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U.S. Senator John Kerry '76

hot seats, cool heads

U.S. Senator John Kerry

On the BC Law ethos:

I think BC Law really exemplifies the best of Jesuit education. You learn to debate and test your beliefs and ultimately that makes your beliefs stronger. I also think it’s an ethos that values argumentation and pushes you to be willing to defend something if you really believe in it. In that respect, I particularly think of your former dean, teacher, and a friend of mine, Father Robert Drinan. He was a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War and fought all his life for the values that sprung from his Jesuit faith. He put it this way: “I feel if a person is really a Christian,” he said, then “he will be in anguish over global hunger, injustice, over the denial of educational opportunity.”

That earned him some opponents in people who saw the whole cloth of catholic teaching more narrowly, but Father Drinan fought and debated and cared about these things with every fiber of his being. He listened carefully, spoke his conscience, and did what he felt was right. His was a code that’s forever informed my view of what politics and public service is all about.

What is effective leadership?

It’s persistence. It means finding ways to fight for something even when it’s not trendy, and finding ways to bring other people closer to your position, even compromising when necessary, but never losing sight of the goal. That’s what I’ve tried to do on issues like climate change and energy, and it’s how I’ve run the Foreign Relations Committee, with respect for those who disagree even as I’ve tried to advance what I believe is right. It’s also what I saw Teddy Kennedy do for years on the health care issue—he had a firm set of beliefs, but he worked with others to find room for compromise and he always kept his eye on the bigger goal.

Describe your leadership style:

I’ve learned to be patient and to really listen and explore what others believe to seek out common ground. You have to listen actively. You can’t dictate. You have to keep discussions civil even when you’re very passionate. I had a great classroom for this kind of active listening not just at BC Law, but in the U.S. Senate. I had come here as an activist, with a lot of impatience. But all around me I saw a Senate where the biggest breakthroughs weren’t brokered by a mushy middle or by splitting the difference but by people who were willing to do the work and sit down face-to-face to talk things through. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch were a powerful team precisely because they didn’t agree on that much and they spent a lot of time fighting each other—and so the Senate leaned in and listened on those occasions when somehow this ultimate odd couple found things they were willing to fight for together. That was the mark of real leadership, action, and service, and I’d say that’s how I’ve modeled myself over the last 27 years in the work I’ve done for Massachusetts.

On what aspect of leadership you’d like to improve upon:

Patience. I’ve had to learn patience. I came here with a hurry-up attitude. But I learned over the years that if you want to really achieve change, you’ve got to be willing to take the time for that extra meeting and that additional work to bring people closer to you. They need questions answered. They need to know you’re not trying to jam something through. And I’ve found that both allies and opponents come to appreciate when you invest the real time needed to get somewhere. I’ve tried to do that in each of my legislative endeavors and it’s something I’m continuing to strive for every day. If we’re willing to stop talking past each other, to stop substituting sound bites for substance, we can still get things done here. But we’ve got to be willing to finally pull ourselves out of an ideological cement of our own mixing and that takes real listening and real work.

On using inclusivity and collaboration to bring people together:

I think my political principles and ideals were fairly solidified by the time I enrolled at Boston College, but law school did make me a much better advocate, a more effective voice. The moot court competitions especially helped. One of the great benefits of a law education is the way it bolsters your ability to analyze and breakdown complex issues—to think, really, and then to be a better advocate.

On improving leadership in a polarized era:

These days, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case dealt a crushing blow to fairness in our federal elections and set a different tone here in Congress. It amplified the ability of money to distort the agenda and it scared a lot of colleagues out of taking risks. I have always believed that the single biggest flaw in our federal election system is the disproportionate power and influence of money that drowns out the voice of average Americans. As we’ve seen in the current presidential election cycle with negative advertising run by faceless Super PACs, this ruling only produced an even bigger tidal wave of special interest advertising funded by large corporations, drowning out the views and opinions of our citizens. My hope is that more elected people will rebel against this system and restore for the average American their voice in ultimately choosing who will represent them and their issues in our nation’s capital.

On exemplars of leadership:

There are so many I think of. I think of my dad’s generation of diplomats and George Kennan and how hard they worked to move Washington to see what was happening in the world. They tried so hard to help policymakers see the long-term national interest and often they were undercut by short-term thinking. I also think of a BC alum, Tip O’Neill, and how he worked with Ronald Reagan to keep Social Security from going bankrupt. Reagan and Tip realized that at the end of the day, nobody would solve this if they didn’t. And so they got together and took the politics out of a tough, unpopular vote. That deal kept Social Security afloat for decades. And neither man could’ve done it without the other. That kind of cooperation is all but folklore in today’s Washington. And as I’ve said, it’s something that’s desperately needed and something we’ve got to reclaim.