An Evening With John Kerry

Hearing a Lecture by the Former Secretary of State

A photo of John Kerry speaking at the LBJ Library in 2016.
By LBJ Library — Flickr, Public Domain

Hearing a Lecture by the Former Secretary of State

My wife and I applaud with the rest of the audience as the guest speaker held an arm up in acknowledgement, thanking us all for being so wonderful and also wealthy enough to buy tickets to the lecture.

The former Secretary of State licked his lips one last time and strode off stage in long, gliding steps.

Throughout the evening, Secretary John Kerry spoke in varying degrees of detail about the Iranian Nuclear deal, TPP, climate change, term limits, activating the vote, and sports.

His talk was peppered with an unexpected level of dad jokes of such good quality that I could feel the white tube socks pulled all the way up beneath his suit slacks. He displayed self deprecating humor (I won the silver medal in the race for President!). And he licked his lips at each cue for laughter.

After the lecture, the audience submitted written questions. Mine was not taken (Hunts or Heinz ketchup?). My handwriting is completely illegible.

I wish my second grade penmanship teacher was more urgent about this. “Good penmanship is important because in forty years, when you have a chance to ask the Secretary of State a question, do you want to be passed over because no one can read your handwriting, Christopher?”

No Misses Clamingsham.

When asked about impeachment, Secretary Kerry replied, “I was expecting this to come up” and pulled out a thick sheaf of papers he had tucked in his pocket. The gag that elicited laughs despite the topic. The tongue darted out.

One misstep, maybe not even noticeable. While discussing negotiations with China, Kerry mentioned that there were “just a few chinks in the process.” Unintentional, but don’t Secretaries of State have an audible version of Grammarly? Is that what an undersecretary does?

I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised by his unabashed patriotism and belief in the greatness of America, including a hopeful future. The sixties were worse than today, Secretary Kerry said, and we made it through. We were fighting with each other over an unpopular war, inflation was terrible, and civic leaders were being shot dead. Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King, Jr. Robert Kennedy.

He didn’t mention the Kent State shootings, that terrible bookend to the decade. I had to wonder if we are heading back that way, back to a place where military-style force is taken up against citizens in protest. It was a system shock to the nation.

Secretary Kerry is hopeful that, preferably through a due process of election rather than impeachment, we will right our ship. And when we do, our whole society will take the opportunity to be lifted up by a new green economy. An entire new green energy infrastructure yet to be built throughout the United States and throughout the world using US no-carbon technologies.

He did mention how far behind China we are in this field, a nation investing trillions on its own and its neighbors’ infrastructure, building good will and solidifying trade alliances. But he thinks we can catch up, or even work alongside the Chinese. Isn’t our global success in combating climate change worth it?

The green energy market, he said, would provide six billion people with power worldwide over the next three decades and create trillions of dollars of wealth for whatever businesses decide to step in. We just have to do it. He challenged us in the audience to make it happen by voting into office those with the political will to do the job.

Daring the audience to move the needle seemed to be an awkward exit for a man who spent decades in public service. Why are you laying this at our feet? You were the politician. Why didn’t you do it?

But he did, didn’t he? He fought the battles of his time. On a swift boat in Vietnam. Against the Vietnam War as a protester once he came back home. Against acid rain. Against big tobacco. Against nuclear proliferation in Iran. Always for diplomacy before any war.

And he fought to become President. But he lost to George W Bush in 2004. In the campaign, Kerry focused on the poor handling of the Iraq War. He was accused of being out of touch because he was photographed wind surfing, which was important because it wasn’t football. The Bush campaign criticized Kerry for “flip flopping” on war funding.

How quaint now, looking back, to disparage a politician for single gaffe (I voted for it before I voted against it) or being wealthy enough to spend the weekend on the water.

Bush was affable, so much like a guy you could drink a beer with. But he didn’t drink beer and was not so good at diplomacy. And his war continued. Now, he paints and hands out candies at public events. People think fondly of him.

Later, of course, Kerry went on to became Secretary of State and write a book about each day in life being a gift. To this day he lectures on the opportunities of a new green infrastructure and the critical role of a citizen led democracy.

I can’t help but wonder if he would have ended that war or built his green economy if it weren’t for that one slip of the tongue.

He thanked the audience for participating in the aged tradition of the public lecture. We clapped and smiled at each other.

But it isn’t truly public, is it? Seats are expensive. The entire annual series was sold out. There is a waiting list. You can participate if you can afford the tickets, if you buy the whole series a year ahead, if you are in the type of social circles to even get the marketing promotions.

I wish more of us could hear the thoughtful reflections of a war hero who served in such high office, hear the exhortation that change comes through the ballot box, that we have nearly unthinkably hopeful economic opportunity ahead of us — all of us. To see the tongue poking out to punctuate jokes.

The war hero waved and strode off the exclusive stage, and I and the hundreds of mostly older white people creaked upward from our cushioned seats and shuffled to the exits, quietly murmuring approval of the speaker and our fine choice in evening activity. The hanging drapes and chandeliers and gilded plaster molding conforming us to polite expectations.

I spent an hour with John Kerry, listening to him lecture and answer questions. I hope people can think fondly of him, instead of just remembering him as that guy windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket in 2004. I hope people never stop asking “What if …” and use their responses to move the needle on what could yet be.