he had lost at that very place. Quietly, but deliberately, he stood up. He took off his clothes piece by piece. Then, completely naked, with a squeeze of his wife's hand, he walked straight out into the water. Unabashed. Unembarrassed. Without awareness of anybody watching, lost in his memories and the moment. he seemed to be performing a ritual of purity, allowing the waves to carry him in and out as they once had washed soldiers’ bodies back and forth until the dead were finally recovered after the fighting on the beach.”

Do we have to have a war to have a shared sense of national purpose and vision?

No. [Choking up] I'm sorry — it just brings back a lot. And I think you understand that.

I particularly make it clear and I want all of you to please grab onto this: “Every Day is Extra” is something that our [Vietnam swiftboat] crew would say to each other because we were lucky we came home.

We got to have families, we got children, got to get married, got to be citizens again. And so “Every Day is Extra” is a gift. It’s a recognition that you truly do have a responsibility to try to live a life of purpose and to give back, particularly to honor the legacy of those who gave their lives for all of us.

And that should sober everybody up, in a sense. It should be very inspiring.

As I write in the author's note, there are worse things than losing an election, than losing a debate. And the worst thing of all would be to sit with indifference, watching a whole bunch of problems.

There are a lot of young people [running for office] around the country; I look at these candidates — they're terrific.

There are a lot of people running for the House of Representatives and Senate, and we can win back one or both through the hard work of an election process. It's going to be due to the quality of a lot of these candidates.

We can take this back, but it's going to be up to you. You’ve got to go out and do the work.

Patt Morrison’s latest book is “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice and the American Newspaper.”

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