I flew to Nantucket on a July 4th weekend to meet John Kerry for the first time. His press secretary said I had half an hour and no more. During the short flight I wondered what could possibly be accomplished in such a brief encounter. Not being of a political persuasion, I knew little of the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts. So to have an intelligent interview with such a figure, a politician that’s even been said to have presidential aspirations, was indeed out of my league.
The first time I came across John Kerry’s name was at my desk. A written gift subscription card for “Senator John Kerry” was mailed in from a person by the name of T. Heinz. There was a little note of compliment to the magazine on the side of this card, which was naturally brought to my attention. At the time, our Premier Issue had just been launched and any recognition was a welcome boost.
A few years went by and I saw the headline in a Boston paper describing the marriage of a Senator John Kerry to a wealthy Republican woman by the name of Teresa Heinz. While it had been three years since the gift subscription, I thought a letter acknowledging the kind note might bring about an interesting story on the couple. [After all, wouldn’t you be dying to know whether that gift subscription to American Windsurfer was the arrow that caught the Senator’s heart?
Another year passed before I wrote the letter but within a few weeks, Senator Kerry’s press secretary called and said that the Senator was open for a possible interview. Still, four months flew by before an opening cleared and schedules were coordinated for a meeting on Nantucket.
In the mean time, I had quietly geared up for the meeting and began telling people about the possible interview. Surprisingly almost everyone I spoke to knew a little bit about John Kerry. Those who had an opinion painted a distinct picture. Comments such as “We fought against Seabrook Nuclear Plant and Kerry was the only one who listened.” or “Kerry took a very unpopular position on the Vietnamese Commandos and fought for their rights and their compensations—because it was the right thing to do.” The more I came to know about Kerry, the more I sensed an interesting story. That morning, I wondered—“How can I possibly do it in a half hour?”
I drove up the short driveway of Teresa Heinz’s understated Nantucket beach house still smarting from the $138 a day car rental. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a windsurfing sail make its way out of the garage. I studied the sail; it was a high performance rig fitted with carbon booms and mast. I had wondered how good a windsurfer Kerry was and this immaculate equipment gave me a good inkling. I followed the sail and when it came off the man’s head, I instantly recognized the thick gray hair and the distinct seafaring profile of a distant descendant of a family once involved in the China Trade and the early beginnings of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
He saw me, smiled and called out “John!” To which I hailed, “John! You’re a real boardhead!” We shook hands and surprisingly, his left hand reached up grabbed the back of my neck and said, “You betcha! Baby!”
In that instant, I felt the embrace of friendship and became more interested in windsurfing with this man than conducting an interview with a Senator. [’Course the twenty knot wind blowing that morning was also very persuasive.] Kerry alluded to the fact that these were his last days of freedom and how dearly he cherished them. He told me of his desire to master the laydown jibe which prompted me to say, “Well! Let’s go sailing!”
We sailed for two windy days on that Nantucket visit and since that weekend, Kerry and I managed to sail in Hood River, Oregon, San Francisco, Naushon, and most recently in Aruba. Each time, our schedules provided a narrow window of opportunity and amazingly, every time—the wind blew!
I went to Nantucket on a Sunday morning to interview the Senator and once again, the wind came up and we blew off the interview in favor of sailing. A week later, on June 11th, I flew to Washington hoping and determined that I would wrap up this fascinating and year long project. Incredibly, the next morning the Senator and I did sit down in his hideaway office in the Capitol building, away from the raging political demands. Here, far from the temptations of sailing, we finally put words to tape.
READY TO RIP: (above) Kerry carries his windsurfing board out of his Nantucket summer home to meet the wind on a July 4th weekend. “These are the last days of freedom” laments Kerry. Such reflections fuel the speculation that the Junior Senator from Massachusetts will soon be swallowed into the political fury of a presidential campaign.
AMERICAN WINDSURFER: Let’s talk about leadership. Is it possible to have a leader that can make a difference in today’s political climate?
