Interview With David Axelrod of The Axe Files Podcast
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, welcome. I – we’re 80-some days from the – as we sit here today at the University of Chicago, we’re 80-some days from the end of this administration. It seems like a good time to kind of look back a little bit at your life and your career. And I wanted to ask you, I’m so intrigued by the fact that your dad was in the Foreign Service. And I was – what influence did that have on you, and what influence did it have on you that you spent time overseas as a kid? How did it shape who you are?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think – I think, David, that the greater shaping came from the fact that I lived overseas rather than the fact my dad was in the service. He spent about 10 years in the Foreign Service. And it had some impact because – I thought it was a good job. I mean, I thought it was interesting. I liked what he did. But I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do at all. I thought of being a journalist; I’m a pretty good observer of the world around me, and I liked sort of chronicling it a lot, which I’ve done at various times. I thought of teaching. I mean, I thought of a number of different things. I think the activism of Vietnam, the Vietnam War, and that period kind of pushed me in a way in that direction, though I’d been involved in undergraduate political stuff at college, and I was interested in it. But I was not convinced I’d be a candidate.
QUESTION: You had what would be described as a kind of privileged life. You were at Yale. And you enlisted, and you went to Vietnam, famously. Why did you do that? What caused you to --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, very simply, I really believed that those of us who were lucky enough to go to Yale or go to other – have a comfortable enough life owed our country something, and that was the ethic of the times. President Kennedy summoned us to duty, bear any burden, pay any price. And I think it was part of my dad’s – I mean, that is a dad influence. My dad was in the Army Air Corps, and that generation served. And I had grown up with a great awareness of the war, because we had family ties in Europe where my grandfather, who was American, but had been in business at the outbreak of the 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 then burned and bombed when they left at the end. And my grandfather rebuilt it after the war.
So I grew up – we found a mine in the middle of the driveway at that house. There 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 it was important.
QUESTION: But it wasn’t – and we made --
SECRETARY KERRY: And by the way – by the way, when I signed up, David, Lyndon Johnson had just asked for the 5,000 troops and the Gulf of Tonkin had allegedly happened, and the first draft card was not burned for another two years. So the swirl of the anti-war movement really didn’t grow up and come out in full bloom for a couple of years.
QUESTION: Did 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 – were you convinced of the rightness of the cause?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, I wasn’t convinced of the rightness. In fact, I had an ambivalence, but I did not have any sense of the moral rationale for being really opposed to this, or that it was a wrong decision, that it wasn’t going to work. I didn’t – I hadn’t worked that through. I remember Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy sitting on our floor in our room at college, because he was visiting the college at that time, and we were grilling him, and he was talking about the value of the service and the problem of the communism and the need to – there was a very sterile and fairly stereotyped argument about it at that point in time. And it wasn’t until my senior year that in the graduation speech I gave at Yale – I gave the speech, the oration, whatever they call it, on class day. And at that, I did ask questions about the overall policeman of the world, policy, America, what – are we able to – but I didn’t – I hadn’t landed in a place where I had any moral dilemma at that point in time about being in uniform or going.
QUESTION: How long were you over there before you began to have those questions?
SECRETARY KERRY: Very, very quickly. Really, really fast. And that’s where the sense that I said earlier, in – when you asked 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 sort of how to get at what people are thinking, ask the right questions, and dig in a little bit. And very quickly there were impressions I had of our presence, of our domination, of our – of the way the Vietnamese were treated, of how people talked about them, of what was – of the day-to-day missions of what we were doing. And I just found very quickly that I concluded this isn’t going to work. This is wrong. This is crazy. I really felt that – a very deep, personal kind of feel of a country.
QUESTION: And yet you carried out your orders and with great heroism. You --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I signed up to serve. And I did my service, even as I was learning each day about the challenges of the war itself.
QUESTION: When did you – well, before I get to that, I should ask you: What did you learn there that you carry with you now in your role as the country’s chief diplomat?
SECRETARY KERRY: Ask a lot of questions. Ask a lot of questions. Try to see the place wherever the conflict is or the crisis or the policy choice is emerging; make sure you really analyze it from the point of view of that country and its history and their people and the aspirations of those people, not just the American lens and what do we think of this and how do we see it. And too often we have it – we have a capacity, actually, to think we’re analyzing something, but not really be analyzing it properly, because it’s entirely within a U.S. lens and matrix, and so we miss things. We have historically.
QUESTION: Yeah, and our campaign – our --
SECRETARY KERRY: Iraq is another example of that. In Iraq --
QUESTION: Our campaigns probably don’t help in that regard.
SECRETARY KERRY: 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 and realities and how you bring them in. And of course, when you have the capacity of a Karl Rove, just utter the words, well, somebody may look French or you’re this or that; you can – you --
QUESTION: Reference the 2004 campaign.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. You close out the ability to have an intelligent conversation about some issue.
QUESTION: You came back and you gave your testimony and you ran for Congress; you lost that race for Congress. You went to law school, you became a prosecutor, and you were a prosecutor for some time.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I was a student, about five years, four years, something like that.
