Kerry makes Mt. Holyoke stop on book tour

  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry greets the audience at the start of his talk Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018 at Mount Holyoke College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018 at Mount Holyoke College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018 at Mount Holyoke College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former secretary of state John Kerry speaks Tuesday at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former secretary of state John Kerry, left, speaks during his interview by Jon Western, Tuesday, at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018 at Mount Holyoke College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/26/2018 12:40:36 AM

SOUTH HADLEY — Politicians are out on the trail in numbers this fall, even if they aren’t running for anything — yet, anyway.

Former secretary of state and U.S. senator John Kerry paid a visit to Mount Holyoke College on Tuesday, where he made a stop on his book tour publicizing his new memoir, “Every Day Is Extra.”

Kerry, a candidate for president in 2004, hasn’t yet shut the door on the possibility of a 2020 campaign during his book tour, though earlier this month he told “CBS This Morning” that he doubts he would run. Still, Tuesday’s talk at Mount Holyoke sounded like a seasoned politician still on the trail, even if he was only hawking his new book.

The conversation was moderated by college administrator and international affairs professor Jon Western, who began the night referencing the long history of Mount Holyoke College educating and empowering women. Western used that background to ask a tough question of Kerry about comments he recently made on the HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” when he said that President Donald Trump has “the insecurity of a teenage girl.”

Kerry said that he is the father of two daughters, and that he thought he was “touching on permissible territory as an experienced father.” He was trying, he said, to say that no 72-year-old president should behave like a child.

“Let’s face it, we all know young folks,” Kerry said, adding that they all have it hard regardless of gender. “I think that the best thing one can do is probably not compare them at all to Donald Trump... I’ve retired the comparison, and you won’t hear it again.”

Western’s next question took aim at Kerry’s optimism expressed in his book.

“Why are you so confident that American institutions will prevail?” Western asked. “And is democracy self-executing?”

Kerry said that democracy everywhere requires huge participation, and that in order to combat the challenges facing the United States now — extremism and climate change, for example — citizens need to do a lot of fighting.

“Nobody can retire right now,” Kerry said. “We have to save our country, and I mean that quite literally.”

Kerry went on to laud American democracy before mentioning the political conflicts of his own time: the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon’s presidency.

“So what did we do?” he asked. His generation didn’t hide under a rock, he answered. “We confronted this.”

As an example of activism working, Kerry said that after returning home from Vietnam — before his now famous role speaking out against that war — he got involved in organizing the first Earth Day in 1970, when 20 million people came out to the streets to politicize the issue of the environment.

“We made it into a quest to make the environment a voting issue. And we succeeded,” Kerry said, mentioning how environmentalists labeled 12 House members unfriendly to the environment as the “dirty dozen.” Many of those dozen lost their seats in 1972, Kerry said as a reminder for people to get out and vote to make change.

Change is needed, Kerry said, because the country’s democratic system is “badly broken.”

“It is broken because there is too much money in American politics ... and because of gerrymandering, which denies us a legitimate election in November,” he said. “So we don’t have a democracy.”

The New York Times review of Kerry’s book described it as “reserved and idealistic and reassuringly dull, for long stretches, in its statesmanlike carriage.” Tuesday’s conversation was also filled with long stretches of Kerry’s idealism and statesmanship, with Western only able to ask three questions during the hour-long discussion between the two.

Western’s second question was about Kerry’s friend who died in Vietnam shortly before Kerry himself deployed.

“Did it take a personal cost to you to really challenge your contradictions and your idealism?” Western asked. “And does it take that for Americans to really get mobilized and motivated, whether it’s against war or any political injustice?”

Kerry said he didn’t turn against the war because it cost him personally; he had begun to see its flaws from early on.

In response to Western’s question about Russian interference in U.S. elections, Kerry said he believes that the more serious threats to U.S. democracy are the attitudes of those on the far right in Congress and so-called “fake news.” He claimed that discredited attacks on his military record during his 2004 bid for the presidency were the first “fake news attacks” on a major stage.

“That’s a bigger challenge right now,” he said of misinformation campaigns. “If you can’t build consensus, how do you make a decision?”

Kerry ended the conversation portion of the night discussing climate change, saying that the United States needs to invest far more in mass transit and move away from fossil fuels.

“The sad thing is the solution to climate change is energy policy. It’s staring us in the face,” he said. The country doesn’t need to wait, he added — it needs to ditch fossil fuels and incentivize the private sector to research and develop things like better battery storage for renewable energy. “And we can do it today.”

Not everyone in the crowd necessarily shared Kerry’s optimism. The first question from a student was about how to stay motivated amid a time of such chaos. “If you want the world to be the world you want it to be, there’s nothing better than to decide to go out and make it that,” Kerry said.

As the night got late, questions came in groups of four at Western’s suggestion.

What was Kerry’s favorite anecdote from his years with President Barack Obama? The president telling him in the Oval Office, “John, you’ve got the best hair in American politics.” What’s the best way to be an effective activist? “There’s no one single best kind of activism.” What about growth and resource extraction pushing the planet to the brink? “We’re going to get off (fossil fuels). The question is are we going to get off it fast enough.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at


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