JOHN FORBES KERRY: Clearly leaders can always make a difference in whatever level of society they are in. Leaders are very, very important. But I think that there are greater limitations today at the national level. In our national politics, it is difficult for one person to make the kind of difference that some people seem to anticipate. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference. I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t think that as a Senator, you can lead and you can make a difference. One can, and I try. Sometimes you’re successful and sometimes you flop right on your face, but the important thing is that you tried. I think that right across the board, I think that yeah, Clinton has made a difference in a lot of things. I think that Bush made a difference. His leadership in Desert Storm was terrific in my judgment. It was significant and he made a difference. The answer is yes, of course. You can make a difference.
AW: Would you say with all the problems we face in the country and the breakdown in morality at the highest level, that the country would seek an exceptional leader?
JK: Well, I’m not talking about one leader and I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to make any assumptions about my capacity or anybody else’s capacity to do that. That’s not where I’m coming from. I think that what I am talking about are changes that are going to take a broad coalition. It is going to take a lot of people stepping up to bat. My job is to try to put [the issues] on the table and to try to make sure that it is in our dialogue here in Washington as well as the dialogue of the country.
I have no illusions of these battles being a one-person thing. It doesn’t work that way. We’ve got to create coalitions and we have to create consensus and work with that. That’s the role of a leader.
AW: But people are looking around and asking, “Who is the person who can put all these things together?” I recently read that Senator Ted Kennedy claimed you would be a great choice for the Democratic presidential candidate. Newsweek did an article and prominently positioned you, even though you were a long shot. They claimed you had the capacity to surprise. It was clear they seemed interested in you. What do you say to that?
JK: Well, first of all, I am grateful to my colleague [Senator Kennedy] for his kind thoughts. He has fought as many battles as anyone in this country.
AW: The fact that he has gone out on the limb and taken such a position is notable.
JK: Well, I think he is very generous in his assessment of my ability to be able to mount a candidacy if I chose to. But whether the time is now or not is something I have to make a judgment about.
But I think what is important is not to be lured into believing that the mere mentioning is sufficient to make a candidacy or to put you where you need to be. I think there is a lot of preparation, a considerable amount of thought about the agenda that must be processed before you can make any judgment about a national race.
I have seen people who haven’t done that and found it very difficult to achieve a platform. So, my intention is to be thoughtful about it and approach it in a sensible way that isn’t so much influenced by what I hear people say but influenced by what I deem to be the national dynamic, as well as my own personal assessment of the agenda that I have to offer to that dynamic.
AW: It would seem that the national dynamic is one that would clearly need somebody who can come in and really give a sense of leadership.
JK: Sure. Absolutely! People want something clear, something truthful, something . . .
AW: It seems like a lot of fingers are starting to point at you and, and maybe you are sitting back and saying, ‘Well, I don’t know.’
JK: No, I’m not sitting back and saying I don’t know. There’s no I don’t know in this. It’s just a process of thinking it through and the timing is not correct to make that judgment now. I want to wait until after the 98 elections. I have things that I specifically need to do in terms of issues as well as retiring the debt from my last [Senate] campaign. I also want to be talking to people and getting a good sense of the cross section of views. I don’t think you can make the decision overnight.
AW: Clearly on the Democratic side of the fence people are looking around.
JK: Yeah, I think they are looking around. But some of that is looking for a race. People like the contest, people like the concept, people want a race, the press needs it to write about it.
AW: Yeah, but the Democratic party also wants to win and they will want to push the best candidate out there who has a chance of winning and when they look around, they might look at you.
JK: OK, OK! I accept the nomination.
JK: Well, that may well be, but that’s what I have to find out.
AW: Now, we windsurfed together several times in the past year. Between your schedule and my schedule we really don’t have much time to play around with, but somehow we managed to find a day here and there. It’s amazing how each time we meet . . .
JK: . . .we got the wind blowing!
AW: Yes! We got wind blowing!
AW: It’s amazing!
JK: That’s wonderful!
AW: We have done this about six or seven times and each time it just blows!
AW: And amazingly! Many of the days before and after we sailed, there were no winds at all.
JK: The force is with us, John.
AW: Now, don’t you think in politics that there are forces at play, just like in nature?
JK: Absolutely. Oh, I absolutely believe that. ’Course there are! Big forces way beyond one’s control that can pick you up and slap you down or give you that perfect jibe. It can work both ways. It really does. I’ve seen it happen. Things way beyond our control. There are those forces and it’s one of those great linkages I suppose between politics and windsurfing.
AW: So, as a metaphor, are you sitting on the beach assessing the forces of the wind before venturing into the waters?
