WASHINGTON — Senator John Kerry, in a long and occasionally emotional farewell speech in the chamber where he represented Massachusetts for 28 years, praised the Senate’s history of pragmatic compromise while warning that political gridlock in Washington threatens America’s reputation abroad.
But the Bay State lawmaker expressed optimism during his 50-minute good-bye, urging his colleagues to heed the lessons he learned as a freshman legislator in 1985.
“I do not believe the Senate is broken — certainly not as an institution,” Kerry said. “There is nothing wrong with the Senate that can’t be fixed by what’s right about the Senate.”
The speech was part of a ritualistic changing of the guard that began when Kerry’s peers overwhelmingly confirmed him as secretary of state on Tuesday. He met with President Obama at the White House on Wednesday, soon after his Senate floor remarks, for their first meeting since the confirmation vote.
On Friday afternoon, Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, the former Harvard Law School dean, is scheduled to swear in Kerry to his new post at the State Department. His first day on the job will be Monday.
The next chapter of Kerry’s career could be the most challenging, as he inherits from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the task of molding American diplomacy in a volatile world. Kerry said in his speech that the way Congress conducts itself at home will have an impact on his success overseas.
“We can be no stronger abroad than we are at home,” Kerry said. “If we posture politically in Washington, we weaken our position across the world. If democracy deadlocks here, we raise doubts about democracy everywhere.”
Kerry arrived at his desk five minutes before the speech, pointing out and exchanging smiles with many of the 15 or so senators who filed in to listen. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, looked on from the visitor’s gallery above the Senate floor. Senator Elizabeth Warren — sitting behind Kerry’s left shoulder — smiled when Kerry pointed out that, with her election last November, “in Massachusetts, the glass ceiling has finally been forever shattered.”
A large portion of his final remarks amounted to a stern warning. Kerry identified what he said are the causes of a “dangerous but reversible erosion in the quality of US democracy: the decline of comity, the deluge of money, and the disregard for facts.”
Without naming individual culprits or political parties, Kerry suggested some lawmakers have put their own interests ahead of those of the nation, eroding the Senate’s tradition of bipartisan cooperation.
“Frankly, the problems we live through today come from individual choices made by senators themselves — not the rules,” Kerry said. “Those are the moments in which the Senate fulfills, not its responsibility to the people, but its reputation as a sanctuary of gridlock.’’
Today’s Senate must return to its days of strong personal relationships, Kerry said, adding that the late Edward M. Kennedy was a master of fostering close ties with individuals both within his own party and across the aisle. Kerry briefly paused and his voice faltered as he patted his desk, formerly occupied by Ted Kennedy and John F. Kennedy before he was elected president.
“I can’t help but be reminded that even the nation’s greatest leaders — and all the rest of us — are merely temporary workers,” Kerry said. “None of us moved here because of the moving words of a senator long since departed. We honor this history, but we’re here because of the legacy we want to leave.”
He called the Senate “one of the most extraordinary institutions of any kind on the face of the earth,’’ adding, “I believe it is the honor of a lifetime, an extraordinary privilege to have represented the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States Senate for more than 28 years.’’
Kerry also touched on his 2004 presidential bid and 2007 decision not to seek the Democratic nomination a second time.
“Eight years ago, I admit I had a slightly different plan to leave the Senate, but 61 million Americans voted that they wanted me to stay here with you,” Kerry said with a smirk, drawing laughs.
After leaving the chamber, Kerry rode the underground train back to a Senate office building with his wife and new security detail.
He was greeted outside the elevator by a former personal aide, Marvin Nicholson, who told Kerry, “It was a heck of a speech,” before the two shared a hug.
David Uberti can be reached at email@example.com.