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 . 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.”