True Compass

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

The Obama era began for John Kerry with a thud of disappointment. Not long after Election Day 2008, Kerry flew out to Chicago for a secret job interview with the new president-elect for the post of secretary of State. Kerry badly wanted the job, and Barack Obama knew it, but he also knew that he’d already more or less settled on offering the gig to Hillary Clinton. Kerry had been among the first senators to endorse Obama in his tussle with Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Obama and his team felt they owed the Massachusetts senator the courtesy of allowing him to make his case. Reading Obama’s body language, Kerry sensed that the meeting was perfunctory and left convinced that he was out of luck. The next day, Clinton arrived in Chicago for a secret session of her own with Obama—and the rest is history.

Kerry, of course, is no stranger to disappointment; losing State to Clinton was a minor scuff compared with the body blow of losing the race for the presidency four years earlier to George W. Bush. Even so, it would have been easy for Kerry to skulk back to the Senate and sulk his way through Obama’s term. Instead, Kerry has embraced his senatorial role with new vigor, emerging as arguably the most important Democrat in the upper chamber, and certainly its most influential voice on two of the most pressing issues of the moment: energy/climate change and the war in Afghanistan.

On both matters, Kerry’s preferred policies—and the administration’s—have taken some major hits in recent days, as Senate Democrats shelved their effort to enact cap-and-trade legislation before the midterms and the WikiLeaks document dump further undermined the already fast-eroding support for America’s military engagement in Afghanistan. On each, the stakes could not be higher or the need for leadership more urgent, and not just from the White House but also on Capitol Hill. For Kerry, the crises present a challenge and an opportunity: a shot at redemption and a chance to seize the mantle of his dearly departed friend and mentor, Ted Kennedy.

It was Kennedy who came to Kerry after his defeat in 2004 and urged him to put aside his presidential regrets and focus his energies on the Senate, just as Teddy had done after his failed challenge of Jimmy Carter in 1980. “He described his own transformation and his journey,” Kerry told me recently as we sat in his quarters in the Russell Senate Office Building. “He said to me, ‘Being president is not the only way to make a contribution. It’s not the only way to get done some of the things you want to try to get done.’ ”

But Kerry at first found returning to the Senate a crashing letdown. “When I lost the presidency, and I went from one state [Ohio] away from being president to being the chairman of the Small Business Committee the next day—yeah, it’s a difference,” Kerry said with a wry chuckle. “Chris Dodd [later] joked to me, ‘I didn’t even make it out of Iowa, and I have trouble coming back!’ ”

What changed between then and now were two things. The first was Kerry’s decision not to run again for president in 2008, with its tacit acknowledgment that he would never occupy the Oval Office. (His next chance would be in 2017, when he will be 73.) The second was the overhaul of the Senate’s composition after Obama’s election. With the elevation of Joe Biden, Kerry ascended to the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee; with the exit of Clinton and the death of Kennedy, two of the upper chamber’s dominant figures were gone, leaving a void for Kerry to fill. “There’s a certain sense you get after a while in this business of something called ripeness,” he said. “There was a ripeness to this moment, where certain issues and my capacity within the Senate came together—and I wasn’t going to let it pass.”

For a lot of people, the fact that climate change is one of those issues comes as a surprise. Yet Kerry has been a player on environmental policy for almost as long as, if less volubly than, Al Gore has—from having a hand in the Clean Air Act of 1990 to attending every big international global-warming conference since Rio in 1992. Starting this past October, he took the lead, with Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, in trying to fashion a bi-partisan bill to put a price on carbon. Kerry’s labors to that end included conducting some 300 meetings or calls. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, remarked the other day that “no one has worked harder on any piece of legislation in my entire legislative career than Senator Kerry has worked on this.”

Maybe so, but it wasn’t enough to cobble together the requisite 60 votes to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. And yet, even after Reid’s announcement that his party would try to pass only a limited bill—retroactively removing liability caps for firms like BP, instituting energy-efficiency incentives—Kerry refuses to concede that a broader measure is dead for 2010. When I ask about the collapse of his efforts, he testily interrupts, “I don’t like that word, collapse. The climate bill has been temporarily delayed.” When I ask if that means he’s in favor of taking it up in a lame-duck session, he replies, “I’m for getting it done. And if it can be done in a lame duck, I’d do it.”

Beyond the tactical maneuvering, what’s notable about Kerry’s posture is its clarity, force, and passion—not always the first qualities that spring to mind when you think of him. “What’s confounding about this debate is that it’s been cynically politicized by people who have simply wanted to exploit it, rather than find a real solution,” Kerry says. “The tragedy is that India, China, Brazil, and Mexico are racing to this marketplace and the United States is not; it’s a terrible indictment of where we are as a country in terms of dealing with big issues … But I’m not dissuaded or deterred. Because this issue isn’t going away. We have to deal with it.”

Kerry’s role on Afghanistan has been no less central or energized. Last fall, at the behest of Clinton and special envoy Richard Holbrooke, he engaged in a frantic and fruitful round of shuttle diplomacy, persuading Afghan president Hamid Karzai to hold a second-round runoff election in the wake of an earlier vote that was universally condemned as fraudulent to its core. That runoff, in turn, created at least a patina of legitimacy that allowed Obama to announce his new war strategy, with its temporary troop escalation, at West Point two months later.

Since then, however, the path set by the administration has seemed to run straight into a ditch. The mounting body count. The controversy over General Stanley McChrystal. The questions about the efficacy of David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, about Karzai’s reliability, about Pakistan’s clandestine relationship with the Taliban. The ebbing of political support for the war in both parties here at home and among America’s allies abroad.

Kerry has been among those expressing doubts. What’s been missing, though, is the sharpness or lucidity of his thundering on climate change. What we’ve seen from him instead is a more typically Kerryesque performance: well informed and well intentioned, but rife with ambivalence and equivocation. A few weeks ago, after making public a tranche of 40-year-old private discussions of the Foreign Relations Committee on Vietnam, he said, “Some of the parallels [with Afghanistan] are almost eerie.” But then Kerry reiterated his support for the current war: “But grim as the statistics are, heartbreaking as every death is, this is not the time to give up.”

His response to the WikiLeaks story last week was similarly muddled. At first, he issued a statement at stark variance to the White House’s dismissal of the news, and one that implicitly seemed to recognize the obvious parallel to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971: “However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Within days he backpedaled, saying publicly, “It’s important not to overhype or to get excessively excited about the meaning of those documents.”

It’s easy enough to sympathize with Kerry’s predicament. Afghanistan is a problem from hell. And nuance is no bad thing regarding war and peace. But there comes a time when caution, incrementalism, and circle-squaring have outlived their usefulness—and this is one of them. After nine long and bloody years, what we have in Afghanistan is a war with uncertain goals, no clear definition of success, and no end in sight. And Kerry knows it. On the phone with me last week, he admitted as much, rattling off a series of foundational questions to which the administration has offered no convincing answers. And yet when I asked if it was time to dramatically downscale our ambitions there, he demurred. “I’m not losing faith [in the White House],” he said. “But I think it might be that we need to, um, recalibrate a little bit.”

No. What we need is a fundamental change of course—and Kerry, more than anyone on the Hill, now has the stature to help get us there. On climate change, Kerry seems to have asked himself, What would Teddy do? And then followed suit. He should ask himself the same about Afghanistan. The question answers itself.


True Compass