Friday, October 12, 2018

Every Day Is Extra - John Kerry's Memoir

John Kerry, Every Day is Extra (Simon and Schuster, 2018), is an engaging (but very long) memoir. Kerry is a diplomat's son, with recent European family connections, a scion of privilege educated in private-schools both here and abroad, a Yale graduate, who became a naval combat officer in Vietnam War, than an activist veteran against the war and a Massachusetts politician, a U.S. Senator from 1985 to 2913, and President Obama's second Secretary of State, as well as the third Roman Catholic to run for President as the nominee of one of our two major parties.

In our "Upstairs-Downstairs" world, Kerry's account of his privileged, if lonely, childhood is inevitably intriguing. Many of us may also have been lonely as children and many may even have experienced the after-effects of family dislocation and tragedy as he did, but most of us non-preppies can only envy Kerry's as-if-it-were-the-most-ordinary-thing account of his privileged education and of going sailing with President Kennedy, and shake our heads in wonder at his elitist fondness for risky and dangerous play (which even included running with the bulls in Pamplona). It is perhaps in the nature of pseudo-aristocratic privilege that it is taken for granted. Were that less so, he might perhaps have fared better in 2004 when populist resentment - along with smears against his war record, which he clearly continues to resent - contributed in some measure to derailing his presidential ambitions. (Historians should have a field day analyzing how rich Republican heirs to privilege have so much more successfully presented themselves to ordinary voters that equally elitist Democrats have been able to do.)

The obvious deviation from pure privilege was, of course, his service in Vietnam, although that was still a time when well-off heirs of "the greatest generation" were often then still committed to service in a way which has since diminished. Kerry's account of his wartime experiences and especially of the loss of friends in war, along with his flamboyant opposition to the war afterwards, is a good counterbalance to the earlier narrative of entitlement. The two together equipped him well for a career in politics.

In the Senate, Kerry famously teamed up with John McCain and, having somehow reconciled their own different ways of responding the the trauma of the war, worked together to reconcile the country, conclusively addressing the neuralgic POW/MIA issue and helping to normalize US post-war relations with Vietnam. Kerry's account of bipartisan cooperation (and friendship) in the Senate serves additionally as yet another nostalgic reproof of what Washington has become in recent, increasingly dysfunctional, decades. That he considered making McCain his running mate in 2004 (like McCain's later consideration of Democrat Joe Lieberman as his running mare in 2008) raises interesting questions about how differently history might have been had such imaginative and courageous directions been taken.

Instead of McCain, Kerry chose John Edwards, at that time a very attractive figure in Democratic politics. Running mates are more often a drag than an asset to presidential candidates, but Kerry lost the race himself. Edwards didn't lose it for him. He would do better to imitate McCain in minimizing his after-the-fact criticism of an unfortunate running mate.  

The last and densest part of the book deals with Kerry's career as Secretary of State. His authentically admirable achievements in that role - the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Parish Climate Agreement - highlight the ambiguity of the Obama legacy. Those were great accomplishments, but the Obama Administration somehow failed to persuade the domestic American audience of their value, thus leaving open the door to Trump's destruction of what should have been two monumental achievements and a long-term legacy.

Kerry's immigrant grandparents were originally Viennese Jews, and Kerry's Catholic father's faith was somewhat  lapsed, but his Protestant mother made sure he and his siblings were raised Catholic. It was an authentically Catholic upbringing, which he remembers positively, but also as somewhat conventional. "It was," he writes, "that period when practicing families shared the experience and the habit of attending but without  much meaning." He wore his Saint Christopher medal in Vietnam, but returned with more questions than answers about his faith. He came home "with gratitude that every day was extra," but uncertain about "God's will working in strange ways."

He found reinforcement for his faith in, of all places, the U.S..Senate, where he attended the weekly Wednesday-morning Senate Prayer Breakfast. The Prayer Breakfast reflects the predominantly Protestant religious style endemic to so much of American history and civic religion, with senators offering testimonies about their relationship with God and its role in facing life's challenges. It might seem like an unusual place to strengthen one's Catholic faith, but it seems to have done so (much as my own exposure to some of the best of elite Protestantism at Princeton enriched my own Catholic faith life).

In what I found one of the most truly interesting segments of his book, Kerry recounts how the likes of Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, and Ted Stevens (a tragically widowed Senator from Alaska) shared their experiences and spirituality with their colleagues. The effect of this on him was politically as well as religiously significant. "No matter which side of a debate we'd be on - and frequently it was the opposite side - because of the common ground we'd found together that morning, Ted [Stevens] was no longer just one of the Republican senators. he was a friend." A common ground in shared suffering fostered a mutual respect that made possible a bipartisan comity that sadly seems increasingly elusive.

Kerry's spiritual struggle to reconcile his inherited faith with the experience of seemingly pointless human suffering which he had encountered in the Vietnam War gives this otherwise interesting but conventional account of a privileged person's political career path a genuine depth it might otherwise lack. Perhaps the presidential campaign of the third Catholic to run for that office might have benefited from his having shared some of this with the American people even earlier.

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