Ep. 91 - Sec. John Kerry

Update: 2016-10-27


Secretary of State John Kerry talks to David about his service in Vietnam, why he chose to concede quickly after losing the 2004 presidential election, and his time in the U.S. Senate and how the institution has changed in recent decades.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the the John Kerry has been a major figure in American history for decades first as a young Navy lieutenant who served in Vietnam and poignantly asks the nation had us command to be the last man to die for a mistake then as a United States senator leading on issues like climate change as early as the nineteen eighties as a nominee of his party who very nearly became president of the United States in two thousand and four and most recently as secretary of state and the man who took the lead on negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement who is at the center of the Paris climate change agreement and has been working trying to find a solution to this vexing and horrific war in Syria Secretary Kerry came by the Institute of Politics the other day to speak to our students and to sit down with us for discussion of his career and where today the The Secretary Kerry welcome Maya were eighty some days from the As we sit here today at the University Chicago worry some days from the end of this administration seems like a good time to kind of look back a little bit at your your life in your career and I want to ask um so intrigued by the fact that your dad was in the Foreign Service and I was the what influence did that have on you and what influence it have on you that you spent time overseas as a kid have it shaped who you are what I think I think David that the greater shaping came from the fact that I lived overseas rather the fact my dad was in service he spent about ten years in the Foreign Service and had some impact because those good job of it is interesting I liked what he did but I wasn't sure that's what I wanted to do it all I thought of being a journalist I'm pretty good observer of the world around me and I liked the chronicling a lot in which I've done various times I thought as a teaching a math of a number of different things I think the activism of Vietnam the Vietnam War that period kind of pushed me away in that direction though I've been involved in undergraduate political stuff in college those interested in it was not convinced that the candidate you are you had what would be described as a kind of privileged life you are at Yale and you in list and you went to Vietnam famously why did you do that what would cause you to love or simply I really believed that those of us who were lucky enough to go to jail or go to the you know have a comfortable enough life owed our country something and that was the ethic of the times you know President Kennedy summoned us to do the bare any burden pay any price and I think it was part of my dad's mean that is a bad influence my dad was in the Army Air Corps and that generation served I've grown up with great awareness of the war because we had family ties in Europe where my grandfather was American but had been in business that the outbreak of war and some of the family was trapped over there and they had a home over there which the Germans took over and used as a headquarters and burned bombed when they left at the end and my grandfather rebuild it after the war so I grew up we found mine in the middle of the driveway that house they were German bunkers outside the house and I had a real sense of the values that you need to protect by serving your country so I thought was important but it wasn't by the way we hate it when I signed up Lyndon Johnson to just ask for the five thousand troops and the Gulf of Tonkin had allegedly happened and the first draft guard was not burned for another two years so the swirl of the antiwar movement really did grow up and come out in full bloom for a couple of years did you you you you at the end of your service you became a national figure with your very powerful critique of the war at the beginning of it when you enlisted did you where you convinced of the the rightness of the no I wasn't convinced of the rightness in fact I had an ambulance but I did not have any sense of the moral rationale for being really posted this or that it was a wrong decision that wasn't going to work I did I didn't had worked that through I remember Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy sitting on our floor in our room that college because he was visiting the college at that time and we were grilling was talking about the value of the service and the problem of the communism to know there's a very sterile and unfairly stereotyped argument about it at that point time and it wasn't until my that in the graduation speech I gave it yeah I gave the speech duration when the call in class today and add that I did ask questions about the overall policemen the world policy America would wary of but I didn't I hadn't landed it a place where I had any moral dilemma at that point in time about being in uniform are going how long how long were you over there before you began to Harry's recently really really fast and that's where the sense I said earlier when you ask me the first question about the influence of living overseas that's what I felt I knew what it was like to be in another country I knew how to get at what people are thinking ask the right questions and dig a little bit and very quickly there are impressions I had of our presidents of our domination of our the way the Vietnamese were treated of how people talked about them of what was the day to day missions what we were doing and I just found very quickly that is I concluded this in the work you know this is bong this is crazy I really felt that very deep personal kind of feel of the country and you carry out your orders and with great heroism you well I signed up to serve denied the service even as I was learning each day about the challenges of the word self when did you um when did you Well before I get to that I should ask you What did you learn there that you carry with a new role as a Western diplomat ask a lot of questions tried to see the place wherever the conflict is or the crisis or the policy choices emerging make sure you really analyze it from the point of view that country and its history and their people and the aspirations of those people not just the American lands and what we think of this is how we see it and too often we have a we have the capacity to lead to think we're analyzing something but not really be analyzing properly because it's entirely within the U S lens and Matrix and so we miss things have historically been dark and black is another example of that pride in helping because no campaigns really don't help in that regard they push you into corners and they are very sterile when it comes to actual policy in reality is and how you bring them in and of course you know and you have the capacity of a Karl Rove just utter the words Well somebody may look French are either this or that you can you reference it was our camp yet you close out the ability to have an intelligent conversation about some issue you you came back and you gave your testimony you ran for Congress you lost the race for Congress you went to last he became a prosecutor and you're a prosecutor for some time the O's as soon as a about five years where and when how what what what what did that teach you that experience which is vastly different than them I love that I actually I love being tried as a great job being prosecutors young lawyer you have this enormous responsibility for a case I love going in court I love the argument I love setting it up and framing it I didn't love preparing your witnesses it's tedious and long than you know as when I decided I don't want to go do this for us in my life but as a great great experience and the end we were delivering justice and we had an old county office that I had come into and again I so looked at this office and I saw the challenges of the office who had something like twelve fourteen thousand backlog cases and I would hear from people to come and say what humans my case going to go forward you look back at three or four years old you couldn't find any witnesses and it was justice delayed is justice denied and this was a prime example of it so I became involved with some of the other younger prosecutors in the office and really leading the charge to reform it to change it and we we went after Ellie a Enforcement Assistance Administration money we brought in office in the country we created a priority prosecution unit rape counseling Unit one of the first victim witness assistance programs in the country modeling a lot of this I will tell you frankly was was a Morgan to the New York famous district attorney and Bob Morgan and Bob and I guess our Henry whose treasury way back when Sunday morning and he was an incredible and he'd been doing it for years and he set the template for what this reform was like so I love the job I was made first assistant district attorney is a period of time with the district attorney was quite ill and I was basically running the office during that time you know we've got these big debates to Dana about the criminal justice system and you talk about justice delayed is justice denied but that's true for both the victims and the accused absolutely um what what what insights did you gain from that period that you come back to now as you see these debates about well many many one is we have to adequately fund the systems because without the resources the system doesn't have a prayer of delivering what you want you want justice in America you have to have qualified prosecutors qualified defense attorneys in the public prosecuting program because usually that's when it come from unless people are well heeled and can can afford it you need good judges you need a system that has the electronic digital capacity in today's world of process cases move have enough courtrooms you go try are cases that its resource base of what number two we need a lot more training in the system with respect to the management of cases the police themselves being a witness police witnesses particularly how we manage the system police said too much going on they've got huge demands on them it's very difficult to find the time to adequately investigate a case sometimes and the police after you know they file a report they command it's all done very quickly and then they racing out to the next crisis and so again bases really think there's a racial bias in the system I think unfortunately there's more the race where there's a there's a there's a there's the capacity for bias in various levels of the system some of that racial some of that it just ethnic some of the sloppiness and some of that is the it happens I got a guy out of jail my law partner and I spent a lot of time on this if our clothes pre pro Bono but we got a fellow out of jail who had served fifteen years for murdering ever committed and we have to go get the priest who had had had a penance confession to him released from his vows because the priest died and the other witnesses died so there was a reason to get out because we knew that that confession said that he was innocent and because the other guy confessed to him and we knew that this happened to the priest to the priest so we needed to get the priests released from that bow which happened that we also needed to get the Loire released from an attorney client privilege because again his client had died therefore could we get released because he knew the person is innocent we got it done there are countless cases around the country is not alone right now Erie read about somebody released two after fifteen years twenty years was innocent because DNA find a camera and prove that they're innocent