QUESTION: And when how – what did that teach you? That experience, which is vastly different than --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I loved it. I actually – I loved being – it is a great job. Being a prosecutor as a young lawyer, you have this enormous responsibility for a case. I loved going into court, I loved the argument, I loved setting it up and framing it. I didn’t love preparing your witnesses – it’s tedious and long, and that’s when I decided I don’t want to go do this for the rest of my life, but it was a great, great experience. And we were delivering justice. We had an old county office that I had come into and I – and again, I sort of looked at this office and I saw the challenges of the office. I mean, we had something like 12-, 14,000 backlogged cases and I would hear from people who would come and say, well, when is my case going to go forward. You look back, it was three or four years old, and you couldn’t find any witnesses. I mean, 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 went after LEA money, Law Enforcement Assistance administration money, we brought in more money than any office in the country, we created a priority prosecution unit, a rape counseling unit – one of the first victim witness assistance programs in the country. And modeling a lot of this, I will tell you frankly, was Henry Morgenthau, the New York --
QUESTION: In New York, yeah.
SECRETARY KERRY: A great, famous district attorney and I saw --
QUESTION: Bob Morgenthau. Henry --
SECRETARY KERRY: Bob Morgenthau. Yeah, sorry, not Henry. Henry was treasury way back when.
QUESTION: His son.
SECRETARY KERRY: Bob Morgenthau, yeah. And he was incredible and he’d been doing it for years, and he set the template for what this reform was like, so I loved the job. I was made first assistant district attorney. There was a period of time where the district attorney was quite ill and I was basically running the office during that time, and it was fun.
QUESTION: We’ve got these big debates today 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.
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely.
QUESTION: What insights did you gain from that period that you – that come back to you now as see these debates about --
SECRETARY KERRY: 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. If you want justice in America you have to have qualified prosecutors, qualified defense attorneys in the public prosecuting program, because usually that’s where they’re going to come from unless people are well-heeled and can afford it. You need good judges; you need a system that has the electronic, digital capacity in today’s world to process cases, move, have enough court rooms that you can go try your cases. It’s resource-based, number one.
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 do we manage the system? Police have 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 have to – they file a report, they come in, it’s all done very quickly and then they’re racing out to the next crisis. And so, again, resource-based is really critical.
QUESTION: Do you think there’s a racial bias in the system?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think unfortunately, there’s more than a racial bias; there’s the capacity for a bias in various levels of the system – some of it racial, some of it just ethnic, some of it sloppiness. I mean some of it just – it happens. I got a guy out of jail – my law partner and I spent a lot of time on this – if I recall, it was pretty pro bono. But we got a fellow out of jail who had served 15 years for a murder he never committed. And we had to go get the priest who had a – had had a penance confession to him released from his vows because the priest had died and the other witness had died, so there was a reason to get it out, because we knew that that confession said that he was innocent. And because the other guy had confessed to him and we knew that this had happened.
QUESTION: To the priest?
SECRETARY KERRY: To the priest. So we needed to get the priest released from that vow, which happened, and we also needed to get the lawyer released from an attorney-client privilege, because – again, his client had died; therefore, could we get a release, because he knew the person was innocent. We got it done. There are countless cases around the country; that’s not alone.
QUESTION: Right. Well, I mean --
SECRETARY KERRY: Every year, you read about somebody released who, after 15 years, twenty years, was innocent. Because DNA finally came around and proved that they’re innocent. So managing that system more effectively, David, is a critical component of delivering justice.
QUESTION: Yeah, I mean, we’re sitting on the Southside of Chicago and obviously these issues are very, very powerful issues here, because of the interaction of people with the criminal justice system.
SECRETARY KERRY: Right.
QUESTION: You went on – I’m going to skip your lieutenant governor service, because it was relatively brief, and you went on to the United States Senate; you won in 1984. Tell me what the Senate was like then as compared to today.
SECRETARY KERRY: It was in its last years – I didn’t know it in the last years, but it was the old Senate. It was a Senate --
QUESTION: What do you mean by that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it was a Senate – if you read the first 300 pages of Robert Caro’s book --
SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a brilliant, brilliant --
QUESTION: Yes, yeah – wonderful book.
SECRETARY KERRY: The best summary of the --
QUESTION: “Master of the Senate.”
SECRETARY KERRY: -- “Master of the Senate.” It’s a brilliant laydown on how the Senate works and what the rules and what the unwritten rules are and all of the customs and traditions and it worked. I mean, you could – in that Senate, I could go over to Teddy Kennedy’s house in the evening, which I did, and have dinner with John Warner and Orrin Hatch and this group of Senators – Bob Packwood, whatever, who were working together --
QUESTION: Yeah, Republicans. Yeah.
SECRETARY KERRY: They were Republicans, we were Democrats, obviously; and we’d get things done. You’d sit there talking and laughing and having a good time and there was none of this anxiety and polarization, and you – wow, you’re going to be punished because you’re talking to this guy. Or if you get in the train now and ride with the guy, you could have a photo of you taken and tweeted out in moments and you’re in trouble.
QUESTION: Create a firestorm, yeah.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. It’s crazy. So I watched that evolution and it began, frankly, with the Gingrich Revolution in the House. That was the beginning of the stirrings of a change in the Senate, then you had a lot of guys come over from the House to the Senate. They brought the House with them, so that began to change the Senate. And then of course, you began with the more total breakdown. And there was blame on both sides for that total breakdown. I mean, it was not a one-way street.
