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NewsSep 26, 2019

Staying optimistic in turbulent times

Longtime statesman John Kerry invokes history to assure audience that we can meet daunting challenges

John Kerry speaks in front of a podium while gesturing with his right hand

Two tours of duty in Vietnam, service in Massachusetts politics as a prosecutor and lieutenant governor, and nearly 30 years as a United States senator and four years as secretary of state have given John Forbes Kerry a sense of perspective.

Kerry’s appearance as the inaugural speaker for the 2019-20 season of Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series coincided with the announcement of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s authorization of an impeachment inquiry and investigation of President Donald Trump. The former secretary of state conceded that we’re living in unusual and troubling times, yet he reminded the capacity crowd in Symphony Hall that America has faced tougher challenges, less-certain outcomes and shakier politics.

“I did not come here to be partisan or pessimistic,” Kerry said. “But I do need to tell the truth: This is not a normal time.”

Janet Steinmayer speaks behind a podium
Lesley University President Janet L. Steinmayer kicked off the evening, welcoming the audience to the new season of our Boston Speakers Series.

View more photos from our evening with John Kerry at Lesley's Boston Speakers Series.

Kerry, at various points in the evening, pointed to seemingly clear instances of the president obstructing justice in congressional probes of his and his administration’s conduct during the 2016 election, the relationship with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin and, more recently, communication with Ukraine vis-à-vis the son of former vice president and current Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden.  

However, Kerry cautioned against rushing to judgment armed mainly with conjecture, and urged proceeding carefully and deliberately based on what the facts say, not what Trump’s supporters or adversaries want them to say. Though Kerry has been skeptical of pushing for Trump’s impeachment in the past, he supports a thorough inquiry and, if the facts warrant it, he supports the House of Representatives going forward with articles of impeachment.

But, he warned, “President Clinton came out stronger after impeachment,” indicating that such a formal charge against Trump, if the Senate doesn’t vote to remove him, could galvanize the president’s position.

Confidence called for

Still, Kerry said he believes the checks and balances and institutions America has in place — even though they seem less potent than in the past — are likely to ensure national stability, even harmony. History, he said, is on the side of optimism.

“We have actually lived through tougher times before,” Kerry said. He pointed to the Watergate hearings that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation as evidence that anyone can be held to account. He related the triumph of his fellow Vietnam veterans and millions of civilians, including college students, at bringing an end to the war. He spoke about the eventual, peaceful toppling of the murderous dictatorship of Philippines leader Ferdinand Marcos, and the rise to power of Corazon Aquino, the widow of the man Marcos had ordered assassinated.

John Kerry and Jared Bowen are seated on the Symphony Hall stage with flowers on either side
“It takes citizen activism to make solutions irresistible. We have always been defined by the idealists and the dreamers," said John Kerry, pictured here with host Jared Bowen, the executive arts editor at WGBH.

The latter example gave rise to a hint of the palace intrigue that can attend statecraft, as Kerry introduced (without elaboration) an anecdote about a “risqué breakfast” with Marcos’s wife, Imelda, known for her inclination toward extravagance and fashion footwear.

“I got to see all those shoes,” Kerry said. “And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Americans prevail

On a more serious note, Kerry related details of a time even more divisive than today’s political climate. In 1968 alone, the country saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Just five years earlier, civil-rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated. The late ’60s and early ’70s saw riots in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, and street crime was rampant.

“In 1969, I came home to a country that was at war with itself, much more so than today,” Kerry said.

War, he acknowledged, was still a blight on humanity, but far fewer people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Vietnam. While climate change is clearly a crisis, America has successfully addressed problems of air and water pollution and fossil-fuel emissions, though much still needs to be done.

Students Liana Freeman and Jonah O’Neill stand on either side of John Kerry posing for a photo
Lesley undergraduate students Liana Freeman ’22 (left) and Jonah O’Neill ’22 (right) met with John Kerry during a reception following his lecture.

As secretary of state, Kerry had a front-row seat at the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal, both of which President Trump has abandoned. But even those measures alone weren’t enough to solve the problems they were designed to remedy.

The solution, Kerry indicated, is all of us.

“All politics is a reaction to felt needs,” said Kerry, quoting a professor of his at Yale University. It’s a quote he thinks of often.

“It takes citizen activism to make solutions irresistible,” Kerry said. “We have always been defined by the idealists and the dreamers.”

Whether it’s reversing the effects of global warming, achieving the aspirations of the ecologically and economically focused “Green New Deal,” or cleaning up politics, Kerry said change will only come when a larger number of Americans actually cast a vote.

New season under way

Lesley University President Janet L. Steinmayer kicked off the evening, welcoming the audience to the current season of the sold-out subscription series. Visit our Boston Speakers Series page to see the full lineup of dignitaries.