BOSTON — John Kerry’s resignation from the U.S. Senate takes effect Friday when he’s scheduled to be sworn in as U.S. secretary of state. The Democrat toured Massachusetts on Thursday, saying goodbye to constituents after nearly three decades as their senator.
Kerry’s Rise To The Senate
Kerry burst onto the national stage in the early 1970s as a decorated Vietnam veteran who was opposed to the war. He was a powerful voice because he had received three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star in Vietnam. In 1971, he wore his ribbons as he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against the Nixon administration’s continuation of the war.
“Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be — and these are his words — ‘the first president to lose a war’,” Kerry testified to the committee. “We are asking Americans to think about that because 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? But we are trying to do that…”
Kerry would later become the chair of the very committee he testified before. But his first attempt at a political office failed, when in 1972 he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives.
He dropped out of politics and got a law degree, and eventually became the top assistant to the Middlesex County district attorney. After 10 years away from politics, he joined Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Michael Dukakis on the ticket as lieutenant governor. After a year in the post he saw his political future more on the national stage and made a bid for U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas’ seat, which Tsongas gave up because of an illness. Kerry won the seat in 1984 and has held on to it through four re-elections.
Once in the Senate Kerry made foreign affairs central to his politics. In 1995 he teamed up with Republican Sen. John McCain to push for the United States to normalize relations with Vietnam. He stood behind President Clinton when Clinton announced the change.
In the ’90s Kerry supported a crime bill that added cops to the streets. He helped small businesses in Massachusetts get funding, and he was instrumental in getting the two most recent increases to the minimum wage. While Kerry’s prominence rose on the national stage, he faced challenges for his Senate seat.
The toughest one came in 1996 when Republican Gov. William Weld ran against him. Weld attacked Kerry for what he called a weak legislative record. He also called him out of touch.
The ‘Out Of Touch’ Criticism
That was a criticism often thrown at Kerry — that he was out of touch — says Rob Gray, Weld’s communications director during that campaign and now a GOP consultant.
“Pre-1996 [Kerry] really didn’t spend much time focusing on Massachusetts,” Gray said. “I think the close shave against Gov. Weld in that 1996 race shocked Kerry into putting more of a focus on Massachusetts than he had in the past and I think he’s been a better senator since that race, but he still has spent a lot of time pursuing national office, national headlines.”
Following that race, Kerry teamed up with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy more often. They co-wrote legislation to use money from cigarette taxes to cover all children’s health insurance, for example.
But the criticism that Kerry wasn’t there for Massachusetts is unfair, says Larry Carpman, Kerry’s press secretary for 15 years. Carpman says Kerry fought for fisheries, the environment and critical funding for the Big Dig.
“I was with him, for example, when he was on the floor of the U.S. Senate at about midnight — I have a vivid memory of it — when there was a moment that funding for the Big Dig was at a key juncture and he wouldn’t leave the floor until he was able to help move that forward,” Carpman said.
A Committee Bookend
Kerry’s attention turned to the national stage again in 2004 when he ran for and won the Democratic nomination for president. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention he hearkened back to his days in the U.S. Navy. “I’m John Kerry and I’m … reporting for duty,” he said to thunderous applause.
Kerry failed to defeat President George W. Bush. He returned to the Senate where, in 2009 and under Democratic control, he rose to one of the most powerful positions, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s a role he’s embraced. In his last speech before the Senate he said the end of his tenure is like a bookend.
“Forty-two years ago I testified before Sen. Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee about the realities of war in Vietnam,” Kerry said. “It wasn’t until last week that I would sit before that committee again testifying in my own confirmation hearing. It completed a circle which I never could have imagined drawing.”
At 70, Kerry is now stepping onto the largest stage of his career, as secretary of state.