QUESTION: You must maintain relationships with some of the Senators you served with on the other side of the aisle. Do you keep in touch with them?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I do, and they’re frustrated, deeply frustrated. They live in a caucus that is a very complicated caucus, where there are intense pressures and certain Senators have come in with a new set of rules and don’t hesitate to publicly criticize their own caucus or people within it, and to attack them – to say they’re going to go out and raise money and run a primary against them. So you’re living with this internal friction that is a breeder of chaos in some cases.
QUESTION: And there’s a lot of impetus behind that – there’s the advent of social media, some of the cable – ideologically-oriented cable --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- money, vast amounts of money.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, those are the other changes that came about. I mean, I came to the Senate as a passionate advocate of campaign finance reform, and in fact it may have been one of the reasons contributing to my loss in 2004 when I ran for president, because I felt so strongly that I had been speaking out consistently for campaign finance reform; that for me to go outside of the system, where some people were arguing I should, would have been a difficult, very, very hard choice.
QUESTION: We should explain that, because what happened was you – there’s a period between the primary and the general – if you were to take a --
SECRETARY KERRY: I had a one-month period, where I was not – our – the Democratic Convention was set up in 2004 to take place at the end of July. The whole month of August I was restrained from spending money under campaign finance, because I had a limited pot for the whole campaign, and if I had spent it then, I 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. We – and so we suffered an enormous amount of attacks during that period, because --
QUESTION: Well, that was when the swift boat --
SECRETARY KERRY: Correct.
QUESTION: --campaign --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, and we didn’t --
QUESTION: -- was held. That was sort of a forerunner of a lot of what was to follow.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes. A lot of what --
QUESTION: Tell me what you felt at the time when you started seeing these ads questioning your --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I thought we’d answered it. I mean, I – my records were released to the public, my Navy records were put out to the public; The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, I mean, countless papers across the country carried the stories with facts. All of my crew – all the members of my crew who were 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 a lie and newspapers don’t answer the lie, so it didn’t matter that that happened and unfortunately we were not in a position to spend the kind of money necessary to answer it.
QUESTION: The question is whether if – we’re in a campaign now – and I’m not going to draw you into discussion of this campaign, in part because we have your aide sitting in the room who will kill me if I do.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, you won’t get anything out of me, either. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: But – well, that’s another reason.
SECRETARY KERRY: There’s another reason.
QUESTION: But on the – but newspapers – we see a campaign now where the – people are fact checking to the fairly well, and it doesn’t seem to influence fears – we’ve got a hardened set of views that don’t seem to be able --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s the polarization that regrettably – and you’re more familiar with it than anybody – over the last 15, 20 years, our politics has become more and more polarized. And regrettably, there are voices speaking out in our country that play to that, that encourage it in certain ways. And it’s really a shame, because we have big choices to make in our country. Critical to people’s happiness and prosperity and safety – all of which are not at the center of the debate, and I think it’s regrettable.
I have a hard time as Secretary, I will tell you, going around the world and people ask constantly about what’s happening in America and what’s happened to our politics. And it’s very hard to have them take you seriously when you say you really ought to be embracing democracy, or you need to have your election open up more, or you need to be adhering to your constitution, and they look at you with a sort of bemused somewhat critical, quizzical look of where are you coming from?
QUESTION: Because we’re not setting any good – a very good example.
SECRETARY KERRY: Because we’re not setting – we’re setting – our – the example of this campaign is horrendous, I mean, it’s scary.
QUESTION: We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be back with Secretary John Kerry.
QUESTION: We’re back. I just – I want – before we leave 2004, I don’t want to rehearse the whole campaign, but I want to ask two questions. One is: You lost a heartbreakingly 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. What were you thinking at that moment and what did you think your obligations were as a candidate, and in the midst of your disappointment, to go out and speak to him.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it was very hard, obviously, David, because it was so close. It was one state. And we weren’t sure how many thousands of votes had been or hadn’t been cast and counted properly, so.
QUESTION: In Ohio?
SECRETARY KERRY: In Ohio. But what I decided was that it was important for the country to know who their president was and 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 2000 (inaudible.)
QUESTION: Right, this is just four years after the big recount in Florida.
SECRETARY KERRY: Just four years after the big recount and I thought it would have been very damaging to the country.
QUESTION: Were there people urging you to do something else?
SECRETARY KERRY: There were some, yes, of course there were, and for several weeks afterwards there was a very intense debate about what happened in the election and – but I thought I did the right thing. I believe today I did the right thing. It was important to – for our nation to not question that and to move forward. And I thought it was – we just couldn’t have the spectacle of having that uncertainty and doubt about the system and so we moved forward. I think a lot of reforms have been put in place to address some of the concerns I had and others had.
We’re still perfecting that. I mean, we’re not – but we’ve come a long way in making sure that the voting rights of our citizens are protected and I think we’re doing better than most countries in the world.
QUESTION: 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 hacking.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s even greater integrity in the system now, David. I mean, we have – first of all, the 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 affected.
QUESTION: What about manipulation on the ground?
SECRETARY KERRY: It’s possible for some people in any place to engage in nefarious activities, but they usually get called out and they usually get found and they’re not usually determinative nowadays, because we have had many more checks built into the system, many more – much more redundancy in the voting list, much more capacity to deal with complaints when they arise. We have a lawyer system that’s been put in place that’s pretty effective for the – each party does its own, but they’re pretty careful about guaranteeing the integrity of that process, and the parties themselves both vouch for it, in a way.