so managing that system more effectively day that is a critical component of delivering justice yeah I mean we're sitting on the Southside of Chicago and obviously these issues are very very powerful issues here because the interaction of people with the criminal justice system you I'm going to skip your lieutenant governor service because it was relatively brief and you want the United States Senate you won in nineteen eighty four tell me what the Senate was like then as comparison year's I didn't know the last years but it was the old set it was a size twenty but well it was the Senate if you read the first three hundred pages or Robert arrows but it's brilliant yes that that wonderful book the best summary Mazda said the bastards it's brilliant lay down on how the Senate works and what the rules and what the unwritten rules are in all of the customs and traditions and it worked I mean you could you know in that Senate I could go over to Teddy Kennedy's house in the evening which I did and have dinner with John Warner Orrin Hatch and this group of senators Bob Pack would whatever who were working together they Republicans or Democrats obviously and we get things done you'd sit there talking and laughing having a good time there was none of this anxiety and polarization you Wow you're going to be punished because you're talking to this guy if you get the train now and ride with the guy you could have no idea of photo of you taken tweeted out in moments fire some yeah it's crazy so I watched that evolution began frankly with the Gingrich revolution in the house that was the beginning of the stirrings of the change in the Senate then you had a lot of guys come over from the house to the set they brought the house with them so that began to change the Senate and then of course you began with a more total break now and there was blame on both sides with a total breakdown I mean it was not one way street you must maintain relationships with some of the senators who served with on the other side of the aisle do you keep in touch with them yeah I do and they're frustrated deeply frustrated they live in a in a caucus is a very complicated caucus where there are intense pressures and in certain senators of command with a new set of rules and don't hesitate to publicly criticize their own caucus are people with Nana and to attack them to say that and let raise money and run a primary against them so you're living with this internal friction is a breeder of chaos in some cases there's a lot of impetus behind that there's the advent of social media some of the cable theologically oriented cable money vast amounts of money well those are the other changes that came about in the eye I came to the set as a passionate advocate of campaign finance reform and in fact it may have been one of the reasons contributing to to my loss in two thousand for a run for president because I felt so strongly that I had been speaking out consistently for campaign finance reform that for me to go outside the system which some people are arguing they should would have been a difficult very very hard we should explain that because what happened was you there's a period between the primary in the general one month period where I was not are the Democratic convention set up in two thousand and four to take place the end of July the whole month of August I was restrained from spending money on a campaign finance because I limited pot for the whole campaign and if I'd spend it then it might not have had money in October when they needed it George Bush however had a convention at the end of August so he was not under campaign finance reform until that period of time so we suffered enormous amount of attacks fearing that was when the Swift Boat campaign was how the forerunner of of of a lot of what was to follow tell me what you felt at the time when you started seeing these ads questioning your or you're with us and I know my my my records were released to the public mind AB rockers were put out to the public the The Chicago Tribune the Washington Post The New York Times The Wall Street Journal the countless papers across the country carried the stories with facts all my crew all the members of my crew who are involved in those actions spoke up for those actions and said exactly what happened and so forth but when you put a huge amount of money behind the lie and newspapers don't answer the line so it didn't matter that that happened and unfortunately were not the position has been the kind of money necessary to answer the question is whether if you know we're in a campaign now I'm not going to drive into discussion of this campaign in part because we have them your age sitting in the room who will kill me if I do but that's another reason but on butt but newspapers you will see a campaign now are the people are fact checking to the fairly well and it doesn't seem to influence use we've got a hardened set of views that don't so that's the polarization that regrettably you're from or familiar with anybody over the last fifteen twenty years our politics has become more and more polarized and regrettably there are voices speaking out in our country that play to that the that encourages in certain ways and it's it's really a shame because we have big choices to make it our country critical to people's happiness and prosperity and safety all of which are not the center of of the day and I think it's regrettable I have a hard time the secretary I will tell you going around the world and people asked constantly about what's happening in America was happened our politics as very hard to have them take you seriously when you say you know you really ought to be embracing democracy or you need to have your election open up more you need to be adhering to a constitution and they look at to the sort of bemused and somewhat critical quizzical look of where you come from because we're not setting a good or not said