68th United States Secretary of State, John Kerry.
68th United States Secretary of State, John Kerry.
Image: Getty Images / Dan Kitwood

Lunch with John Kerry does not start off as planned. As the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and former US secretary of state takes his seat, he unhelpfully declares: “I’m not hungry.” But this is Lunch with the FT, I protest — you cannot go on hunger strike. We are meeting at the Café du Parc, a cheerful French brasserie on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few hundred yards from the Trump International Hotel. Kerry is dressed in a dark blue pinstriped suit, the very image of a traditional presidential candidate. His hair is not as bouffant, or supposedly “French-style”, as his Republican caricaturists might like. He has just published an autobiography, the classic move of an aspirant for the Oval Office. The timing has fuelled speculation that Kerry is planning another run at the White House.

That would be a brassy move. In the demoralised Democratic rubble of George W Bush’s 2004 re-election, it was hard to imagine Kerry staging a comeback. He agonised about trying again in 2008, before being gazumped by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In Obama’s second term, Kerry chalked up more air miles than any previous US secretary of state (clearing well over a million, or more than 120 days in the air). One of the products of this travel mania was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; another was the Paris agreement on climate change. That legacy is already in ashes. Donald Trump has pulled the US out of both.

To stack the odds further, the Democratic party base is even less patient with its usual suspects than it was when it nearly deprived Hillary Clinton of the crown in 2016 in favour of Bernie Sanders, then an obscure socialist from Vermont. Nothing equivalent to Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican party has yet happened to the Democrats. It may still. Hopefuls a generation junior to Kerry are noisily auditioning. Experience is widely seen as evidence of failure.

Yet Kerry has kept his name in the spotlight. That very morning, the Trump administration attacked him as borderline traitorous for meeting Iranian officials. Shortly before we sat down to lunch, Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the UN — who has since announced her resignation — called Kerry “anti-American” for having met Iranians on the sidelines of recent conferences. “She said that?” asks Kerry. I confirm that she did. “They are just setting up red herrings and straw men,” he says, with a hint of annoyance. “I don’t feel any personal grievance, I feel for my country and the world that Trump has made a very counter-productive decision because it empowers the very people you least want empowered in Iran. It gives credence to the ayatollah’s reservations about ever negotiating with us... Trump is delusional if he thinks these guys will come crawling back to negotiate with us.”

Even by Washington standards, our 11.30am lunch meeting seems a bit on the early side. But I am mindful of tradition. You can’t turn down an onion soup in a French restaurant, I insist. “Yup, actually I can,” says Kerry, flicking through the menu. He opts for the Maryland crab soup. Glass of wine? I ask, aware that I am starting to sound like a pusher. “I can’t do that in the middle of the day unless I’m in France or London,” he says. “When I’m in London, I can order a bottle of wine for lunch and take two hours over it. I love those lunches.”

Kerry asks our thickly accented waiter if he is from Germany. He has guessed correctly. They exchange a few sentences in German. It turns out Kerry spent two years of his childhood in Berlin when his father, a foreign service officer, advised the US high commissioner. Kerry spent most of that time at a boarding school in Switzerland. He also speaks French and a “smattering” of Italian. A facility with language ought to be a plus point for high office. But the last time Kerry ran he was lampooned by Republicans for being too French. The experience seems to have left few scars. Kerry happily discloses that his fondest wish would be to learn Arabic. “It is such a beautiful language,” he says. “So much comes from it.”

I tell him that the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court was the second-most polarising moment I had experienced in many years in America (the first was Trump’s 2016 election victory). It struck me that Kerry may find today’s bitterness mild compared with the early 1970s when, as a heavily decorated former naval reserve in Vietnam — he was wounded several times and won nine medals, including three Purple Hearts — he led demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Along with hundreds of other veterans, he threw his medals over the fence on Capitol Hill in protest. “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” he asked Congress. Are the divisions that we’re witnessing today comparable?