QUESTION: So at the risk of touching the third rail here, in which case you’ll shut down, what do you think, as someone who gave that very difficult speech, when you hear a candidate say, “I may not concede”?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I can’t, David. If I get into that, I’m commenting on the direct issue in this race. I just – I don’t want to do that, but I think my own --
QUESTION: Can you signal in some way in a non --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think my own – I think the answer to my question previous to the question you asked previously – what I did is my answer.
QUESTION: Yeah. Did – and – well, I won’t pursue it, because I don’t want to waste time; but presumably, you feel that’s a candidate’s responsibility?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think that if you run a fulsome campaign and you have the systems in place that any candidate should have and you do your due diligence, you ought to be in a position to make a decision.
QUESTION: When you were 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 vote or 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 much did the original act of invading Iraq and toppling the regime there lead to the situation that we have there today?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it was – I think very significantly, and it was a major, major mistake – I mean, just a colossal, I think, mistake. And when you say I voted for it, let me be clear. I thought you could vote in a way that kept faith with what you were being told by an administration was their policy.
And if you read my speech, which I ask and – I ask anybody to do, I could not have been more clear in my speech on the floor of 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 was absolutely necessary, that he needed this tool to be able to leverage the outcome that we wanted that could avoid the war. And that was very clearly what I said my vote 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 there ascertained. And I argued we ought to take some more time to build a coalition.
So that’s – that was what I thought it was and I learned the rough way, I learned you don’t get that. I mean, I learned the hard way you don’t have that privilege as a senator. Up or down is up or down, yes or no, and the better vote would have been no, because it was a mistake and I wound up having to apologize for that vote, for that (inaudible).
QUESTION: You also don’t get that benefit as a politician, because the nuances that you share here are not how it turns out in a --
SECRETARY KERRY: Precisely.
QUESTION: -- campaign commercial or a --
SECRETARY KERRY: And I obviously had that jammed down that my throat a hundred different ways and it was very clear. But that’s – I thought you could – but I also believed – I mean, I had – I personally called Colin Powell, had conversations with him as secretary of state and I said, “Are you sure, you guys, this is really what you’re going to do?” I think he was – I don’t think that they leveled with him, frankly. And we know now that what he presented to the UN was not, in fact, the basis of it.
In addition, I went to the Security Council and I met with all of our allies in the Security Council and listened to them, and they said, “Well, if you wait two or three months here, then we could be with you if we learn that, in fact, the weapons aren’t really there, because we’ve gone to the additional distance.” And I weighed that in what I was doing as to why I was doing it, because I thought it was legitimate that we find out whether or not the weapons are there.
QUESTION: And again, and I’ll come back to this. Not – I don’t think it’s particularly material, except in that – in understanding where we are today and why and the sort of sectarianism that we confronted as a result of the toppling of what --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there was no thought about what happens afterwards. There was – I mean, clearly, this – and that was part of the decision. I mean, we talked about that – you guys have got to have a plan; you need to know where we’re going, and all of that. And they said, oh, yeah, yeah, don’t worry, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this. I mean, look, I felt grossly misled by the process. It’s one of the reasons why I was so intense in my opposition afterwards, which – I’ll always have to be reconciled with the vote, I understand that, but I could not have been more clear about the reasons why I thought this was a colossal mistake. And when Paul Bremer sent the army home and they had no structure left --
QUESTION: The Iraqi army when he disbanded it.
SECRETARY KERRY: The Iraqi army, yeah, it was --
QUESTION: The – but he left --
SECRETARY KERRY: That’s why we’re where we are. And by the way, some of ISIL came out of that.
QUESTION: Right, of the disbanded army.
SECRETARY KERRY: Correct.
QUESTION: Yes. The question that it leads me to is one about democracy. And I’m obviously a great believer in it – the son of an immigrant and so I feel very strongly about it. But we didn’t have a whole lot of humility about what we could accomplish there in terms of imposing democracy. And democracy has been very, very difficult there, because there were these sectarian divisions that really overwhelmed any impulse toward democracy. What do we learn from that about the exportation of democracy and what its limits are and what our roles should be?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, it reinforces what I said earlier about seeing another place through their lens, not ours. I am told that when the initial decision was made for people to go in in that war, people who are making – some of the people involved in the decision-making did not know the difference between Sunni and Shia. There was a huge level of ignorance about this country’s history, its dynamics, and that was reinforced, obviously, by what happened afterwards.
But also the – we just never understood the degree to which this country needed a longer period of time to go through a certain preparedness to be able to manage some of the things. You can’t just plunk democracy down in some places. I think that’s one of the things we have learned – I hope we have learned, I’ve learned it – that there is a truth to this notion that some places – democracy is not just having an election. It’s not just voting. You can have a vote, sure, but you can’t call that democracy necessarily, because what comes afterwards may be such a mishmash of different interests and lack of institutions, lack of capacity to deliver services on a day-to-day basis and so forth that you just have --
QUESTION: Or lack of will to deliver it, in this case --
SECRETARY KERRY: Or lack of will.
QUESTION: -- from one sect to another.
SECRETARY KERRY: Or you have – right or you have centuries-old differences that go back to a religious fight over who was the lawful inheritor of the role of the caliphate, of who was the successor of the prophet. That’s part of what this struggle is about. And people didn’t understand that and how the Sunni-Shia fight had played out – even with Saddam Hussein there – you were really going to have a rough time with this and that’s exactly what happened to the United States.
