The public conversation this past week was dominated by a book about a man who is obsessed with winning: President Trump. Too little attention was given to a book about someone who illustrates the benefits of losing: former secretary of state John F. Kerry.
Kerry’s memoir, “Every Day Is Extra,” was published in early September. It’s interesting less for new revelations about diplomacy or politics (there aren’t many) than for its study of a politician’s character, and how it was shaped by personal and political difficulty. Whatever you may think about Kerry, he emerges in these pages as a man who’s strong enough not to worry that in telling the truth about himself, he might look weak.
“[I had] been knocked on my a--,” Kerry writes of his defeat in the 2004 presidential campaign. “I felt a galloping sense of frustration, disappointment, anger and sadness, often all at once.” After this intense letdown, the careful, ambitious-to-a-fault Kerry began to take more risks. The worst thing that could happen to him had happened. He began to breathe.
The Kerry who lost to George W. Bush in 2004 was an incomplete man. The clearest sign was his inability to fight back successfully when right-wing opponents trashed his combat record in Vietnam, where he was thrice wounded and decorated for valor under fire. Kerry let himself be “Swift-boated,” as it came to be known, by enemies who lied about his record and, when he protested, kept on lying.
The Swift-boating episode was an early warning of America’s slide toward “post-truth” politics and civic dysfunction. But for Kerry, it was a moment when he stopped listening to other people and found his inner voice. He began taking on unpopular causes such as Palestinian rights and negotiating with adversaries such as Iran. Much of this work was in secret, as a deniable private semi-emissary for President Barack Obama, a man he had every reason to resent for having rocketed from one-term junior senator to the White House.
Kerry started doing things that a calculating politician wouldn’t do. He traveled to Gaza in 2009, one of the poorest, saddest places in the Middle East — because he wanted to show that a high-level American cared about the people’s plight. When Kerry and his wife arrived in Gaza City, one of his aides joked to Teresa: “In the best-case scenario, we could be talking to members of a foreign terrorist organization on live TV; in the worst case, we are all about to die.”
Perhaps the biggest scoop in the book is Kerry’s description of how, in 2011, he opened what became the United States’ back channel to Iran through the Omani government. His two trips to Muscat led to secret visits by State Department officials in 2012 and eventually to the Iran nuclear agreement, which Kerry pursued tirelessly when he became secretary of state in 2013. The point here isn’t whether the deal was wise (as I believe) but that Kerry was persistent in doing what he thought was in America’s interest.
Kerry’s pursuit of virtue has always annoyed some people. It’s part of the patrician side of his character that goes against the American grain of anti-elitism. Kerry has been the good boy, the dutiful son, the decorated vet who switched to the antiwar movement, the ingratiating but slightly aloof politician. Certainly, he was shaped by the institutions that defined the establishment: St. Paul’s School, Yale, Skull and Bones, the Navy, the Senate. For some Americans, it was hard not to dislike a man who had been so successful.
But in every story, there are mysteries, and the strength of Kerry’s memoir is that it draws back the curtain on a life you thought you knew, but turns out to be a bit different. The book opens with his father’s death and the family secret of his grandfather’s suicide. Some of the most poignant passages are about the failure of his first marriage, to Julia Thorne , his bout with prostate cancer, his sometimes-uncertain path toward religious faith. For a man who gained a reputation as dry and sometimes brittle, it’s a surprisingly personal book.
Inevitably, people have been asking Kerry this month whether he’s interested in running for president again. He has given the standard non-denials (“I’m really not thinking about it”). Who knows what the next two years will bring, for Kerry or the country?
But if you’re living in “Crazytown” (as Bob Woodward’s book described Trump’s Washington), Kerry’s book is a reminder of the benefits of sanity, self-knowledge and the willingness to tell your own story honestly.