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A fond look back on John Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state

Former Boston Globe reporter Glen Johnson worked for John Kerry when he served as secretary of state.
Former Boston Globe reporter Glen Johnson worked for John Kerry when he served as secretary of state.(AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

When John Kerry ran for president against George Bush in 2004, members of the GOP often chided the Democrat for his worldliness. “Hi!” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay would greet Republican crowds. “Or as John Kerry might say, ‘Bonjour!’”

Kerry, the former Massachusetts senator, has drawn plenty of derision over the course of his public life for his aristocratic air, the perception that he’s above it all. Former Boston Globe reporter Glen Johnson covered Kerry extensively, often writing about the politician’s “preference for nuance and his proclivity for arguing both sides of an issue.”

But Johnson, in his new book “Window Seat on the World,” makes an airtight case on behalf of Kerry’s genuine curiosity about foreign cultures, as well as his energetic commitment to diplomacy. In our current age of boorishness and antagonism, it should make the reader pine for the quaint old days of common decency.

In 2013, the newly reelected Barack Obama asked Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry, in turn, asked Johnson to accept a post as a communications strategist, one who would have intimate access to the secretary on all of his missions overseas.

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Johnson agreed, and his admiration for the man who convinced him to change careers is apparent. “If ever there was a job for him,” he writes of his subject, “secretary of state was it — perhaps even more than president.”

Johnson’s detailed account of the four years he served in government, from Kerry’s work on the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement on climate change to his efforts to solve ongoing tensions in the Middle East, carries a heavy pall, a longing for a higher-minded time. That’s inferred, not the work of the author, who takes pains to avoid any hint of partisanship.

Just as Johnson served the country’s 68th secretary of state, “Window Seat on the World” serves as a judicious companion to Kerry’s 2018 autobiography, “Every Day Is Extra.” That book was named for the guiding tenet of the senator’s duty in Vietnam, where he and his colleagues decided that the war’s survivors owed a debt to those who did not come back “a pledge accepting responsibility to live a life of purpose.”

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Johnson expends quite a bit of ink on the protocols of US diplomacy. There are pages devoted to the execution of official photo opportunities (in his role as a deputy assistant, the author took more than 100,000 photos of Kerry on the job, a selection of them reproduced here) and the seating arrangements on the secretary’s customary Boeing 757, among other particulars.

His precise documentation, from the mundane moments to the monumental, has the cumulative effect of restoring some dignity to the idea of public service. During Kerry’s efforts to spark a new peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, the secretary of State tells his team, “I’m not afraid of trying. If we don’t make an effort, it would be diplomatic malpractice.”

Contrast that rationale with the current administration’s helter-skelter foreign policy, or lack thereof. Only rarely does Johnson let down his guard, carefully constructed as it is through both his journalistic training and his obvious loyalty to Kerry and the office.

One frustration in working with the Chinese, he notes at one point, is their refusal to engage with a free press, allowing the government “to distort reality with a straight face – and without consequence.” He does not mention the current president’s own quarrels with the “fake news.” He doesn’t need to.

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Shortly after a trip to Antarctica to witness the effects of global warming, Kerry spoke to a foreign policy group in Washington. Climate change, he said, has become a critical threat to international security.

“We can’t afford public people who ignore science,” he said.

Elsewhere, as Kerry prepared for the announcement of the historic — and since scuttled — Iran nuclear deal, he spoke privately to the foreign ministers who engineered it.

“When I was twenty-two, I went to war,” he began, and then he choked up. It took some time for him to regain his voice: “I went to war, and it became clear to me that I never wanted to go to war again.”

From any seat at all, that would be something to see.

WINDOW SEAT ON THE WORLD: MY TRAVELS WITH THE SECRETARY OF STATE

By Glen Johnson

Disruption Books, 346 pp. $25


James Sullivan is the author, most recently, of “Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs.” Email him at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.