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On Wednesday, John Kerry said farewell to the U.S. Senate, reflecting back on his long career there. But the five-term Democrat, who's about to begin as U.S. secretary of state, also decried a loss of comity in the Senate, and a rise of money and a disregard of facts in politics.
"I believe it is the honor of a lifetime, an extraordinary privilege to have represented the commonwealth of Massachusetts for more than 28 years," Kerry said in his address.
He delivered his nearly-hour-long farewell standing behind a desk rich with Massachusetts history. At one point, he held back tears.
“At this desk that once belonged to President Kennedy and [Sen.] Ted Kennedy, I can’t help but be reminded that even our nation’s greatest leaders and all the rest of us are merely temporary workers,” Kerry said.
As only temporary workers, Kerry reminded his colleagues that relationships matter and it’s up to them to keep the Senate great, to see that it's not mired in partisan politics.
"For sure there are moments of great frustration for the American people and for everybody in this place, but I don’t believe they are the fault of the institution itself. It’s not the rules that confound us, per se; it’s the choices people make about those rules."
Kerry said the rules are the same as when he joined the Senate in 1984, and things moved well then. But he said three significant changes have made the Senate a different place: a decline in civility, a deluge of money in politics and a disregard of facts.
Kerry said a lack of courtesy in politics is eroding American credibility aboard.
"We cannot ignore the fact that today, treaties that would have years ago passed 100-0 don’t pass at all. People who want to vote for something that they believe in actually don’t do so, for fear of retribution," he said. "That is a reflection on all of us. As I prepare to represent our nation in capitals around the world, I’m conscious that my credibility as a diplomat — and ours as a country — is determined to a great degree by what happens in our own capital city."
Kerry called the failure to deal with the debt and deficits self-inflicted wounds that reduce American leverage and influence. The senator then turned to money in politics, saying the unending chase for campaign contributions threatens to steal democracy itself.
"The truth requires that we call the corrosion of money in politics what it is: It is a form of corruption and it muzzles more Americans than it empowers and it is an imbalance that that world has shown can only sow the seeds of unrest."
The last obstacle Kerry said the Senate must overcome is the disregard for facts, which he says is damaging America’s reputation abroad. He blamed, in part, a polarized media that makes it harder to build consensus.
Kerry spent most of his address laying out the problems he sees in the Senate. But he said the institution is not broken, as other senators have called it. Instead, he's optimistic things will change.
"But I do think this is the moment we may see a turn in the spirit of the Senate," he said. "There are new whispers of desire for progress, rumors of new coalitions and a sense of possibility — whether it is on energy or immigration."
Kerry's resignation from the Senate takes effect Friday, before his swearing-in as the next U.S. secretary of state. The Senate confirmed Kerry for the Cabinet post on Tuesday.
He's also planning a farewell tour of Massachusetts before formally stepping down. Kerry will make stops in Springfield and Worcester on Thursday before giving a farewell address at Boston's Faneuil Hall.
This post was updated with the Morning Edition feature version.
This program aired on January 30, 2013.
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