QUESTION: So knowing that lesson as we are making progress and shrinking this caliphate, and presumably ultimately prevailing over it, how do you govern these territory – how are these territories going to be governed?
SECRETARY KERRY: We need to do what they have done for centuries, which is work with the tribes, have a more effective empowerment program that honor – that sort of diminishes the choices that are being made exclusively on a sectarian basis and playing up the fullness of rights that can flow to everybody and the protections that can flow to everybody even as they work out these longtime differences. It’s hard. It’s not easy. I mean, we’re seeing that play out in Iraq right now.
SECRETARY KERRY: The Anbar province, the Nineveh province are the mostly Sunni areas. Mosul is Sunni and what happened in Mosul was that the Shia military that was there didn’t want to fight for the Sunni, and so they folded and they left. They didn’t feel they had a stake in it. Our job is to work over a longer period of time to make sure everybody understands how they have a stake in it and how it’s a shared stake and how they can work these things more effectively together.
And there are always outliers, David. I mean, that’s one of the things that has struck me is this is not just easy “Oh, well, we’ll work it here, we’ll talk with that group, we’ll talk with that group,” because you’ll have three other groups, all of which are vying for power, each of which will press a hard line or a soft line, depending on what is appealing to them that helps them in the power struggle. And we don’t seem to work the whole thing – we don’t – we haven’t often understood how to manage those things very effectively.
QUESTION: I want to come back to this in a second because I want to talk about Syria and how vexing a problem that has been. But before I leave 2004, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you two things. One is: In the course of that election, you came across a young state senator from Illinois who was running for the U.S. Senate. I think you came in here right after the primary when he was speaking at an event. And ultimately, you asked him to give the keynote speech at your convention. Did you know at that moment that you were lifting him in a way that would set him on a – on this trajectory? And what led you to make that --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean – well, first of all – I mean, first of all, my plan was for him to give my keynote speech and then I would have loved to have had him re-nominate me for re-election four years later, so no, my plan was not that he would --
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Fair enough.
SECRETARY KERRY: -- launch into being the nominee, but --
QUESTION: What did you see in him?
SECRETARY KERRY: -- the best-laid plans of mice and men, right? It’s what happens. No, I saw talent. I mean, I came in here as the nominee, I think – or maybe the presumptive nominee still, but I was the nominee.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
SECRETARY KERRY: And we were at an event. I think we were in the South Side of Chicago. We were at a housing thing, if I recall, and I met him and I listened to him and I was struck by him. I mean, I did – yeah, I had a sense of him right then and there. I knew he was going to give a great speech in Boston. I was confident of that. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted somebody who presented a new face of our party, a new sense of direction, and who could get the convention and the country excited, and he did that. And obviously, the rest is history.
QUESTION: You – and how did you change as a result of that experience of running for president, of coming so close to being president?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, well, I --
QUESTION: My sense is politicians – and I don’t – and I mean this in the best sense of the word, you drive toward that goal and that’s the ultimate goal. And then you fall just short of it. How do you --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, but I didn’t define myself by that. I mean, some people do. I – unlike a lot of my colleagues, I – it took me 18 years or more in the Senate before I decided to run for – I can’t remember when it was – 20 – I mean, I came in ’84, I ran in 2004, so that’s 20 years, right? So it took me about 18 years before I started running. I came in Al Gore’s class – Al Gore was running two years later or four years later. Tom Harkin ran, Paul Simon ran, Jay Rockefeller flirted with it. I mean these were all --
QUESTION: Why were you such a slow starter? That’s what I want to know.
SECRETARY KERRY: Because I – because I had kids and I had a personal life and I was in a moment of transition in that, and I just wanted to work through all these things. It wasn’t – I didn’t feel like, oh my God, I’ve got to run for president no matter what right now. But when --
QUESTION: But then you did run for president and it didn’t work out.
SECRETARY KERRY: But then I did run – I did run, and when I lost, I just refused to waste time. I didn’t want to look back and say, oh my God, I was down in my cups and I wasted time, and got all hung up because I lost the presidency. It just didn’t – it seemed stupid to me. It seemed like a waste of life effort. And I just determined, I’m going to go back to work, I’m not going to let this slow me down, I’m going to go do something, and there are plenty of other things to do. I didn’t feel undefined by it. I also knew that I felt confident – it wasn’t as if I felt bested by the process, I felt we’d made some mistakes, there were some things we could’ve done better and we could’ve won. I didn’t feel like I was somehow – I was angry that I’d lost, but I didn’t feel personally defeated if that makes sense.
QUESTION: You – then you consider running again. Once you decided that I’m not – the presidential thing is over, I’m not going to do that anymore, was there any sense of liberation associated with that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Not really, no. I just went about – I mean I – I don’t think I ever decided per say, gee, it’s over. Other people may have decided it for me, but --
SECRETARY KERRY: Does anybody ever say it’s absolutely over? I don’t know.
QUESTION: No, I think that – no, I think until the good lord --
SECRETARY KERRY: Until the good lord calls.
QUESTION: Yes. We’re going to take another short break. We’ll be back with Secretary John Kerry.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about some of the issues that you’re dealing with now that will continue to be issues perhaps after you leave in January. One of them is the TPP, the big trade agreement that is now become a major issue in the campaign, and both major candidates have said that they would support it; one of them more vociferously than the other. You obviously believe that it’s important to move forward on it. Why?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’ll answer that, but let me – I need to correct something. I actually worked for President Kennedy as a kid – 18 years old. And then I worked for Teddy Kennedy when he ran for the Senate in ’62, so he was the third guy.
QUESTION: John Lindsay, yes.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, John Lindsay.
QUESTION: We were talking in the break --
SECRETARY KERRY: In the break.
QUESTION: -- about Mayor Lindsay.
SECRETARY KERRY: On TPP – on TPP, David, TPP is a – first of all, it’s a really – it’s a good trade agreement. It is a trade agreement that has environment rules and standards built into the agreement, it has labor standards and rules built into the agreement, it is unlike any agreement previously in trade, it is much stronger on the things that people who’ve opposed trade agreements have always felt need to be part of an agreement. They’re there. That’s number one.
Number two: It represents 40 percent of global GDP in the fastest growing area of the world, where the United States is able through this agreement to raise the standards of doing business; have a race to the top, not a race to the bottom. So we have an ability here to be able to improve the lives of our people, it destroys – undoes 18,000 different taxes on American goods, so American goods can be sold abroad. And I would just remind people that 95 percent of the world’s customers are in other countries. We can’t grow our nation, we can’t do better if we are only selling to ourselves; it’s just unrealistic in this world. So we need to do this --
QUESTION: But you knew --
SECRETARY KERRY: We need to pass this. And the final reason is we’ve staked ourselves on this. People and countries have followed us. Nations have said we’re going to go with the leadership of the United States and we believe in this agreement. If all of a sudden, a Congress would reject that leadership of the United States, it will cause untold problems downstream with nations that won’t believe us, won’t look to us for leadership, because they won’t trust it in the future.
QUESTION: Do you – why do you think that it has gotten to the point where both candidates of both major parties don’t embrace that argument, including one candidate who had been supportive of it in the past?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think that there is a lot of misinterpretation and misunderstanding, which campaigns are not able to get over, as I understand the difficulties. I mean, a campaign is not the best instrument of policy making or policy explanation. What we were talking about earlier, how it just gets encapsulated in one or two words or one suggestion --
QUESTION: But isn’t it also about the sort of the – well, you have millions of people in this country whose standards of living have sort of frozen or they’ve lost ground, because jobs that were good middleclass jobs that were --
SECRETARY KERRY: I was about to comment, yes.
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely.
QUESTION: I mean, that’s real, isn’t it?
SECRETARY KERRY: Have disappeared – oh, it’s very real.
QUESTION: It may not be trade that’s the culprit in most --
SECRETARY KERRY: No, no, no, no, it’s very real, but what I keep saying to people and I said this when I was in the Senate: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. This is not a question of – you’re not going to fix it, because you can’t end trade. If you end trade, we are hurting ourselves more. We will not survive if we do that.
So the solution is not to say okay, we’re not going to trade. The solution is to get an agreement that actually helps people with the things that they’re worried about, which is if they lose a job, can they get another one? Do they have the skill sets to thrive in a world where technology and productivity are intertwined, and where in order to get work you’ve got to have different skills than we used to have?
We need better – I mean, we obviously need more affordable healthcare still, we have to challenge how we’re going to do that even more than we’ve done with what we – the huge gains of Obamacare. But we still have cost challenges, we still have challenges on the cost of education, we still have challenges with respect to income levels and making everybody’s income go up as people benefit. That’s not the trade issue, that’s our income tax issue. That’s the question of applying fairly the rules, so that people at the top one percent are not able to escape completely, while everybody else carries the load. That’s what fuels the anger and people are taking it out on the trade --
QUESTION: There’s a perception that these trade deals mostly function for the benefit of large corporations.
SECRETARY KERRY: Correct, correct.
QUESTION: Is that a fair surmise?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, no, because they’re – ask anybody walking now – I mean, stop a person on the street and say, look at the label on the coat you’re wearing, look at the label on the shoes you’re wearing. Why’d you buy those shoes? Why’d you buy that coat? Oh, I could afford it, or I bought it at Walmart or Target or wherever it is. And they’re going to – why are you able to get that? Because we are trading.
SECRETARY KERRY: Because that’s where the cost of goods comes that people can afford.
QUESTION: It – yeah.
SECRETARY KERRY: And if all of a sudden those were all made exclusive – there would be higher costs, depending on where they’re made and how it works, I just think that --
QUESTION: What’s the strategic cost of not acting on the TPP? What’s the strategic cost of the country?
SECRETARY KERRY: If we don’t act all or – you mean, if we --
QUESTION: If we don’t pass the agreement – the --
SECRETARY KERRY: We will lose – we will pay an enormous price going forward, because we will have lost our leadership role in a whole region of the world that’s the fastest growing region. And it is the --
QUESTION: And who would be the beneficiary?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the beneficiaries will be other countries that play by different rules and that don’t want to play by the higher standards that we want to play by. So whether it’s China or India or whatever country in the world decides, okay, now we have a free-for-all and we can go race to the bottom, we don’t have to worry about the environment, we don’t have to worry about labor standards, we don’t have to deal with pay equity or other things, everybody loses. And that’s what I fear, that --
QUESTION: Do you think the Senate – do you hope the Senate will take this up before --
SECRETARY KERRY: I’d like to see them take it up, but I think they got to take it up when they can pass it, David. I don’t think we should – I don’t think we should lose it; we need to pass it. And we need to take the time necessary to find the equation where it is that we can pass it, but I think the sooner the better, because other countries are waiting on us.
