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John Kerry to Harvard grads: ‘This is not a normal time’

Former secretary of state John Kerry.AP/File

CAMBRIDGE — Former US secretary of state John F. Kerry said he didn’t want to get “political” in his address Wednesday to graduates at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. And then he excoriated President Trump and the nation’s political discourse in one of his most political speeches since leaving office.

In front of hundreds of graduates and their families, Kerry said that while acknowledging the celebratory day, he did not want to “insult your intelligence by pretending that it’s smooth sailing for America and the world.”

Kerry joked that in the past, the way to get ahead in government was to run for office or attend the Kennedy School, but “with this White House I’d say, buy Rosetta Stone and learn Russian.”


“And the truth is – no, this is not a normal time,” Kerry said. “It’s not normal to see a president of the United States decrying ‘so-called judges.’ It’s not normal for the leader of the country that invented the First Amendment to routinely degrade and even threaten journalists. And no, it’s not normal to see the head of the FBI fired summarily because he was investigating connections between Russia and the presidential campaign of the very man who fired him.

“And it’s not normal that when you close your eyes and listen to the news, too often the political back and forth in America sounds too much like it does in the kinds of countries that the State Department warns Americans not to travel to,” he continued.

After serving as secretary of state during Barack Obama’s second term, the former longtime senator has made Massachusetts home again, changed vacation residences from Nantucket to Martha’s Vineyard. He has also taken official roles at Yale University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kerry described today’s political environment as not that different from the divided country during the anti-communist witch hunts of McCarthyism and Watergate. Though these are dark analogies, he said, he was hopeful because even in those times the nation’s institutions — whether it be media or even individual senators — worked to preserve the country.


In fact, Kerry noted that there was only one time when these institutions could not prevent a full crisis: the Civil War.

“You know what, I don’t think even Andrew Jackson could’ve stopped that one,” joked Kerry in a reference to Trump’s quip weeks ago that Jackson, who owned slaves and died 16 years before the Civil War began, could have stopped the war if he had lived later.

Kerry expressed optimism about the nation’s institutions, but he also acknowledged there are real challenges and anxieties in the country, particularly for those people who may have voted for Trump.

Kerry argued that it isn’t free trade but breakneck technological changes that led to a massive job loss, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

“Sure – yes, technology is transformative, but if it was your job that disappeared and nothing replaced it – guess what,” Kerry asked. “You’ll find zero comfort in the fact that the same technology that eliminated your job also gave you a smartphone that lets you binge-watch a future that’s out of reach for you and everyone you grew up with.

“What concerns me is that if our institutions can’t build consensus and respond to the demand of Americans for jobs today — how are we ever going to do it in a time when artificial intelligence and robotics kick in and five times that number of jobs disappear twice as fast?” he said.


He also talked at length about American political culture, climate change, and global terrorism.

This week the Harvard campus served as a reunion of sorts for several former Obama administration officials. Former vice president Joe Biden spoke to college graduates, and former deputy attorney general Sally Yates addressed the graduating class at Harvard Law school.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp