Honorable Mention

John Kerry and Ernest Moniz: The statesmen who achieved the impossible

Seemingly in the sunset of their careers, they worked together to make history.

illustration by John Ritter for The Boston Globe
A second-term staple of the modern presidency is the parade of memoirs from recently departed Cabinet secretaries and aides, each serving up enough revelations to generate buzz and secure bookings on the morning shows. Contributions to this cannon from Robert Gates and Leon Panetta have already supplied plenty of score settling and catty reflections from life inside the Obama Cabinet, but the 44th president will need to brace himself for more before he has settled into retirement.

Here’s a book that likely won’t be written but probably should: How two of Barack Obama’s second-term appointments, seemingly in the sunset of their careers, put aside egos and worked together to achieve something potentially monumental in international diplomacy that neither could have accomplished on his own.

Although they’re both Bay Staters in their seventies, John Kerry and Ernest Moniz make for an unlikely pair. The 6-foot-4 Kerry towers over Moniz by nearly a foot. And while Kerry, the son of a career foreign service officer, sometimes gives the impression that he was born speaking the diplomatese of Foggy Bottom, Moniz prefers the crisp, highly technical lingua franca of his longtime home in the MIT physics department.


Before this year, Moniz says, the two men had a cordial but decidedly surface relationship. But from the moment in February when Secretary of State Kerry enlisted the help of Secretary of Energy Moniz in the fraught nuclear negotiations with Iran, Moniz sensed the potential for something special.

As secretary of state, and with his decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would have been justified in protecting his turf in leading the Iran effort. A less self-assured official might have resented the injection of a Cabinet colleague into the mix. “Let’s face it, John’s been at this a long time,” Moniz says. “But he could not have been more supportive or welcoming to me.”

Kerry was comfortable overseeing the diplomatic negotiations and working to keep the fragile “P5+1” international coalition unified against a nuclear Iran, which was no easy feat, since those five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (plus Germany) include frequent US adversaries Russia and China. But Kerry wanted Moniz alongside him to lead the technical aspects in the same way that the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT-trained nuclear physicist, was helming that effort for the other side.


“We were absolutely confident when Ernie came up with an idea or put forward a new technical solution it was the real deal,” Kerry says. “And so were the Iranians. That was invaluable inside the negotiating room.”

So what began as something of an arranged marriage between Kerry and Moniz quickly flowered into a genuine partnership. “When you spend days and weeks holed up in hotels with no one else but your fellow negotiating team members, that experience has a way of forging bonds and friendships,” Kerry says. “As the negotiations got closer to the end, we both relied on each other as we hammered out the final details of what we knew had the potential to be such a consequential agreement.”

Moniz puts it this way: “We both knew we would succeed as a team or fail as a team.”

Together, they made history. As it turned out, though, finalizing the agreement with Iran to curb its ability to develop nuclear weapons marked only the halfway point. Grueling as the negotiations were with the Iranians, the job of selling the deal to a skeptical Congress and American public was in some ways even tougher.

When Democratic Senate leader-in-waiting Chuck Schumer sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in strongly opposing the deal, there was fear within the Obama administration that the agreement might crash and burn. Kerry and Moniz argued this result would have been disastrous, both for the United States’ international standing and for the continued ability to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


In public and private discussions with fence-sitting members of Congress, Moniz leveraged his bona fides in nuclear science to assure them that the deal was technically sound and the best possible option. That gave many members either the confidence or the cover to get off the fence and give Obama the support his administration needed.

With the Iran pact approved — and the P5+1 model preserved as a potential approach for solving other seemingly intractable global threats, such as terrorism — this duo of statecraft shifted the focus to the implementation process with the Iranians. Both say they are determined to make sure that Tehran lives up to its commitments and to see that all the assurances they made to Congress are borne out.

Meanwhile, the bond they forged over Iran is paying dividends in other areas, most notably in their efforts to tackle climate change in a meaningful way. In early December, as Kerry was in Paris working out the framework for an international climate change agreement, he phoned Moniz to solicit his advice in advance of Moniz joining him in France. “I don’t think that would have happened prior to Iran,” Moniz says.

During their long days together hashing out the Iran deal, they discovered their shared love of fine dining. Kerry ended up taking Moniz to the secretary of state’s favorite bistro in Paris, where they lingered over a meal of shellfish and slow cooked beef.


“Ernie brought a fellow appreciation for good food and wine to our friendship,” Kerry says, “but his love of Scotch is one affinity that I don’t share — that’s all his.”

Back in July, on their flight home from Austria after inking the deal with the Iranians, they toasted the achievement with a nice bottle of Madeira that Moniz had been given in Portugal — a perhaps immodest nod to the historic nature of the moment. The Founding Fathers had chosen the same type of wine to toast their signing the Declaration of Independence.

Both Moniz and Kerry celebrate their birthdays this month, turning 71 and 72 respectively. Asked if he is surprised they have reached the peak of their influence this deep into the AARP zone, Kerry again invokes wine. “I guess we both believe in the maxim that some things get better with age.”

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Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey