Globally bound, John Kerry first retraces, recalls roots
He has already become known as “Mr. Secretary,’’ with a diplomatic security team and a motorcade that shuts down highways. But John Forbes Kerry was officially still a United States senator Thursday, on a nostalgia tour through the state he represented in Washington for the better part of three decades.
Here was his old desk at the Middlesex district attorney’s office. Here were his old friends in Springfield. Here was a gathering of 200 Democratic luminaries and supporters at Faneuil Hall. And here he was in his Boston Senate office, reclining in an armchair for one last interview with the Globe as a senator, reflecting on his political journey, his determined comeback from the depths of his 2004 presidential defeat, and what he considers the sorry state of modern American politics.
A lawmaker who was never particularly known for his skills as a retail politician was suddenly waxing about all the average Joes he has met across Massachusetts. The newly confirmed secretary of state, whose sights were frequently focused overseas during his Senate career, talked fondly of walking the streets of Worcester.
“Over the years I learned this really is just all about people,” said Kerry, who is scheduled to be sworn in as the nation’s top diplomat on Friday. “You sort of gain an appreciation for the fight, if you will. Maybe it’s partly growing older. You reach a stage in your life where there’s a little less runway in front of you than there is in back of you. As a pilot, that’s not a good thing.”
Kerry grew most animated at the mention of Frank Biongorno, a Lawrence storekeeper whom Kerry met during his first run for Congress in 1972. Kerry would stop by the store from time to time to have dinner.
“Bongi!” Kerry said. “I do remember Bongi. Are you kidding? Oh. I used to visit Bongi all the time. There are loads of stories like that, of people who become a big part of your life.”
Kerry now has 60 days to clean out his Senate office. He will send to the National Archives some 1,000 boxes of documents accumulated since his election in 1985, some of which he may keep until his tenure at the state department is complete.
In the interview, Kerry struggled to name any singular accomplishment he wanted to be remembered for, or any legacy issue. Instead, he rattled off a series of issues and achievements, from electronic health records to helping commuter rail in Worcester to supplying Internet service to the Berkshires. But he acknowledged his Senate career wouldn’t fit neatly into an ideological box.
“I accomplished a lot,” he said. “A lot more than people know.”
He said one of his biggest regrets was not being able to pass climate change legislation, something he worked on for the past several years.“Probably the finest piece of legislation I did didn’t get enacted into law yet,” Kerry said.
Kerry also lamented how impersonal politics has become, saying he longed for the days when he could drop by a Catholic church, where food was set out on paper tablecloths, the room was crowded, “and everybody had a time.”
“Politics is very, very, very different. Sadly different, badly different. Different for the worse,” Kerry said.
“Bob Cranes, and Billy Bulgers, and Frank Bellottis — there was a different attitude 15, 20 years ago,’’ he added. “Now it’s much more impersonal, distant. There’s much more technology, social media, arms-length distant kind of communication. And I think it’s part of the reason we have trouble building consensus and finding solutions for things.”
When asked how he’s changed over his career, Kerry said, “I think I’ve become a much more effective and better public person. Much more.
“I think I began with some pretty normal rough edges and assumed some baggage by myself in choices that I made,” he said. Referring to his eagerness to end the Vietnam War, he suggested he may have been too aggressive.
“Running for Congress when I was 27 years old was, ‘We gotta end the war.’ I didn’t think clearly,” Kerry said. “It was not thought out. It was really rather sloppy as I look back on it. But I’m happy with it. It was honest. It was how I felt.”
Kerry said that he considered it a vindication that he was named secretary of state, a sign that his hard work after the 2004 presidential loss had paid off.
“To me, it was essential not to feel sorry for myself, lose myself in the moment,” Kerry said. “I felt very blessed. I felt constantly very blessed. It doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, but there’s a difference between … wallowing and saying, ‘Screw it, that’s what happened, let’s go. There’s another chapter.’”
Kerry said President Obama offered him the job of secretary of state a week before United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from contention, an earlier timeline than has been previously reported.
“He called me, actually a week before Susan got out of the thing,” Kerry said. “He called me and said, ‘You’re my choice. I want you to do this.’ He asked me to keep it quiet. I did. I sat on it.”
Kerry said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been very helpful in the transition — and he hinted, without elaboration, that they collaborated while he served as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
“We had a very good relationship,” Kerry said. “We kept a lot of things secret that we talked about.’’
After being sworn in to his new post Friday, Kerry will follow tradition and begin work at the State Department at 9 a.m. on Monday.
“There are certain things I intend to issue instructions on the minute I come in,” Kerry said. “I won’t go into the details, but Benghazi, embassy security, issues regarding some of the analysis that I want to track with respect to Iran, with respect to Syria. Trouble spots.”
He said there would be a “major meeting on Syria in the next few days.”
He also said he would start traveling this month but he would not attempt to surpass the 112 countries that Clinton visited.
“I’m not going to try,” Kerry said. “I respect that, honestly. But that’s not my goal. I mean I will do what we need to do. But I have a sense of what I want to try to focus on.”
A high point of Kerry’s farewell tour was a visit to historic Faneuil Hall, where he declared his candidacy for president in 2003 and conceded the election the following year.
He received a standing ovation as he entered the packed hall to the U2 song “Beautiful Day,” greeting former staff members and current members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Kerry hugged Governor Deval Patrick when he reached the stage, before launching into a 40-minute speech that touched on many of the themes in his farewell address to the Senate on Wednesday, including the need for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground.
Earlier in the day, he visited the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office in Woburn, the same arm of government where he began working as a prosecutor in 1976 just out of law school.
He was loose, cracking jokes. He spoke with anyone who had the time, posing for pictures, signing autographs, and engaging in the small talk he rarely seems to have time for.
One man shook his hand and told him he was happy to have campaigned for Kerry, since he won’t be able to again.
“You never know,” Kerry joked.