By Dan Schwabel
John Kerry is the senior US Senator of Massachusetts, the tenth most senior US Senator, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Under his leadership, the committee is addressing the key foreign policy and national security issues facing the United States including Afghanistan and Pakistan, nuclear nonproliferation, and global climate change. Kerry was the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party back in the 2004 election. He is the sixth most powerful Senate Democrat according to Roll Call/Knowlegis and holds senior positions on the Finance, Commerce, and Small BusinessCommittees. You can follow him on Twitter@JohnKerry or on Facebook.
In this interview, Kerry discusses how he got into politics originally, what he learned from his time in the military, how he believes Massachusetts can recover jobs and be innovative, and his top pieces of career advice.
What originally got you into politics and why are you still in it now?
That's a good question. I was always interested in issues, particularly foreign policy because my Dad was in the Foreign Service and we moved around quite a bit, so I saw some interesting things we'd end up talking about them over dinner as a family, whether it was the contrast between communism and the west that I saw with my own eyes in a divided Berlin, or some of the other places he was stationed, including Washington during the Eisenhower Administration.
Both my parents were just very engaged citizens, but I'd never thought of them as particularly political. I thought I'd end up in journalism or business or maybe in the foreign service myself. But my eyes were opened up to public service in a different way, especially in college and during the Kennedy years, but most distinctly when the activist Allard Lowenstein came to my college and spoke to us about the civil rights struggle in the south, and he emphasized that we had a responsibility to participate some way, and it sort of marked a transition, shaking off the cobwebs of a college campus that was still sort of stuck in its old traditions and its past, just starting to wake up to the activism that would mark the "60s. Lowenstein had a really big impact on me. But I still never thought I'd become an activist myself until after Vietnam when I felt like I had no other choice but to listen to my conscience and act on my convictions and speak my mind. I just wanted to end the war.
I think in many ways, it's part of why I sort of struggled early when it came to running for office in those early years, because I'd never been a precinct captain, I hadn't worked my way up inside a political party, I never had a mentor in politics, I just sort of crashed my way in from the outside, because I was an activist first, and when you're an activist you only care about being right on the issues, while in politics you realize how much relationships matter too so you can actually get something done on an issue. I'd like to think that all these years later, I'm still an activist, I've just figured out the politics part a little better with some lessons learned the hard way.
What did your time in the military teach you about yourself and politics?
Well, there are really two separate answers wrapped in that question, because there's what the Navy taught me, and what Vietnam taught me, and both have been applicable to a life in public service.
First, the Navy and the military taught me a ton. It's invaluable. I'd recommend it to anyone. It taught me leadership and teamwork and maturity, and it really opened up my eyes. I was in many ways a young kid not far from college, and I was given command responsibility, and I learned what it's like to be responsible for other peoples' lives. That's a big change. I also learned something really valuable, which is that you don't lead in anything just by a title. My crew had been together a long time and here I was this young Lieutenant JG assigned to them and their boat, and I had to earn their trust, they didn't have to earn mine. That's a powerful lesson, and those relationships have lasted now forty plus years later.
Then there are specific lessons from Vietnam, and those are obviously more complicated, but they've been invaluable. I think of them every time I'm traveling somewhere for the Foreign Relations Committee, which is that you can't just take official Washington at its word, you have to get out there yourself and ask some tough questions, and also try to ask questions and learn from people who are on the front lines, not just the folks at a desk. In foreign policy particularly, Vietnam taught me that you need to test your theory in practice and when you're talking about putting young Americans in harm's way, you have to ask ahead of time whether what they're doing will be sustained by the people who actually call that place home. What's real, what's achievable, what's in our interests -- and what's worth dying for? I do not believe you can take the lessons of Vietnam and apply to broad a brush to other conflicts, but I do believe Vietnam gave me a set of questions that are universal.
As the Senator for Massachusetts, how do you believe the state can attract more young people and be more innovative?
I've been thinking about this a lot recently, especially in terms of the growing industries in Massachusetts. You know, when I ran for President, one of the great privileges of that experience is that you see so many places up close and personal and you meet with people who share their perspectives. I can't tell you how many towns I visited, whether it was in Iowa, or Pennsylvania, or Ohio, places where jobs and industries had disappeared, and every single place I went, we'd talk about manufacturing policy and figuring out ways to incentivize job creation, and I'd meet creative Mayors and local officials who were thinking through innovative ways to make their community attractive to the businesses of today and tomorrow. But across the board, every one of those people told me that their single biggest concern was that they were losing their young people to other states and other cities. We're lucky in Massachusetts in that way.
