Thursday, January 31, 2013

John Kerry Farewell: The Senate runs on relationships

I have witnessed what we all have, a loss of simple comity, the respect that we owe one another, and the sense of common cause that brings all of us here. The Senate as a body can change its rules to make itself more efficient, sure. But only Senators, one by one in their own hearts, can change the approach to legislating which Henry Clay correctly defined as the art of consensus.
Senator John Kerry

I have learned something about myself. I learned that the Senate runs on relationships. I know that some of my more recent colleagues--sent here in tumultuous election cycles--hear that and think it is code for checking their beliefs at the door and going Washington. It is not. And I would add: Don't kid yourself; no one got here on a platform of pledging to join an exclusive club and forget where they came from.
   When I say that relationships matter, I don't mean back-slapping, glad-handing, hail-fellow-well-met, go-along-to-get-along relationships; I mean real relationships. And to today's hard-charging colleagues who came to Washington to shake things up, I would remind them, so did I, so did Tom Harkin, and the others I mentioned. If I told you that a 40-year-old newly minted Senator John Kerry was going to tell you that relationships mattered most, I would have looked at you as if you had three heads. I cut my teeth in grassroots activism. I didn't come up through the political ranks. I burst onto the scene as an activist, and when you are an activist, all that singularly matters to you--to the exclusion of almost everything else--are the issues. Where are you on an issue? Right or wrong, that is the ballgame.
   Wrong. It is not the ballgame. That is not what makes a good Senator. That is not what makes the Senate work. My late colleague of 25 years Ted Kennedy taught me that. I saw him late at night on the Senate floor sitting with his colleagues talking and listening. He wanted to know about your State; he wanted to know about your family; he wanted to know why you came here. He had a unique ability to know not just what he needed from you on a vote or a piece of legislation but to know what you needed on a personal level as a friend, as a colleague, as a partner.
   My old friend--now Vice President Joe Biden--had a saying in his family: If you have to ask, it is too late. With Teddy, you never had to ask. He always knew, and he was there. He was there on a foggy morning on Nantucket when my father passed away, and Teddy materialized almost out of nowhere. There he was at my porch door. He didn't call ahead; he didn't ask. He came to mark the passage. He was there. It was an instinct for people and an impulse to help.
   He taught so many of us during that period of time. Somewhere along the line, he passed it on not only to me but to every colleague here who was privileged to work with him.

   I will never forget in 2007 on the day I announced I would not be running again for President. Another rough day, another passage. I got a call. Tom Harkin wanted to see me. My staff surmised that he was probably coming to ask for money for the Iowa Democratic party. They were wrong. It was a visit where Tom just came to share a few words that were very simple but which meant the world to me; a colleague visiting just to say he was proud that I had been the nominee of the party in 2004, and he looked forward to working with me more in this institution.
   Let me tell you, those are the conversations that make the difference, those are the conversations you never forget, and that is the U.S. Senate at its best. It is a place where relationships matter the most. And it matters because Teddy, Tom, and so many others here understood instinctively that if 100 Senators knew each other--and our leader has worked very hard to try to find a way to make this happen--then you can find the ways to work together.

   To my surprise, I learned it here in a way that I never could have predicted, alongside people I never thought I would count as one of my proudest friends. Last week John McCain introduced me at my confirmation hearing.John and I met here in the Senate, coming from very different positions and perspectives. We both loved the Navy; I still do to this day. But I have different feelings from John about a war.
   For both of us, Vietnam was a demarcation point in our lives, the way it was for so many of our generation. Well, late one night on a CODEL--for people who are listening and don't know about CODELs, it is a trip of Senators and Congressmen going somewhere in the world--to Kuwait after the first gulf war, John and I found ourselves in a C-130 sitting opposite each other. Neither of us could sleep, so we talked. We talked late into the night about our lives and our war.
   Shortly thereafter, George Mitchell and Bob Dole flew us together on a select committee to investigate the fate of Americans missing from the war in which we had fought. It was a tough time, an emotional issue in an era where Rambo was a box office smash and a Newsweek magazine cover printed provocative photos which asked whether Americans were still alive over there.
   Into that cacophonous cauldron, John McCain and I were thrown together. Some were suspicious of both of us, but together we found common ground. I will never forget standing with JOHN in the very cell in the Hanoi Hilton in which he spent a number of years of his life, just the two of us alone in this cell, listening to him talk about that experience.
   I will always be grateful for his partnership in helping to make real peace with Vietnam by establishing the most significant process in the history of our country--or of any country--for the accounting of the missing and dead in any war and afterwards and then working to lift the embargo and ultimately normalize relations with an old enemy. JOHN had every reason to hate them, but he didn't. We were able to heal deep wounds and end a war that divided an awful lot of people for much too long. That is a common experience, and only the relationships that are forged in the Senate could have made that happen.
   JOHN has this great expression: A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed. He loves to debate, he loves to battle, and so do I. But I will tell my colleagues, having fought beside him and having fought against him, it is a heck of a lot better and more fun to have John fighting alongside of you. We still have differences. There has been a lot of newsprint used up covering some of them, but I will tell my colleagues this: We both care about the Senate as an institution, and we both care about the country's leadership and the world even when we see it differently, and we both know that at some point America has to come together.
   We shared this common experience, and we have seen a lot together. We both were able to travel the country as Presidential nominees for our party, and both returned to the Senate to carry on in a different way. Few people know what that feels like. But just being by his side in Hanoi made it impossible for me not to be overwhelmed by his sense of patriotism and his devotion to country. It meant something else: If you can stand on the kind of common ground that we found in the Hanoi Hilton, then finding common ground on issues here at home isn't hard at all. I will always thank John McCain for that lesson.

1 comment:

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