Controlling the US debt | Douglas Brinkley

Kerry is the perfect choice for committee

John Kerry John Kerry (The Boston Globe)
By Douglas Brinkley
August 13, 2011

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WHEN SENATE Majority Leader Harry Reid announced his picks for the so-called deficit reduction super committee earlier this week, a lot of people were surprised that Massachusetts’ senior Senator John Kerry had been asked to serve. I was surprised by that surprise. Kerry’s participation on the committee offers the best chance for a successful forging of a historical bipartisan compromise that returns the United States to sound fiscal footing.

As Kerry’s biographer, I know he works best when in crisis mode. He doesn’t always shine in the day-to-day drudgery of legislative work, but instead excels when the stakes are high.

A US senator since 1985, Kerry hasn’t served on a select special committee since the early 1990s. Kerry, along with John McCain of Arizona, together led the Vietnam POW/MIA Committee’s investigation. Kerry’s staff urged him to decline the assignment because the issue was so divisive. The staff feared that Kerry would be labeled “Hanoi John’’ and that the committee was destined to never achieve compromise.

But Kerry quietly went to work. He led a group of legislators as diverse as today’s super committee will be. He worked tirelessly alongside McCain (who had campaigned bitterly against Kerry in 1984 and disagreed vehemently with Kerry about the war they’d both served in) and arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms. Serving on the committee with Kerry was an impressed Harry Reid.

Kerry was tireless in his investigation, tracking down every lead. When his vice-chairman, Bob Smith, a staunch Republican from New Hampshire, approached Kerry having heard rumors that US prisoners were still being held in tunnels under Hanoi, Kerry persuaded a reluctant Vietnamese government to grant them access. Kerry walked beside Smith into the tunnels. There were no prisoners. Kerry, in the end, built a consensus and convinced every member of the committee to sign onto a 1,223-page report that found no evidence of prisoners left behind in Vietnam. As McCain later said, “It was a remarkable feat.’’

Because the substantive deficit-cutting ground is already well-trodden by the Simpson-Bowles effort, what’s needed on the super committee are politicians who can find compromises they can swallow that don’t violate core principles. Foreign leaders often talk about Kerry’s quiet listening skills. That’s how, in the end, he persuaded Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept a run-off election two years ago. Ditto for securing difficult recent diplomatic successes in Sudan and Pakistan. Kerry told me that he learned these skills from his father, a diplomat in the US Foreign Service, who always saw an international situation through the other country’s eyes.

That’s how Kerry, for the past quarter-century, has been able to fairly negotiate with political foes, under any circumstances. Don’t be surprised if Kerry spends these next weeks on the super committee weighing the interests of Republican colleagues from their perspective in order to find pressure points and common ground neither side today believes even exist.

Kerry is a resilient and tenacious survivor. Sheer force of will has, time and again, brought him back stronger from failure. He lost a bitter race for Congress in Lowell in 1972, for example, rebuilt himself, and came back to win statewide ten years later. After losing the presidency by the slimmest of margins in 2004, he remade himself in the Senate, becoming a major party leader and senior statesman. Now, as a member of the super committee, in his golden years of public service, Kerry will be striving for a legacy accomplishment that will cement his role in US history as one of our nation’s master negotiators. Reid made the right choice.

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and author of “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.’’