‘This guy,” John McCain said of John Kerry recently, “has been a human wrecking ball.” The Republican senator’s criticism of the Democratic secretary of state was bitter. For weeks John Kerry had been furiously shuttling between Europe and the Middle East, trying to nudge into place the blocks of an interim nuclear weapons agreement with Iran.
Wherever the Iran negotiations might lead, the contempt with which McCain has blasted Kerry’s performance lately is striking. For many weeks, and against all odds, Kerry has rushed to take advantage of every conceivable diplomatic opening, not just with Iran, but with Syria, Egypt, Israel, and Palestine. On Wednesday, he announced final terms of a security deal with Afghanistan. Yet McCain has mocked Kerry’s “flying into” one capital after another as “a fire drill.” McCain’s assessment was severe. “Our whole policy in the Middle East,” he said, “. . . is in such disarray that I have never seen anything like it in my lifetime.”
Really? McCain’s lifetime?
The sweeping scope of that denigration calls to mind a different period in the relationship between Kerry and McCain, when their unlikely alliance evolved into a friendship unusual in American public life. While Kerry was famously testifying against the Vietnam War in 1971, McCain was languishing in a Hanoi prison, yet the pair teamed up as senators to bring resolution to the nation’s unfinished business with Vietnam. Through five presidential administrations, the dread that American POWs had been left behind in the jungles of Southeast Asia gnawed at US politics. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and Ross Perot used the issue to advance their own ambitions. Hollywood’s mythic Rambo franchise furthered the sense of heartbreak, rage, and fear. The stark black POW/MIA flag emerged as a new American icon.
In 1991, Kerry and McCain took up the question as members of a Senate select committee, which put them both in the cross-hairs of a furious debate. Looking back now on their collaboration is instructive. As it happens, I wrote a magazine article about it in 1996. Kerry had taken on the thankless task, Senator Edward Kennedy told me, “because the issue of the war burned in his soul, and he found a soulmate in John McCain.” As chairman of the subcommittee, Kerry was especially dogged. He flew to Vietnam eight times, oversaw the investigation of thousands of documents, called hundreds to testify, tracked down every possible lead, and took every MIA rumor seriously — all with the purpose of assuring the nation that no Americans were still being held.
For supporting Kerry, McCain was attacked as a traitor to veterans, with some deriding him as “the Manchurian candidate.” Kerry staunchly defended McCain. They became friends. Kerry-McCain became a Senate watchword for a new bipartisanship. As subcommittee chair, Kerry knew that only a unanimous cross-party conclusion would put the issue to rest, and that seemed impossible. McCain told me in 1996, “I had very spirited exchanges, to say the least . . . in-your-face kind of exchanges. John Kerry — to his everlasting credit, and to my everlasting discredit, OK? — constantly said, ‘Let’s discuss it. Let’s talk about it.’ ” Kerry insisted that every senator be heard, every objection considered. “By the methodical work that John Kerry did,” McCain said, “Americans were made much more aware of the realities.”
Kerry’s patience paid off when the joint Republican-Democratic subcommittee issued its unanimous finding in 1993 — “no compelling evidence” of left-behind Americans. That enabled the US embargo against Vietnam to be lifted in 1994 — the final end of the war.
The methodical work that Kerry is doing today is no different. When he appeared before McCain and the other steamed-up members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, at a crucial stage in the Iran negotiations, Kerry’s language echoed an earlier time. “What we are asking everyone to do,” the secretary of state said, “is calm down, look hard at what can be achieved, and what the realities are.” John Kerry has firmly restored diplomacy to its rightful place as the preferred way to resolve conflict, not only abroad, but on Capitol Hill. John McCain remains all too in-your-face, ever ready for war.
That two former allies are at such loggerheads epitomizes the nation’s new jeopardy — the danger we’ve become to ourselves. In the end, though, McCain’s earlier assessment of Kerry’s method still holds. “He was very mature in handling this,” McCain told me back then. “More mature than I was.”
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.