“No” says Kerry. “What happened in the 1960s was around a war that divided the country as we came out of the civil rights movement and assassinations of leaders like the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. It was a different time.”

Nixon was impeached and the system worked, I say. What assurances do we have that it will survive Trump? Kerry ponders for a moment. His appetite seems to have returned. He dispatches efficient spoonfuls of soup and mouthfuls of bread between sentences. I pay scant attention to my salade niçoise.

“Today’s cultural clash is not the same,” Kerry replies. “It may even be more profound in the level of polarisation because of the president’s exploitation of those fears and anxieties.” Does he think Trump is a crook, like Nixon was? A couple of days earlier, The New York Times had come out with a damning report alleging that Trump had committed fraud to avoid paying taxes on his vast inheritance. “That wasn’t news to me,” Kerry replies. “The point I’m making is that what Trump does is give licence to what has been there but always restrained by America’s sense of better angels. It is very dangerous because it unleashes really dark forces and when they don’t get their way, it can overflow — it can become violent.”

It’s not the first time we’ve had the Nazis and the white supremacists marching, but it is the first time they’ve received words of acceptance by the president of the United States.

Kerry has already cleaned out his soup bowl. There are two things that could stop Trump, he continues. The first is whatever Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, comes up with. “That could be a really major moment,” he says.

As a teenager, Kerry went to US boarding school with Mueller. The former FBI chief even captained his hockey team. They have known each other for 60 years. All Kerry will say about Mueller now is that he has earned his moniker of being “America’s straightest arrow”.

The other thing that has the “potential” to stop Trump, Kerry says, is Republican defeat. The midterm congressional elections take place less than a month from now. Even then, however, Kerry fears that a Democratic victory may backfire. “Why do I only say ‘potential’?” he asks. “Because it’s possible that Trump, who is not normal, could go to a very negative place for his own re-election in 2020, and incite those people with even more violent passions. He is not someone who will restrain himself. Remember the rallies in which he would say, that guy should be taken out in a stretcher?” I went to a few of those myself, I interrupt. “It’s not the first time we’ve had the Nazis and the white supremacists marching, but it is the first time they’ve received words of acceptance by the president of the United States,” he says. “They’ve been deemed good people. It empowers them.”

It feels like the right moment to ask if he really does plan to run against Trump. Kerry does not pause. “Right now, I am thinking how we win on November 6,” he says. “I have said to people that I am not ruling it out but I am not sitting here actively prepping... that would be inappropriate at this point. Any efforts at 2020 right now would do an injustice to the real focus, which is 2018.” It sounds to me like a time-honoured non-denial denial.

At 74, Kerry is roughly in the middle of a septuagenarian pack that includes Michael Bloomberg, 76, the financial and media tech billionaire; Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator who is just shy of 70; Joe Biden, 75, the former vice-president; and Trump himself, who will be 74 at the next election. He insists age is not an issue in their — and his — candidacies.

“I don’t think it’s age-defined. It’s idea-defined and it is defined by your vigour and energy. I mean, look at Bernie Sanders [77]. It depends what you are saying and how passionate you are. I don’t think people looked at Bernie and said, ‘You’re too old.’ His ideas excited young people. On the other hand, if you appear to be out of touch, the young will banish you in a nanosecond. So will everyone else.”

Kerry, of course, knows all about the difficulty of taking on a Republican in search of a second term. For much of the 2004 campaign, polls showed Kerry heading for a narrow victory. Then, in the summer, he was accused of embellishing his war record by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”, a group of former soldiers who had apparently served under him in Vietnam. It turned out none had directly served under Kerry. Some of those who had fought with him rushed to his defence. But the damage was done. You could argue that it was the original fake news story. The word “swiftboating” — targeted by a political smear — has entered common parlance.