JK: Well you know, you and I never assessed the wind. We just decided we’re going to go and this was going to be it. We take what we get and what we got has been good. That’s not what I’m assessing. I’m assessing whether or not I have a board and a sail. It’s a little different. You need a little equipment to go out there. Whatever the wind, I want to make sure that I am going to be really physically fit. That’s the metaphor.
JK: I want to make sure that it’s the right time to do it. I mean, I don’t think I’m ready to do JAWS, [a killer monster wave in Maui.]
AW: So, if you do sail JAWS, [chuckles] I mean, if you do get in the White House, what kind of president do you think you’d make? What kind of leader would you describe yourself to be?
JK: Well, I am not going to at this point in time . . .
AW: . . .OK, let me retract that question!
JK: I am happy to talk about leadership.
AW: Going back to the Forces. If you look back in your life there have been a lot of forces that you’ve caught and that you were attuned with and . . .
JK: Sometimes I was in tune and sometimes I was out of sync with them. I mean, I’ve had it both ways. I lost a race back in 1972. First of all, we were in the middle of a war at that time and it was very, very contentious. We were kids and we didn’t know very much. We didn’t know how to respond to some of the attacks and there were a lot of them, so I suffered a loss.
I learned a lot from that. Those things are painful but then, on the other hand, you should really learn something positive from it. I learned a lot about myself, about life, about mistakes, a whole bunch of things.
But I was also trying to offer leadership out of the war. I was trying to end the war. I came back from Vietnam determined that I could make a difference in ending the war, and I felt passionate about doing that because of the lives I saw being lost over there. I thought it would just go on and on—even after the voices speaking up and stepping in and suggesting otherwise. It was very contentious. It was a difficult time. There was great divisiveness that came out with people taking positions.
Back then the war and environment were my focus. I have been deeply involved in environmental issues all my life. I was involved in the earliest Earth Day. Involved as the New England Coordinator of Earth Day for the region for the 20th anniversary, and in fact, that has spilled over significantly into my work with the Senate, where I have been a leader on fishing issues, rewriting the National Fisheries Act to establish our fishing policies. Helping take the lead with Senator Ted Stevens, trying to ban drift nets and push that in the United Nations so we could seek that ban.
I rewrote the Ocean Pollution Control measures and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. I was deeply involved in the global warming issue as well as the Clean Air Act and acid rain a number of years ago.
These are things I have cared about a lot and I think I offered leadership on each of them. I’ve also offered leadership on other areas in national, international affairs, on the Philippines, on helping to push for democracies in Asia, in helping to normalize our relations with Vietnam and so forth. Also on issues that affect children and crime. I helped lead the fight for 100,000 police officers on the streets of America, and so I think I consider myself somebody who has prepared to take risks and will come out and fight for change and try to make things happen.
I’m not somebody who is passive about these kinds of things, I tend to be pro-active and I push the envelope on something because I think that’s the job, that’s what I’m in it to do. It is exciting and very rewarding when you see some of these things pass and you get things done.
AW: You mention passion, I see that you have a lot of passion in everything you do…
JK: I love life. I’m excited by it. It’s fun! It’s exhilarating! I don’t need anything extra to get me feeling very excited and challenged by every single day’s offerings. I think one of the things that I’ve learned from Vietnam is the sense—there but for the grace of God go I—when you look at those names on the wall.
A lot of my friends share the same feelings. We were so close to being killed so many times that for those of us who came back, every day since is an extra one. It gives you a certain exuberance and capacity to soak in the days to come, as a consequence of that. That’s something I’ve felt very, very strongly since then.
AW: Let’s talk a little bit about windsurfing since this is a windsurfing magazine. [chuckle, chuckle]
JK: It is? [both laugh]
AW: How do you feel about the sport?
JK: I think it’s a wonderful sport. Unfortunately, I came to it late. I’ve always been a sailor. I love sailing, love the water and all my life I’ve been around the water.
But I find in windsurfing there’s a combination of skills as well as emotions and sensation. It’s a mixture of skiing, flying, sailing, and the great challenge of walking on water. But it’s also a form of meditation. It’s a form of meditation because of the concentration and the mix of managing water, wind and obstacles. It all fits into that exhilaration that comes from the combination of all these forces coming together. It’s just very, very dynamic and at the same time it is amazingly peaceful, a great sense of, as I said, meditation. I find it’s really a great getaway.
JK: I love to ski. That great sense of carving and doing the moguls and the exhilarating runs. It’s the same kind of thing. When it all comes together and it works and you get the sparkle on the water and the sun is out there and the wind is right, it’s a special connection.
AW: What would you tell someone who doesn’t know anything about windsurfing or thinks it is a very hard sport. I mean, why would anybody want to put themselves out there for the punishment?
JK: Well, it’s a hard couple of days. But people can learn how to windsurf just as they learn almost any other sport. I think any new sport presents anybody with a certain set of challenges. You just got to get the muscle memories, got to get the essentials in and take a little time to make things happen.
JK: OK! Back to where we are, windsurfing?
AW: Let’s go back to politics for a second. A lot of people ask: “Why would anybody want to be president today? Why put yourself through hell?”
JK: [Laughs] It’s a decision one has to make.
AW: It’s a tough environment.
JK: It’s a tougher environment than anything that ever was.
AW: It seems that all the good people won’t even touch it.
JK: A lot of them don’t. A lot of them don’t. But you got to decide which fights are worth fighting and what you can accomplish, and I’m a fighter. I believe that these things are worth fighting for right now. These are important things. Our country is important. What happens to people is important. Where we are heading globally with respect to huge issues—proliferation, the environment, the technology revolution—these are going to require very significant levels of leadership.
When I say confrontation it is the confrontation of truth and realities. Look at what’s happening to deforestation in less developed countries. Look at the lack of water facilities and the lack of transfer of technology. The current crisis in our oceans that are globally distressed because of overfishing, the lack of discipline. This is an ecosystem. It’s related. It’s all inter-related, and I couldn’t rest with myself if I wasn’t somehow engaged in trying to confront those forces and help abate them—whether it’s on the larger stage of running nationally, or whether it’s as a United States Senator or whether it’s as a citizen. I mean, Teresa (his wife) is deeply involved in working on those issues and nobody has elected her.
You can do these things from all kinds of vantage points. I think it’s absolutely vital that we now choose to do these things. I happen to be in this position today doing it through this office, but I did it before I got here and I will continue to do it after I leave.
It’s the interaction that is really toying with you, which gives you a healthy respect. So it can be very humbling and very uplifting and exhilarating at the same time.
AW: So if you were nominated, you would say yes?
JK: John, I don’t think it comes to that, in a sense. I mean, if you decide to go after it, then clearly you’ve made the decision that you are going to serve. That’s not the issue. We don’t do that anymore in America. In American politics, there are no . . .
AW: What I am saying is, if enough people look around and say, “Yeah, this guy is the knight in shining armor,” so to speak . . .
JK: Don’t do that. I really—please don’t use those words. I don’t believe in those things. I mean, It’s a much more complicated process now than anything and it’s . . .
AW: You don’t believe that the country might be wanting a leader in shining armor?
JK: I think what happens is you get set up and you get ripped down. It’s a process of constant give and take. I’ve been there before and I’ve seen it happen and I’ve watched with quite a few people and I think that it’s a very. . . [Pause] It’s a fragile process nowadays and you have to approach it, recognizing it.
AW: So huh. When you become president can I apply for a job as your Secret Service Windsurfer?
JK: [Laughs] That’s an interesting issue, isn’t it?
JK: I’ll tell you, I have found [something] in windsurfing—and I don’t have a magnifier, but I suppose that somebody can find it on a tennis court. I mean I love to play tennis. It’s a great sport.
AW: I hear you play hockey too.
JK: And I love to play hockey. Hockey is a wonderful sport. I still take my creaking bones out there and pretend that I can still skate. But it’s fun. It’s just great, great fun. And above all that, windsurfing happens to be a fun, exciting, wonderful sport that also has a spiritual concept—a spiritual component that is different. I can certainly see how some people can find spirituality in other sports. But the elements of wind and water and the interaction with them allows nature to play with you in ways that nature doesn’t involve itself in a hockey game. And so there is a larger force out there that’s different from some of the other sports that don’t engage in that same kind of interaction. And that’s different. It’s very different.
