US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, on Tuesday, April 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Secretary of State John Kerry has been arrested one time in his life, and as it happens, I was there—at least until my mom took me home to bed.
It was the spring of 1971, and Kerry was in his relatively brief stretch as the face of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The group announced plans to camp on the Battle Green in Lexington, the Boston suburb where I was then attending sixth grade. When town officials denied them permission, hundreds of residents showed up in support, and in the early morning hours the police took them all to the Public Works garage; they were fined $5 and released. My father, a mild-mannered business reporter, was among the arrestees, and that’s mostly what I remember—but also the clean-cut and well-spoken Kerry, in his fatigues.
The world has a way of turning, and some combination of ambition, talent and devotion has over time made Kerry into a Washington power: long a senator, nearly a president, now secretary of state. And he is confronting one of the largest protest movements in this country since those turbulent times.
Sometime in the next couple of months, the State Department will issue a final environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, followed by a determination on whether it is “in the national interest.” President Obama will have the final say, of course, but the other man who could stop it is John Kerry, which is why environmental groups, including 350.org, have mobilized to send him a million public comments.
So far, the signs aren’t good. A month after he took over at State, it issued a preliminary environmental ruling giving the project a clean bill of health. It didn’t take scientists more than a few hours of study to point out the many flaws and basic math errors in the ruling; perhaps stung by the embarrassment, the State Department announced that the “public comments” we’re now submitting will, in fact, be kept secret. (They may also have been stung by the pictures of tar-sands oil from a much smaller pipeline fouling an Arkansas suburb after a leak in late March.)
Other omens aren’t much better. Unnamed White House sources have said several times in recent weeks that the administration doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal; seventeen Democratic senators, under intense pressure from the fossil-fuel industry, cast a symbolic vote in favor of the pipeline in March. One of the industry’s chief lobbyists wrote in an e-mail to his clients, “I just think it is funny how many of the true believers are seriously clueless about Keystone, politics, elections.”
But then, people who want fundamental change are always willfully clueless about political reality, or else they wouldn’t fight in the first place. Here’s John Kerry, weeks before that night on the Lexington Battle Green all those years ago, testifying before Congress: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
The war had raged on for a decade. By then, almost everyone in Washington knew it was a mistake, but very few were willing to stand up and try to stop it; it was politically convenient to let the war rattle hopelessly on. It took an impassioned movement to change that, a movement Kerry helped lead.
The fossil-fuel era has raged on for many decades. By now, most people who think about it know it has to come to an end—the Arctic melted faster and farther than we’ve ever seen last summer, and the New York City subway system filled with water last fall. Cheap oil, once a boon, is now a bane. And yet the wealth of the industry makes it all but impossible to bring it to heel. By almost any definition, building a big new pipeline— designed to last decades—to the dirtiest oil on earth is a mistake. We know, that is, that the time has come to put the fossil-fuel era behind us. Here’s Kerry speaking in March: “The science is screaming at us, literally, demanding that people in positions of public responsibility at least exercise the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ to balance the equities and, not knowing completely the outcomes, at least understand what is happening and take steps to prevent potential disaster.”
That sounds like the John Kerry of the early ’70s. If he actually believed those words, there’s no possible way he could support Keystone. Instead, he’d become one of the first global leaders to stop a project cold because of its impact on the climate, earning himself some chips to lay down in negotiations with other countries.
We’ll find out how Kerry has aged when he rules on the pipeline. We’ll find out who he is now, and how he rises to the same kind of challenge he laid down in his youth. “We are here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country?” he said when he testified that day in Congress forty-two years ago. “Where is the leadership? We’re here to ask where are McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatrick and so many others?”
In the climate fight—a battle even more momentous than the one over Vietnam—the names are Obama and Kerry. Of those earlier leaders, a young Kerry said, “They’ve left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind them in the sun.” Much sooner than four decades from now, and under an ever hotter sun, we’ll know if John Kerry did likewise.
Michael T. Klare wrote about the Keystone pipeline earlier this year, and about protests in Washington by those opposed to it, including Bill McKibben and 350.org.