Meanwhile the outfit that helped to devise Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — CRC Public Relations — is still hard at work. The week before we meet, it disseminated a story that a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, rather than the judge himself, was the one who had attempted to sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford in the early 1980s. Wouldn’t Kerry have been president, I ask, if he had not been swiftboated? “The Swift Boat thing was an added difference,” he replies. “But we were still on course to defeat Bush. Then on the Friday before the election, the Osama bin Laden tape was released by Al Jazeera [an 18-minute video in which the al-Qaeda leader hinted at new attacks]. That stopped our momentum cold right there. That tape was what killed us.”

Our crèmes brûlées have arrived. Kerry happily demolishes his. He has also ordered a cappuccino. I am sipping an espresso. “It breaks all Italian law to have coffee with milk in the afternoon,” he says. I ask whether such a self-evidently plutocratic figure can really break through as the Democrats’ candidate in today’s populist climate. Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was married to the late John Heinz III, who was heir to the eponymous family fortune. She is thought to be worth about $750m. The Kerrys own six capacious homes. Doesn’t his wealth pose a problem? “That’s a fair question,” Kerry replies. “My answer is very simple. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had money. John F Kennedy had money. It’s not what your bank account is. It’s what you believe. It’s what you’re fighting for. Money doesn’t define me. What matters is what you’re doing to make people’s lives better.”

You must have the skin of a rhino to consider re-entering that arena, I suggest. “Mine is thicker,” he replies. “I’m way beyond that now. I’ve been in public life since I was 27 and they’ve thrown everything at me. These guys come at my military record and my patriotism but they haven’t proven themselves right on anything. Look at their invasion of Iraq [which Kerry himself, as Bush’s re-election campaign was quick to highlight, had voted to authorise]. It was a disaster.”

Encouraged by Kerry’s thick hide, I return the conversation to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s supporters allege that Kerry gave too much away to the Iranians because he was so keen to win a Nobel Peace Prize, I say. My reminder clearly exercises him. “They just don’t know what they’re talking about,” Kerry says, his voice rising. “They say that because it sounds good. The reality is that we got the toughest, most transparent arms-control agreement on the planet. We have the ability for life to inspect any facility in Iran when we want.” One or two people are looking over at our table. “I’m sorry,” Kerry says. “I feel passionate about this because it’s not true.”

Among Kerry’s other passions is dealing with the threat of global warming. The problem is that few voters seem to share his concern, I say. Indeed, politics makes it hard nowadays to debate any substantive issue. “With the hundreds of platforms we have today — you know this as well as anybody — it is very hard to break through,” Kerry says. “It’s one of the reasons to be in a presidential race because that’s where you can get some of these choices defined.” But how, I ask, would you excite the voters? “Let me be very explicit with you,” Kerry replies. “Don’t talk about climate change, talk about the weather. If temperature rises, you have warm moisture in the air and bigger storms. Last year we spent $265bn on three big storms, Maria, Irma and Harvey — that’s one-third of our defence budget. If you want to save money, folks, and if you want to put people to work, we need to start acting.”

I mention infrastructure — that clunky word that switches most people off. It seems to electrify Kerry. He relates a train journey he recently took in China at an average speed of 300mph. “A steward put down a glass of water and it didn’t even tremor,” he said. “Whereas the Acela [America’s fastest train linking Boston to Washington, DC] exceeds 150mph for a fraction of the journey. It can’t go fast over the Chesapeake river because it will wind up in the Chesapeake. This is absurd. We put a man on the Moon yet we cannot maintain basic infrastructure.”

As Kerry rises, a member of the kitchen staff bounds up to our table with a beribboned posy of desserts. The well-wisher addresses him as “Mr President”. Kerry laughs. “All right. Thanks buddy!” he says. To me he adds: “I didn’t pay for him.” As he shakes my hand, Kerry says: “You should have the macaroons. I couldn’t eat any more.” After some pushback, he agrees that he might have room for them after all. Then he is gone. I am left feeling that Kerry has just the kind of CV that might sway a centrist establishment in duller times to give him another shot. But we are a million miles from that place. It has nothing to do with age. Today’s America is restless for anything but experience.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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