The size of the wave, the intensity of the winds, the complexities that change as that changes. You don’t control that. It’s not just you swinging a racket. It’s the interaction that is really toying with you, which gives you a healthy respect. So it can be very humbling and very uplifting and exhilarating at the same time. You know it’s a great interaction. It’s part of a special challenge.
AW: Like I said before, it sounds like politics.
JK: [Laughs] A lot of similarities. A lot of things are out of your control that lifts you up and kicks you down. No question about it.
AW: You mentioned spirituality with windsurfing. Tell me your views on that.
JK: Spirituality is a fundamental for us. I mean, it’s the—it is the overpowering, driving foundation of most of the struggles that we go through here on earth, in my judgment. I am a believer in the Supreme Being, in God. I believe, without any question in this force that is so much larger and more powerful than anything human beings can conceivably define.
I think the more we learn about the universe, the more we learn about black holes and the expansion of the universe and the more we learn what we don’t know about: our beginnings and—not just of us, but the universe itself, the more I find that people believe in this supreme being. I’m a Catholic and I practice but at the same time I have an open-mindedness to many other expressions of spirituality that come through different religions. I’m very respectful and am interested—I find it intriguing.
I went to Jerusalem a number of years ago on an official journey to Israel and I was absolutely fascinated by the 32 or so different branches of Catholicism that were there. That’s before you even get to the conflict between Arabs and Jews. I have spent a lot of time since then trying to understand these fundamental differences between religions in order to really better understand the politics that grow out of them. So much of the conflict on the face of this planet is rooted in religions and the belief systems they give rise to. The fundamentalism of one entity or another.
So I really wanted to try to learn more. I’ve spent some time reading and thinking about it and trying to study it and I’ve arrived at not so much a sense of the differences but a sense of the similarities in so many ways; the value system roots and the linkages between the Torah, the Koran and the Bible and the fundamental story that runs through all of this, that connects us—and really connects all of us.
And so I’ve also always been fascinated by the Transcendentalists and the Pantheists and others who found these great connections just in nature, in trees, the ponds, the ripples of the wind on the pond, the great feast of nature itself. I think it’s all an expression that grows out of this profound respect people have for those forces that human beings struggle to define and to explain. It’s all a matter of spirituality.
I consider myself very, very lucky. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how lucky I am and therefore how important it is to try to do things that are constructive and to help to make a difference.
I find that even—even atheists and agnostics wind up with some kind of spirituality, maybe begrudgingly acknowledging it here and there, but it’s there. I think it’s really intriguing. For instance, thinking about China, the people and their policy—how do we respond to their view of us? And how do they arrive at that view of us and of the world and of life choices? I think we have to think about those things in the context of the spiritual to completely understand where they are coming from. So here are a people who, you know, by and large, have a nation that has no theory of creationism. Well, that has toe affect how you approach things. And until we think through how that might affect how you approach things, it’s hard to figure out where you could find a meeting of the minds when approaching certain kinds of issues.
So, the exploration of all these things I find intriguing. Notwithstanding our separation between church and state, it is an essential ingredient of trying to piece together an approach to some of the great vexing questions we have internationally.
AW: Do you think that we are headed for more enlightened spirituality or are we doomed to crawl back to the caves?
JK: That’s the test! That’s exactly what the challenge of life is all about and some people find that. I mean, look at the Dalai Lama who I’ve spent some time with and who is absolutely intriguing. Extraordinary person. He is certainly telling us there is life from enlightenment—here and hereafter, but I think, whether or not we’re going to be [enlightened] is the great test that all of us are struggling with. That’s part of what makes life so challenging and so much fun.
AW: I say that it’s really quite extraordinary to see somebody like you who is clearly involved with windsurfing and awakened to its passions. I see the same passion in your work as a public servant. Do you find the same energy serving the public as you do in windsurfing?
JK: I don’t know if my mother gave me a permanent dose of what I call hyperactivity or if it’s just an outgrowth of the exuberance that I was talking about earlier that just comes from life itself. I think it’s a lot of fun. I have a hell of a lot of fun every day. Even when I’m sometimes feeling overburdened and behind, when I stop and I think about alternatives or other people who are less fortunate or those who have seen their lives change dramatically because of misfortune, I consider myself very, very lucky. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how lucky I am and therefore how important it is to try to do things that are constructive and to help to make a difference.
