Every Day Is Extra
By John Kerry, Simon & Schuster, 622 pages, $35
John Kerry has written a solid political memoir. Every Day Is Extra offers a detailed record of an important life, a dutiful recounting of long-forgotten triumphs and setbacks, and a high-minded coda about the virtues of public service. Like others in its genre, it is long and slow, but it is frank, thoughtful and clearly written. Aspiring candidates and officials will find good career advice; wonks will appreciate the ticktocks of negotiations on Israel, Iran and climate change; cynics will see it as a trial balloon for one last run.
There are a few mini-revelations, but what lingers are not the parts but the whole; not the life, but the man. Kerry is one of the last great scions of America’s once-mighty WASP ascendancy, and his memoir is an insider account of its long, slow decline. As the chapters proceed, the narrator seems increasingly a man out of time, a ghost from an age when class meant something more than money. This is “Buddenbrooks” via Louis Auchincloss, told by someone in the tomb where it happened.
A century ago, Yale University served as the clubhouse for America’s untitled nobility, offering a code along with the sports, connections and light reading. Asked what “his type” took from the school to the nation, one of the bound heroes of Owen Johnson’s 1912 Stover at Yale confidently replies: “First, a pretty fine type of gentleman, with good, clear honest standards; second, a spirit of ambition and a determination not to be beaten; third, the belief in democracy.” It sounded good, but soon outsiders banging on the gates would put such boasts to the test. Just how much democracy did the Bonesmen believe in?
For some, the answer proved to be not much. Many privileged WASPs pushed Yale and other schools to cap the number of Jews admitted and generally tried to transform the upper class into a caste defined on ethnic and communal lines.
But others chose to identify with something larger than their own community and pursue more than material self-interest. The great New England boarding schools like Groton preached an austere, muscular Christianity and sent generations of gilded youth into public service, with patrician policymakers like the Roosevelt clan and Henry L. Stimson as their standard-bearers.
Speaking at Andover’s commencement in 1942, Stimson challenged students to live up to the code: “Be brave without being brutal, self-reliant without boasting, becoming a part of irresistible might without losing faith in individual liberty.” Listening intently was one George Herbert Walker Bush. He resolved to follow in Stimson’s footsteps — to Yale, Bones and beyond — and did just that.
A generation later, another princeling followed him. John Forbes Kerry was Episcopalian gentry on his mother’s side and Irish Catholic on his diplomat father’s (or so he thought until late in life — during the 2004 campaign a reporter discovered his paternal grandparents had been Jewish first). He grew up as a not-really-rich relation of a very rich family. He too was steeped in the code and ran the course: Yale, Bones, war hero, prosecutor, lieutenant governor, senator, secretary of state.
Kerry’s comment on George H.W. Bush is telling: “I liked Bush very much. Aside from the ugly nature of his 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis, I always found him decent and thoughtful, straight dealing in his interactions. I never doubted whether he was in politics for the right reasons.” It is not hard to imagine Bush making a comparable assessment of Kerry. Both were gentlemen in the arena.
As it happened, Kerry’s cohort turned out to be the last of the line. During the 1960s, a new meritocratic elite began pushing aside the country club set, with the reform of Yale’s admissions procedures epitomising a much broader national trend. Kerry’s career thus played out in a more democratic world than the one he was raised in. No snob, Kerry himself favoured and helped speed the transition. But his memoir shows what was lost as well as gained, for the new world was coarser than the old one, in substance as well as style.
The code had helped restrain self-interest, support a responsible civic culture and maintain enough civility to enable government to function. Without it, Washington started to feel like Lord of the Flies.
Kerry’s portrait of a changing Congress is searing. The old barons had many problems, but at least they were occasionally interested in getting things done. As time and endless fund-raising demands thin the ranks of the old guard, they are replaced by ideologues and demagogues unworthy of their seats. Eventually the Senate becomes “more and more like the House: a daily shouting match, theatre.”
The political debasement culminates in the 2004 presidential campaign, in which Kerry is defeated by a younger George Bush (also Yale and Bones), in part because of lies about Kerry’s military record. The shamelessness of the whole episode still stuns as well as infuriates him. “I couldn’t rationalise how good men could make things up about another veteran when they knew the truth.” For Kerry, this was “a matter of honour.” For his opponents — who had smeared John McCain in 2000 and the triple amputee Georgia senator Max Cleland in 2002 — it was business as usual.
During normal times, when policymaking operates within an accepted framework, such things may not matter much. Looking back on the 2004 primary campaign, Kerry writes: “Truth be told, I can’t remember the finest policy distinctions. Basically, we were all reliable Democrats.” That includes his eventual running mate, John Edwards, one of many proofs that decline in character was not limited to one side of the aisle.
When the country’s future is in play, however, it turns out to matter a lot. Just as Tocqueville predicted, aristocrats like the Roosevelts and Stimsons managed to transfer their allegiance from class to country, successfully yoking their personal ambition to larger public causes. They protected the environment, reformed unbridled capitalism, expanded the franchise and developed the modern administrative state to fight poverty, inequality and injustice. Their children and grandchildren carried on the tradition during and after the Second World War, saving the world from the Axis powers, helping former allies and enemies to recover afterward and creating what came to be known as the liberal international order. It turns out that expanding one’s moral consciousness can become a habit.
Unfortunately, so can limiting it.
Kerry’s memoir appears at a time of crisis. The trends the book chronicles have intensified. All three branches of the government are now befouled and the rule of law itself may be threatened. The administration in power is walking away from the liberal international order its predecessors nurtured, dismantling the domestic state they built to help people and denying the very possibility of universal ideals. It’s as if we’re watching a film of the 20th century quickly rewinding. Now we’re back to Dink Stover’s era and the hot new ideology coming up is social Darwinism.
In this bizarro Gilded Age, some things have changed, some have not. A few rich white guys still run things. The Bonesman in the cabinet is Jewish. The Ivies seem to cap Asians. And the code that drove the progressives to rein in the malefactors of great wealth is nothing but a distant memory.
John Kerry has his issues, including excesses of ambition, ego, self-confidence and verbiage. Some can’t forgive him for his antiwar activism. But one cannot imagine Kerry selling a pardon, or raking bucks from foreign dictators, or using public office for private gain. He was in politics for the right reasons.
Every Day Is Extra is a bittersweet reminder of what the country once demanded of its leaders, and what the American upper classes once aspired to supply. Today’s meritocratic elites want power without responsibility. They should have learned from people like Kerry. Some might learn from one of his St Paul’s classmates, Robert Swan Mueller III.
–New York Times News Service