QUESTION: Well, you also have two candidates who don’t say – say they don’t support it and --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, but they also say they have different reasons for – different tweaks that they’d like or – one of them wants --
QUESTION: Can it be tweaked?
SECRETARY KERRY: Not easily, because it requires reopening the agreement and other countries will then demand other things and reopen it, so it’s better not. But it may be that there are ways to deal with some of those issues inside side agreements or in other ways.
QUESTION: So if the votes are there, you’d like to see it passed perhaps this year?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, very much so.
QUESTION: The Russians. They’ve become a brooding specter in our campaign debate and perhaps in our campaign. First of all, just speak to the issue of whether it was the Russians who actually hacked the DNC and challenged the --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, our intelligence community is with high confidence convinced that the Russians have been engaged and are behind the leaking of the stolen emails.
QUESTION: So stealing them and then giving them to WikiLeaks?
SECRETARY KERRY: Right. That is – yes, that is a – as distinct from --
QUESTION: And what’s the goal?
SECRETARY KERRY: -- the state election system --
QUESTION: Right, right.
SECRETARY KERRY: -- fishing expeditions that people have observed.
QUESTION: What’s their goal? You spend a lot of time with the Russians.
SECRETARY KERRY: The goal is to be disruptive. To interfere with our system and to be as annoying as people feel it is.
QUESTION: And you must have – you’ve must have had discussions with your counterpart, Mr. Lavrov, with whom you – it seems you spend a great deal of time about this. What is their response to this?
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, their response is to demand the evidence and to ask for it. And my response to that is: Let’s not be foolish here; you know what we’re talking about. And we’ve been very clear and we move on.
QUESTION: And what’s the reluctance to give them the evidence that – I remember when Adlai Stevenson went to the --
SECRETARY KERRY: We’re not going to – yeah, but – well, it --
QUESTION: -- to the Security Council on the Cuban Missile Crisis and outed the Russians.
SECRETARY KERRY: It would involve revealing our capacities and other things that we’re not prepared to reveal.
QUESTION: And they know that probably.
SECRETARY KERRY: Sure, of course they do. That’s why they ask for it.
QUESTION: What is Russia’s – there was a big debate in 2012 – in fact, you were involved in the debate prep with the President; Russia was an issue, and the president was fairly dismissive of Russia, called it a regional power and so on. What is Russia’s status in the world right now?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Russia is pushing itself into certain areas in a very aggressive way, but I think Russia has enormous challenges as a country. They don’t make a lot of products that sell around the world; they are very dependent on extraction of oil and gas --
QUESTION: And with oil prices going low there --
SECRETARY KERRY: With oil prices down, their budget it hurting, their sanctions are biting on them. They have serious demographic challenges in their country. I – they are ranked, what, number nine I think in the size of economy? Italy, Spain have bigger economies than Russia does. I think that there are a lot of challenges there and I think that ultimately it’s a – I – from our point of view, it’s a mistake for Russia to not be more concerned about the long-term view here of how you build a viable economy in the modern world and how you deal.
So I don’t sit around quaking about Russia. Ours is the strongest military in the world still and will be, we have enormous capacity, our economy is the strongest economy in the world, and still the largest. So we’re very strong. America should feel confident about who we are and where we are. And I think Russia frankly is reacting to that capacity that we have and to the fact that we are a global leader in a very different way. We don’t present ourselves by just dropping bombs in a civilian area, the way we’ve seen in Aleppo. We present ourselves fighting for human rights resolution or fighting for people’s right to share in the governing of their country through their democratic process and their election. And I think that holding Russia accountable and Ukraine and holding – standing up to them in the ways we have is obviously not happening the same --
QUESTION: On Syria, you spent – when I said you spent time with Lavrov, you’ve been spending a lot of time talking about Syria. What’s – how do we unwind what is this horrific situation? And obviously, it’s had enormous spillover impact in terms of the refugee populations and the suffering of civilians. What’s the way forward here?
SECRETARY KERRY: End the war. I mean, we can’t – I think the endless paying of big checks to take care of refugees is not the ultimate solution. The ultimate solution is to not have the refugees. And we’ve got to end the war. It’s a human catastrophe of the greatest proportion since World War II. And so that’s why I’ve been putting so much effort into these discussions, because we have to find a political way to resolve it, not military. I don’t think there is a military solution.
I think even if the Russians take Aleppo – which they have it within their ultimate power if that’s what they decide they’re going to do – but what a mess they will have left and it won’t end the war. It will not end the war, because the forces that are arrayed against Assad will be even more embittered. They may even create more jihadis by virtue of taking Aleppo. We’ve told them that. This is not a solution. Nor will it change the fundamental equation of that war, which will remain how do you deal with Assad’s atrocities, how do you deal with his sense of illegitimacy as a leader, how do you deal with this large segment of Syrian society that’s been displaced or put into refugee status or tortured and killed or separated from families – how do you bring that back together again? That’s the challenge. And taking Aleppo will not resolve that challenge.
QUESTION: Are you at all hopeful of finding a political solution?