Look, I don’t want to give a misimpression here: I’m perfectly capable of and enjoy vegging out completely and reading a great book and doing nothing for a few days. I mean that’s again a different kind of pleasure, different kind of joy. But I do believe [in the rewards of public service] very, very deeply— maybe it’s an outgrowth of my New England upbringing or maybe it’s an outgrowth of my father and mother.
I love public advocacy. I love the exchange with people. I like that fight. The return to me is seeing something happen or changes taking place because of your help. Having somebody come up to me and say “Boy, you changed my mind on this.” or “You’re right and I’m going to get involved.” Simple returns.
My father was a Foreign Service Officer who was involved in trying to do public good. My mother has always been deeply involved in public service. She was a Girl Scout guide for about 50 years. She’s been involved with public health issues. She’s been involved with senior citizens. She’s been an advocate and has always been involved in her community. I think out of both of my parents has come a great sense of public responsibility.
I also think about the formative years when I was in college and President Kennedy enticed a lot of us into a sense of service and commitment, with the belief that all of us could make a difference. I grew up in college during the civil rights movement, during the early days of the conflict over the war in Vietnam, the environmental movement and the women’s movement. The movements—being involved, making a difference, committing yourself to something other than just yourself, was a large part of the formative experience that I fell into in my generation. Not everybody fell into it but a lot of us did. And that stays with me. It’s a very important component of why I do what I do. And it’s not without reward. I get back from doing that, I mean, I love public advocacy. I love the exchange with people. I like that fight. The return to me is seeing something happen or changes taking place because of your help. Having somebody come up to me and say “Boy, you changed my mind on this.” or “You’re right and I’m going to get involved.” Simple returns. I mean somebody comes up to me—I met a kid the other day who came up to me and was so grateful for the appointment to the AirForce Academy and how it’s changed his life. Being able to reunite people in other countries where they have been divided. Senior citizens who have been frustrated for years, who are about to lose their homes because somebody wouldn’t answer their needs to have someone intervene with some stupid bureaucracy or unreasonableness and you intervene and they can hold onto their houses and life goes on. Those are great feelings of doing good and making the system work. And for whatever reasons, making that system work and making things happen and improving things is important to me.
AW: There’s been a lot of press on your wife Teresa lately.
JK: Teresa is an extraordinary woman who is filled with a sense of responsibility and a desire to try to help change things, make things better. She comes from a different place. I’m an elected official. She’s not, but she has the ability to make things happen and she is very thoughtful about that process. She works extremely hard at deciding where it is worthwhile to try to leverage some different kind of behavior or to be creative in coming up with a whole new approach to a particular problem.
She has done a huge amount of critical thinking in changing the way philanthropy has approached traditional giving, the giving of the past. I mean she’s trying to find ways to leverage corporate involvement, to leverage government, private sector, academicians, and charities to come together and work in a different way. She works amazingly hard and with great results for children, for women, for the environment. And I think it all comes out of the incredible experience of being raised in Mozambique, Africa, seeing her family lose their possessions, lose their home, essentially have to leave the country. They went through hardship and separation from their roots while they put the pieces back together. That’s when she came to America, becoming an American citizen after she married [Senator John Heinz, later killed in a plane crash in 1991]. She came to this country and ever since has engaged in an effort to try to really give back significantly for the blessings that she’s had in her life. She has a huge respect for the privilege of voting and for the reality of our democracy, given what happened to her country, Mozambique.
AW: How does she view the rising talk about you becoming a presidential candidate?
JK: Teresa is wonderfully supportive of what I am trying to accomplish, of what I do—notwithstanding those parts of it that she and lots of people in public life don’t like.
Public life is tough on spouses, male or female. That’s true of all the wives and husbands of my colleagues. I mean, it is very tough—the demands of the schedule, the demands of the life. In her case she has, I think, been unfairly stereotyped and people tend to say, “Oh, here’s this person with a lot of money and therefore she must be this or that or whatever.” They fail to recognize how hard she works, how intelligently she has approached a lot of issues and been able to make a difference. I think she’s a hugely accomplished person in her own right, who’s very smart, very sensitive, very funny and very engaging, but who has never been fully presented to the public in that way, because of the way the media tends to just put people into labeled packages.
