Columns

Kerry in London: U.S. Election Season is 'Downright Embarrassing' at Times

Secretary of State John Kerry told a town hall of young people in London on Monday that this campaign season has proven “downright embarrassing” when it comes to maintaining U.S. relationships abroad.

At the youth outreach event with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Kerry first fielded a question about the U.S. presidential election’s global impact, to which he replied, “I don’t think I’m stepping out of line – I’m not allowed to be partisan, so I can’t support one candidate or another or start to draw distinctions.”

“But I can certainly comment on my job as secretary of State and what I’ve been finding, and I must tell you bluntly this election has been difficult for our country’s perception abroad. There are moments when it is downright embarrassing. There are times when it steps out of any norm that I’ve known, and I ran for president in 2004. I could never have imagined debates that were not focused on real issues, and so it’s been a real change,” Kerry said.

“And the way it’s made it difficult for me is that when you sit down with some foreign minister in another country or with the president or prime minister of another country and you say hey, we really want you to move more authoritatively towards democracy, they look at you – they’re polite, but you can see the question in their head in their eyes and in their expression. It’s hard. Or when you run in and say, by the way, it’s really important you guys get your budget passed, and I can see the quizzical look at us when last time we tried to pass a budget was I don’t know how many years ago. We do a continuing resolution nowadays. We don’t do the normal process.”

Kerry added “this is a difficult moment,” but “the great thing about the United States is that it has an amazing resiliency.”

“It has an incredible ability to absorb something like this, and it will come out and — in my judgment — it will come out stronger. We’ll focus, we’ll know where we’re going, and I’m really confident about the longer-term future,” he said. “But sometimes we go through these really rough moments politically, and you just have to fight through them.”

Kerry told the students that he’s met “a lot of people who say well, I don’t really like the way this has played out,” but “in a democracy, you can get up on any soapbox anywhere.”

“And we’ve tried everything. Every -ism in the world – socialism, communism, whatever – and everything that ends in a y – democracy, theocracy, monarchy, you name it – we’ve done it, right? And mostly, people settle on some way to be able to weigh in as an individual to make a difference and have an impact. You can’t do that in every place in the world, certainly not with impunity,” he added. “So yeah, it’s messy, and it’s not working as well as it ought to. But that’s because not enough people are holding it accountable.”

Kerry reflected on his “very tough election for re-election in 1996 in Massachusetts against the then-governor of the state, the sitting governor, William Weld,” who is now the Libertarian vice presidential nominee, in which Weld “lost with amazing grace and with elegance.”

“And we actually had a bet that whoever had lost would buy the other guy a round of beer at the bar. And literally, two days later we were sitting at a bar in Boston enjoying a beer together in a moment of proving that you don’t have to hate each other and you can get over it all,” he said. “That was a big moment, I thought, in terms of people standing up under tough circumstances.”

One British youth asked Kerry, “Why is it that a lot of people in America seem to sort of dislike intellectual politicians?”

Kerry said he didn’t think that was the case, “but it’s incumbent on anybody in politics to be able to communicate your ideas and to fight back against the sloganeering that is an insult to everybody by reducing things to be simplistic and sometimes very demagogic bromides.”

“But I think that Americans are – ultimately, they just want a genuine sharing of real ideas in a way that people can relate to,” he continued. “So if you’re haughty or out of touch or your intellectualism takes you to a place where you can’t talk to people, you’ve got a problem, but you’d have one even if you weren’t intellectual if you were trying to communicate whatever the idea is.”