SECRETARY KERRY: I will admit – I’m always hopeful.
QUESTION: You’ve tried – you’ve been trying desperately. I mean, you’ve been indefatigable.
SECRETARY KERRY: I am hopeful, David, but I can’t tell you – I mean, yes, I’m hopeful, because there is no end to the war unless you resolve some of this, I think, without the massive increased destruction of Syria. I mean, yes, you can bomb a lot more buildings and kill a lot more people and maybe they can temporarily pacify it, but they won’t bring a united Syria back together again under those circumstances.
QUESTION: Two other quick matters. One goes to Iran. You were deeply involved in the negotiation of the Iran agreement on nuclear weapons – controversial still in the U.S., the opposition suggesting that the Iranians were given resources – resources they were owed, but resources. And there’s no permanent solution to the problem. What’s your answer to that?
SECRETARY KERRY: No permanent solution to what?
QUESTION: In the sense that ultimately, they have the ability to develop a weapon.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, if they break out, but we will know they’re breaking out.
QUESTION: And then all the options will still be --
SECRETARY KERRY: All the options that we have today are still there then. I mean, the key to the agreement, David, is that we built in an extremely penetrating, extensive verification system with great transparency and accountability. And by virtue of that, we have the ability to track what they’re doing. Now, they could go try to risk – they could have broken out months ago. They could have broken out last year. We would have seen them doing it and we would have done what we had to do.
Same thing in 15 years or 20 years if that’s what they decide to do, but what we’re doing is sort of trying to bet on the possibilities of the future; that they want to avoid war, we want to try to avoid war. Therefore, hopefully, we can move forward, much as we did with the Soviet Union in a uneasy process of verification and ultimately a series of agreements by which we have kept from shooting at each other with nuclear weapons. And that’s the hope that we can continue with Iran to prevent them from even having a weapon.
QUESTION: Last issue: You were very, very active in trying to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the long, elusive two-state solution. In the remaining time in the Administration – of the Administration, what do you anticipate doing to try and influence that issue? And can it be – can – do you see possibilities here?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I always see it – yes, I mean, do I envision the possibility of a peace? The answer is yes. Do I believe that you could have a two-state solution where Israel could be secure and capable of protecting itself by itself and feeling that it has security built into the system? Yes. Do I believe that Palestinians could have a state in which they have sovereignty but they’re demilitarized, non-militarized, and they’re cooperating with the region – with Jordan, with Egypt, with Israel in providing security? I think that’s possible.
But you have to have leaders who are willing to go there, who want to do that. The fear that President Obama and I share is that Israel, in its current direction, is actually diminishing the capacity for a two-state solution. And we think that’s happening where a one-state solution is not a possibility; it can’t happen. At least you can’t have a democratic and Jewish --
QUESTION: A Jewish democratic state.
SECRETARY KERRY: -- democratic state, no, you can’t, and have one state. So you need to preserve the two states, but right now, it’s moving in a dangerous direction, because of the number of settlements and the general lack of any kind of legitimate process to move in that direction.
QUESTION: Do you have any – do you anticipate laying out a blueprint for such a solution before you leave office?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no decision has been made yet with respect to what – I mean, I think we want to encourage the preservation of a two-state solution. And our first choice is to try to do that with the government, with the prime minister and to work together in order to make sure that that is – that there’s a track that’s going to guarantee that that’s being preserved. I think President Obama is very, very concerned that increasingly, pressure is being put on the capacity to hold on to that two-state effort, and part of it is because there’s been a very high level of continued settlement construction, some of it well deep into the West Bank in places that will not be a part of Israel if indeed we build the two states.
QUESTION: Do you think that’s intended to thwart a two-state solution?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I – it certainly puts it at risk. I’m not going to get into intent. But it – the fact of it is a problem and it runs contrary to American policy under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
QUESTION: But it’s possible that you guys may lay out a blueprint before you leave.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean, lots of things are possible. I don’t know what the --
QUESTION: Lots of things aren’t, though, and so --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, well, it’s certainly – one of the things that’s been kicked around publicly by – I mean, even Prime Minister Netanyahu has mentioned it. No decision has been made to do that. There’s been no discussion of it at this point in any official way.
QUESTION: You’ve been in public life for most of your adult life and you obviously relish it, and you’re active to this moment and you’re not winding down. What plans do you have after you leave?
SECRETARY KERRY: I --
QUESTION: What kind of future do you foresee for John Kerry?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, whatever it’ll be, it’ll be exciting. I don’t have any idea what – I honestly – I’m thinking that through right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do specifically. I’d like to do some private sector stuff in general. I find it fascinating what is happening in the workplace and in the global community right now with the possibilities of energy and technology and so forth. I want to continue to do some kind of conflict resolution. I think I have it in my blood a little bit. I want to try to continue to work to improve things, make things better. I will certainly continue to press climate change and the oceans issues that are partly linked to climate and other issues – overfishing and so forth. And I’d like to work and be a solid voice for peace and stability in regions that are afflicted today, and I hope I can continue to do that somehow.
QUESTION: Well, I hope one thing you’ll add to your list is to spend time with students, as you did today at the University of Chicago, because --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I love doing that.
QUESTION: -- you left them inspired and energized and we’re really grateful for that.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, then. I appreciate it. It’s wonderful to be with you here.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a great place.
QUESTION: Great to have you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you.