AW: You mentioned you don’t hesitate jumping into something difficult and challenging, like you jumped into the Vietnam war. Can you tell me why you volunteered for something that many of us tried to run away from?
JK: Well, John, you know the sixties were an incredible period of time. People always talk about it, laugh about it, some dismiss it and some are tired of hearing about it. But it was a huge transitional time in our country. We went from the quiet sort of post-war transition of late fifties and Eisenhower into this vigorous generational shift to President Kennedy. A lot of issues broke out during that period of time. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., the boycotts, the sit-ins. It was a time of exciting, bold confrontation and great hope for change. People were getting involved with human rights and began exercising the democracy of their country.
People forget that when I went to college in 1962— I remember driving down the south and seeing signs that shocked me as a kid from the North, saying “White Only” or “Colored Only,” whatever. So that was the beginning of the period of confrontation and turmoil. I was sent right into the middle of all that.
I volunteered to go to Vietnam and I volunteered for that duty on a gun boat. It was in my judgement the best, most exciting, challenging duty you could get as a young officer.
I graduated in 1966 from college, which was just shortly after Lyndon Johnson had raised the stakes in Vietnam and issued his call for 500,000 troops. Even in the midst of all of this change that was beginning to take place in 1965, I signed on the dotted line and applied to officer candidate school. That was my obligation, a sense of responsibility to serve one’s country. I got the notion that I was a lucky guy, I got to go to a good college, and my Dad had gone into the Army Air Corps in World War II. It was a time when you could just do that and off you go.
So I signed up and volunteered and I wanted to go do what people thought we ought to do at that point in time, which was win the war. Then the transition really began. I was in uniform in 1966, August of ‘66, commissioned January 1967. So it wasn’t until later in 1967, the first draft card Pentagon demonstration took place and then of course we went into ‘68.
I was leaving for Vietnam in my first of two tours, one on a ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in the early part of ‘68. Then I went back in as an officer in command of the gun boat later that year. But in the beginning of the year was the Tet Offensive. That’s when things changed in the United States dramatically. It’s when one of my very closest friend was killed in Viet Nam. It’s when Martin Luther King was killed, then Bobby Kennedy was killed June 6th—the very day that I arrived back in the United States from that first tour of the Gulf of Tonkin, was the day Robert Kennedy died. I spent those first days just tormented and mesmerized, as everybody was. I had come back from this place of war to find this place of turmoil.
I was already slated to go back to Vietnam as Officer in Command of this gun boat, which I did. Of course there was the convention in Chicago and the turmoil surrounding the election, but I was back in Vietnam when the election took place.
AW: So you volunteered twice?
JK: Yeah, I volunteered for a gun boat. Absolutely. Yeah, that’s correct. I volunteered to go to Vietnam and I volunteered for that duty on a gun boat. It was in my judgement the best, most exciting, challenging duty you could get as a young officer. You had a command and responsibility, hopefully to play a role in trying to win the war, which is what we were in the service to do.
Once I got in the country and really began to see what was happening and measured the capabilities of the Vietnamese military and observed the politics in their country, a lot of us within our units began to really say, “What is this?”
You know a lot of questions were asked. A lot of dissension. A lot of eyes were opened, mine included. I came back from that tour deeply opposed to what we were doing and very, very concerned about the loss of life that would continue if people didn’t speak out. At that point, when I did get back, that’s when I began to become involved in speaking out.
JK: So that was a transitional effort, John. It was a transition in me, just as it was a huge transition in the country. You know when I started out in 1965-66, the notion that it was as wrong and disturbing as I discerned it to be later, was just was completely alien.
AW: Do you see a transition period coming up now in America?
JK: I think potentially the country could be on the cusp of a different kind of transition—but a transition that has to do with these questions about quality of life: the anxieties about how hard people are working for what, and how fair the distribution of the return on that work is or isn’t, as the case may be.
The gross domestic product of our country has doubled in the last 10 to 15 years, but child poverty has gone up buy 50% in that same period of time. Almost 20% of American’s children are living in poverty today. That’s unacceptable in a nation doing as well as we are. I think more and more, even for those people who are earning more money, who are making ends meet and doing better. I hear a great sense of anxiety about how hard they have to work for the time they get to relax, enjoy family or to just have time for their personal lives.
