In a nearly 2,000-word speech at the Kennedy Center Honors last night, Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that the most important thing about his job is listening to others.
Attendees at the gala ranged from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to Steven Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg.
President Obama and Kerry were also among those honoring Al Green, Tom Hanks, ballerina Patricia McBride, Sting and Lily Tomlin.
“The bad news is that for almost 30 years I was a senator, and some people are born to dance, some people are born to sing, but let me tell you, senators are born to talk,” Kerry told the audience. “…But today, I find myself in a job where nothing is more important than listening. It’s a job with incredible highs and devastating lows.”
Kerry said one of “the lowest of those lows” was learning “an idealistic young photojournalist named Luke Somers” was killed by terrorists in Yemen during a failed rescue attempt. “It was a sickening contrast — a young man who carried a camera to bring light to the world was struck down by those who know only darkness,” he said.
“We can’t defend those freedoms effectively unless we act but also unless we listen. And I can tell you that in the past two years I have packed a lifetime of listening into a very short period of time. In the process, I have heard and seen how the United States is perceived around the world,” he continued. “And through it all, I have found that some people have problems with our policies, some resent our prosperity, and even a few have doubts about how well our political system is functioning.”
Kerry lauded American culture as “a glorious blend of everything from Albanian to Zimbabwean, and every letter in between is filled.”
“And when all of our traditions come together, they create a kind of universal language that is a very significant asset for the American brand,” he said.
He then tried to connect his diplomatic prowess to the celebration at hand.
“People make connections in lots of ways, and sometimes that connection is quicker to take hold through music, dance, theater, film more so than the words of a diplomat, even a charismatic and handsome diplomat,” Kerry said. “Call it what you will, whether it was Nixon’s Ping-Pong diplomacy or today’s cultural diplomacy, all I can tell you is the connection of this endeavor of the arts connects — it touches, really, something deep in every human spirit. And whether it’s the pianists or dobro players, Zydeco bands, jazz singers, filmmakers, dance companies, and artists that we send to every single corner of the globe, this is about citizen diplomats who go to remote and troubled communities and open doors for conversations with the young, with the poor, and the too-often overlooked.”
“There’s no coincidence that among those who ignited revolution in Central Europe a generation ago was a playwright, Vaclav Havel; and that among those who sparked the democratic uprising in Tunisia, almost four years ago, was a rapper who grew up idolizing America’s hip-hop pioneers. In Beijing, the blogger and multidimensional artist Ai Weiwei is a voice of conscience. And yes, in Russia, a certain all-female rock band has gotten under the skin of you-know-who,” he said in a reference to punk band Pussy Riot.