John Kerry recently stopped in Las Vegas to say: "Rest assured, Nevada. If I'm president, Yucca Mountain will not be a depository." Back to mind comes Chic Hecht, a one-term Republican senator elected in 1982, who said he opposed using Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as a nuclear waste "suppository."
Also to mind comes the French sovereign known as Henry of Navarre (1553-1610). More about him anon.
The problem of nuclear waste has been studied for 50 years. Twenty-two years ago Washington took responsibility for that waste -- there are 49,000 metric tons of it -- stored at 131 sites in the 39 states with nuclear power plants. Seventeen years ago Congress selected Nevada -- the federal government owns 86 percent of the state -- for the repository. Beginning in 2010, the waste is to be put 1,000 feet underground, on 1,000 feet of rock, in steel containers in 100 miles of storage tunnels within the mountain.
But in 1996 President Bill Clinton promised to veto any attempt to make Nevada even a temporary repository. That promise helped him beat Bob Dole there by just 4,730 votes, the smallest state margin that year.
In 2000 George W. Bush promised not to make Nevada a temporary repository, but he said "sound science" would guide him regarding establishing a permanent repository there. He beat Al Gore 50 to 46 (301,575 votes to 279,978). A switch of 10,799 votes would have made Gore president.
In 2002 Bush approved Yucca Mountain as the permanent site. Congress said Nevada's governor could veto the selection but that his veto could be overridden by majorities in both houses. He vetoed it; Congress overrode him.
By this protracted dance of democracy the interests of an American majority -- 161 million live within 75 miles of today's storage sites -- prevailed, respectfully, over the objections of an intense minority, the approximately 2 million people who live in southern Nevada. Kerry's willingness to overturn this accommodation reflects a cold, and factually correct, calculation having nothing to do with the national interest: For the intense and compact Nevada minority, unlike for the diffuse American majority, this is a vote-determining issue.
Kerry's message to Nevadans -- essentially, "I feel your hypothetical pain" -- testifies to his readiness to do whatever it takes to win. As does his vow last month that, if elected, he would renegotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
He would try to force signatory nations (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and, soon, the Dominican Republic) to adopt labor and environmental standards more pleasing to him. The ostensible purpose of this would be to improve the lot of labor in those nations. But the primary purpose of the renegotiation would be to raise production costs in those countries, thereby making imports from them less competitive with U.S. products.
Time was, Kerry was a free-trader. Now he favors "fair trade," as defined by his labor allies. But he still is a critic of what he and like-minded people consider the administration's obnoxious tendency to tell other nations how to behave.
The Wall Street Journal reports that "it would be unprecedented for a newly elected president to turn his back on a major trade deal negotiated by his predecessor." Unprecedented and, in Kerry's case, inconsistent.
When Kerry and kindred spirits criticize what they consider the Bush administration's hubris and bad diplomatic manners, they often cite its withdrawal from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change. It is understandable that they do not dwell on the fact that the Clinton administration refused to submit it for Senate ratification, or that the Senate voted 95 to 0 for a resolution against proceeding with the protocol as negotiated. The junior senator from Massachusetts said "no one in their right mind" would favor it as it is.
As far as Yucca Mountain and CAFTA are concerned, Kerry's comportment reflects toughness -- call it Navarrean toughness -- about subordinating all considerations of principle to the exigencies of winning power. Someone in the White House has naughtily said that Kerry "looks French." The scalding truth is that he wears Hermes neckties, which are French, and, worse still, he speaks French. But his real French connection is his spiritual kinship with Henry of Navarre.
Henry was raised a Protestant but converted to Catholicism -- twice -- for political reasons. His explanation still resonates with those politicians -- a large tribe -- who believe, as Kerry does, in doing whatever is necessary: "Paris is well worth a Mass."