So I think we are going to have to go through that anxiety. We are also going to have to face some very tough choices about making Social Security safe for the next generation and this generation simultaneously as well as making sure Medicare is intact. Facing up to the Senate choices about long-term investment in the country, the pension security, these kinds of issues. Security, economic security coupled with that personal sense of well being that is the real security that comes from the labor of a lifetime. I think increasingly these things are going to challenge us and we are going to have to face up to these issues.
At the same time, there are wonderful, extraordinary things happening in our country. They are making life easier and better for more people. I’m not pessimistic about it at all. I’m enormously optimistic. I think we need to be more positive about the good things that are happening in America and using those as the way of leveraging the response to these other challenges, which I think we can do. But I think it is inevitable that there is a transition in the making, simply because modernity is forcing so many different kinds of pressures to simultaneously be felt. Americans today are faced with the pressures of single parenting coupled with the pressures of technology and globalization coupled with the breakdown of traditional structures that had held things together previously.
It’s a great challenge and it is an interesting one. If anything is well learned in my lone travel over the last few years, it is that nothing will stay the same for very long, in our politics or in our culture. You really got to work hard to stay not just current, but one step ahead of all of that.
If anything is well learned in my lone travel over the last few years, it is that nothing will stay the same for very long, in our politics or in our culture.
AW: Do you think we should….
JK: Racism is another huge challenge and undeniably linked with pulling our education system together. I mean education is the most significant single ingredient that will help us address all of this. Race, economic opportunity, fairness, human rights, the quality of our democracy, our capacity to build consensus about these issues, all of these things will come out of the quality of our education system. And right now, our public education system is in jeopardy. It is in jeopardy because of institutional failures and failure of leadership. The results of those failures have created a dynamic now where there is an ideological gridlock that is preventing us from addressing properly the reforms that need to be addressed.
So you’ve got this division between Republicans and the Democrats as to how to approach it. Nobody is really talking to anybody. There’s no way to break down the gridlock. One group is basically saying, “Well, the schools have failed. We got to privatize with vouchers.” The other group is saying, “Well, we got to put more money in the system or we got to encourage this…” But neither group will be able to do that until they both work out how you build a sort of compromise, a consensus about what’s really going to make a difference.
So we need a new dialogue. We need to reinvent, to a degree, how we are going to approach those schools. We need strong, strong leadership within the schools themselves. We need to liberate the schools from bureaucracy. We desperately need effective principals and superintendents. We need to be able to have strong curriculum. We need to attract kids out of college into teaching again. Which means you are going to have to pay more, but you also have to have professional standards, ongoing teacher education and professional development. All this comes with those higher salaries, but you got to do it all at once. You got to really do these things simultaneously because no one component is going to make it happen on its own.
So unless we have a meeting of the minds and find out what it’s going to take to pull the people together to make the commitment, you could actually be left with this gridlock that is caused by the education problem. This could ultimately lead to the real implosion and failure of the schools. I think it’s the most dramatic choice we’ve faced in the country in a long, long time. Parents all over America today essentially condemn the system by taking their kids out of it and putting them into a parochial school or putting them even into home learning. One of the largest growth sectors of education today is home learning, so this is a pretty big challenge.
AW: Seems to be your #1 concern.
JK: I’m convinced that right now it’s the most critical concern. When I talk about education, I’m not just talking about first grade on, I’m talking about starting at the earlier stage when that child is most vulnerable and most impressionable, when the greatest impact of character on that child will be made, which is in the first six years. That’s when these children who are abandoned, who don’t have adequate parenting taking place, who don’t have supervision during the course of the day, don’t have the nurturing, literally, nurturing necessary, that’s when those kids are impacted for a lifetime, often negatively. We can make a huge difference.
If we have kids coming to the first grade ready to learn, as they are suppose to under the laws of this country, we will be far better off than today, when they come with a huge set of problems that the teachers who are already overburdened are expected to try to remedy from the word go. We’ve really got to cope with this, because we will continue to create our own nightmare until we are honest about the ingredients of change.
We’ve got a problem and I know we can do better.
Senator John Kerry and publisher/editor John Chao windsurfed from Cape Cod to Nantucket on July 3rd, 1998. The six and a half hour crossing celebrated the closing of this article which began on July 4th, 1997.