they were setting the example of this campaign is horrendous and scary when take a short break will be back with Senator John Kerry rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision to give the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty ATCs I want before we leave two thousand and four I want to reverse the whole campaign of but I want to ask two questions one is you lost a heartbreaking Lee close campaign in fact on the night of the election there was a sense that you had won that election and you had to go out and you had to concede defeat of them were what were you thinking at that moment and what did you think your obligations were as a as a candidate than in the midst of your disappointment well today it was very hard obviously David because it was so close is one state and we weren't sure how many thousands of votes that dinner had been cast and counted in Ohio in Ohio but when I decided was that it was important for the country to know who their president wasn't to be able to move forward and I made the decision in the afternoon of Wednesday that it just I didn't want the country to go through another year two thousand this is just four years after the big reason for you after the big week out I thought it would been very damaging to the country whether people urging you to the sounds yes course the word for several weeks afterwards there was a very intense debate about what happened in the election but I thought I'd do the right thing and believe today I did the right thing is important to move for our nation to not question that and to move forward so too is we just couldn't have the spectacle of having that uncertainty and doubt about system and so we move forward I think a lot of reforms of them put in place to address some of the concerns I had another said we're still perfecting that they were not but we've come a long way in making sure that the voting rights of our citizens are protected I think were were doing better than most countries in the world having lost a very close election are you comfortable with the integrity of our voting system and also now you have you're also privy to the intelligence and there are concerns about what is even greater integrity in the system now David I mean we we have first of all system is not online so you can't invade it from another country and start changing the votes and people need to be confident about that that the system is not going to have a vote that's that affected about manipulation on the ground it's possible for some people in any place to engage in nefarious activities but they usually get called out in the usually get found and they're not usually determine to Div nowadays because we have had many more checks built into the system anymore much more redundancy in the voting lists much more capacity to deal with complaints when they arise we have a lawyer system that's been put in place that pretty effective for the bar each party does it own but they're pretty careful about guaranteeing the integrity of that process and the parties themselves both out for in anway so at the risk of touching the third rail here in which case you'll shut down of what do you think as someone who gave that very difficult speech when you hear a candidate say I mean I I may not conceive well I can say that if I get into that I'm commenting on the direct issue in this race I just don't do that but I think a new cycle and in on the tile in my own to answer my questions related to the question yes previously what I did is my answer now and well I won't pursue it because I don't I don't waste time but presumably you feel that's a candidate's responsibility I think that if you run a full some campaign and you have the systems in place that any candidate should have than you do your due diligence you ought to be a position to make decision when you're in the Senate and this was an issue in that campaign you cast a vote in favor of the authorization to move forward in Iraq in retrospect you've already spoken to that issue I'm not asking you whether that vote was a good voter a bad vote but was the decision when you look at where we are today with ISIS there's a lot of sort of discussion about how did this happen how how much did the original act of invading Iraq and toppling the regime their lead to the situation that we have there today well I think it was a I think it's very significantly and it was a major major mistake in just a colossal lie that mistake and when you said voted for let me be clear I thought you could vote in a way that kept faith with what you are being told by administration was their policy and if you read my speech which I ask and ask anybody to do I could not have been more clear in my speech on the floor the Senate what my vote was and what it was not and I made it crystal clear that I was voting based on the president's promise that they would build a coalition that they would not go unless it is absolutely necessary that he needed this tool to be able to leverage the outcome that we wanted to could avoid the war and that was very clearly what I said by boat was about I did not say I said my vote is not a vote to simply remove a dictator my vote is not a vote to go to war as a matter of choice but as a matter of last resort because we have no other way to get these weapons if they're ascertained and I argue will it takes more time to build a coalition so that's that was what I thought it was I learned the rough way I learned you don't get that mean I learned the hard way you don't have that privilege is the center it is no up or down is up or down yes or no and the better bowler than no because it was a mistake and I wound up and apologize for that vote you also dentist at benefit as a politician because the nuances that you share here are not how it turns out it precisely
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Ep. 91 - Sec. John Kerry

The Axe Files with David Axelrod