What made America great in the 20th century is what the country needs now, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told an audience in Ketchum on Saturday.
But that’s where Kerry’s vision of the country and its future splits from President Donald Trump’s, and Kerry pointed out the myriad ways their ideologies diverge to a supportive crowd at The Community Library.
Kerry’s talk packed the newly renovated Lecture Hall to capacity, and the library had to turn away 150-200 people, though some tuned in to an online livestream.
Kerry favors diplomacy, honoring America’s long-standing alliances, carefully crafting and fighting hard for treaties, forging bipartisan accords and restoring citizens’ respect of one of the nation’s most maligned institutions—Congress.
A Democrat, Kerry served five terms in the U.S. Senate for Massachusetts, and unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004. He served as secretary of state from 2013 to 2017. He has vacationed in Sun Valley with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and their family for decades.
The crowd gave Kerry a standing ovation when he walked on stage.
“I spent 28 years in the United States Senate—I’m happy to be invited anywhere,” Kerry said.
He said he was deeply alarmed by the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis that week, and lambasted the first two years of Trump’s presidency.
In a letter to Trump, Mattis extolled the virtues of alliances and partnerships in solving global problems, and wrote that Trump was entitled to have a secretary of defense “whose views are better aligned with yours.”
Kerry did not sugarcoat his appraisal of the state of the nation.
“Our country is in trouble,” he said. “It’s a tough time. Our democracy is at risk. You can’t solve any of the problems that face in the world today without alliances. We have a president who is not equipped to do the job. Everybody knows this in Washington.”
Kerry reached back to history to start his talk, reviewing how philosophers like John Locke helped spread the growth of democracies around the world centuries ago. He said World War II was the demarcation point in spreading democratic forms of governance; after the war, the U.S. helped reorganize the planet, start the United Nations and rebuilt Japan and Germany—its two biggest enemies in the war, now two of its most important allies.
“Imagine trying to do that today with Fox News and the Freedom Caucus and the right wing,” Kerry said.
But he said the success bred arrogance in the U.S. and its leaders, which led it straight to a quagmire in the Vietnam War. Kerry enlisted and fought in Vietnam, though he became an antiwar protester after concluding his service. He didn’t feel a moral imperative to oppose the war until he arrived in Vietnam, when he saw how the citizens stared at the U.S. troops.
“It was the stares of the occupied against the occupier,” he said. “I’m glad I went. I’m not glad America was involved in the war. The government of the United States lied.”
He said his friendship with former U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was captured in Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war, is proof of the possibilities when elected leaders work together, even if they might disagree on issues. McCain died in August.
He said that principle of respectful compromise must be applied to today’s problems, like stemming an increase in global warming and preventing environmental degradation.
“I stood in John McCain’s cell in Hanoi with him,” Kerry said. “If John McCain and John Kerry can find common ground in a place called Hanoi, we can find common ground in a place called Washington.”
He urged the audience to step up and fight for the change America needs. He criticized the percentage of voter turnout in recent elections; in 2018, 49 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In other democracies, voter turnout exceeds 80 to 90 percent, he said.
“People are going to have to work like never before,” he said. “People want a silver bullet. This is not one of those things. It’s hard work. Every significant step I’ve seen, it’s mostly young people at the core of the movement. There are thousands of reasons why people should be incensed right now. It’s irrational. The worst thing of all is people who know better are letting it cascade. Do something, because that’s what democracy requires.”
CORRECTION 12/28/2018: This story has been updated to correct information about Kerry's military service in the Vietnam War.