We've got these colleges and universities that excel and they're a magnet for talented young people to come to our state. So we start out with an advantage. But we need a strategy to keep them there. What I've been talking about a lot lately is, you know, Massachusetts can be the Silicon Valley of the life sciences and bio industry and medical devices, and the nation's leading incubator for clean energy, because all of these industries spin off from our research universities. But to sustain it, it means we need to get the industrial ecosystem right to tap those resources and grow those industries.
When you think of our country's economy over our two hundred plus years, there's been a remarkable transition. When George Washington was first sent to map out and survey the forests of Appalachia, he found an ecosystem that was already there -- he saw trees hundreds of feet high that could provide the masts for England's tall ships and their Navy. It wasn't hard to connect the dots between those natural resources and the economic boom to come.
The same was true during the Industrial Revolution in the northeast, in mill cities like Lowell and Lawrence in Massachusetts. Once the world learned how to tame a river and turn it into a source of energy to power a mill, it was natural for Massachusetts to lead the world in textiles. But that is not the economic world we live in today. Our greatest economic resources aren't in the forests or the rivers. They're in laboratories. They're in research universities. They're in the minds of creative people. That's the new economic ecosystem -- and there are millions upon millions of jobs and billions in profits worldwide connected to tapping it.
Any scientist worth their salt knows that an ecosystem depends on balance. And for these new industries, it depends on the balance of investment, research, regulation, education and skills -- that's the new innovation ecosystem. We understand that in Massachusetts better than in any state in the country. It's not an accident that we're a world leader in innovation. We purposefully crafted an innovation ecosystem with substantial public investment and built off the cutting edge research institutions in our state. That's our ecosystem -- and our challenge is to keep it and to grow it. But to do that, we can't just pat ourselves on the back. In fact, because of our success other states are looking at us and thinking about how to overtake us.
The economy is the biggest issue right now. Do you have any ideas on how we can recover more jobs in Massachusetts and nationally?
There's a ton we have to do. Big picture, we obviously need to have a long term strategy on the deficits and debt both to restore confidence and also to make sure that debt isn't crowding out our capital budget for the investments in research and technology and skills that we need to get economic growth.
I am confident that when Washington bites the bullet on that challenge, and I think it will happen soon, that what you'll see will actually be based on much of what we tried to do and what a bunch of us put on the table during the so-called Super Committee last year. It'll require balance and seriousness. That's a big deal, and obviously if we want to get back to serious and long term growth and job creation, we need to catch up and get in the game on climate change and new energy. But, I know neither of those things is going to happen until this political season passes and Washington sees where the dust settles after November. It's frustrating but true. But I do think we have a chance to do one big thing now, which is deal more creatively with our infrastructure gap. It's a huge opportunity for real job creation and a way to get some of the private capital off the sidelines.
I joined with Senator Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, and Sen. Graham, Republican from South Carolina, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on a concept that would really jump start infrastructure -- bi-partisan legislation that will create a new American Infrastructure Bank. As a politically independent entity, the bank would leverage mostly private and a relatively modest start-up investment of public money to fund projects across the country. I'm convinced that if we put this bank together, you're going to see a very big change in improved infrastructure, more capital, and millions of jobs.
What three pieces of advice would you give a young professional trying to build a career in this economy?
I'm tempted to offer the three pieces of advice anyone graduating from college and joining the workforce really needs: FIRST -- When March rolls around next year, do not ask your bosses if they want to go to Cancun for a week, SECOND -- Be careful with "Reply To All," and THIRD -- In case the ancient Mayan calendar is right about the world ending this December, wait until January to start paying back your student loans.
But here are two serious pieces of advice -- just two things I've learned along the way.
First, you'll be happier and more successful if you embrace the fact that things you count on and take for granted today will look entirely different in the next ten years, and that's a good thing. Just think about what you've already seen explode between your high school and college years. It's a revolution that no one except maybe Steve Jobs -- or a few nerds on a campus carrying around green sheaves of computer paper -- ever would have imagined. When I came to the Senate, they still had typewriters and you could walk around with your phone only as far as the cord would let you. And at most, making a phone call was the only thing that phone was capable of doing. Now we all carry around little computers -- wherever we want -- that we call phones -- and they connect not just our voices and video, but they connect each of us to billions of people and their ideas around the world on the Internet. Guess what? That ball isn't going to stop bouncing. Embrace it. be prepared for the fact that technological change is going to change the nature of your job and your industry probably several times in the course of your career.
Second, while technology changes everything every day, don't underestimate the fact that the most old fashioned virtues still apply more than you ever learn in school. Character still counts. In business, in politics, in life -- you can't work with someone if you don't have a reasonable expectation that when you shake their hand, you've got a deal, or that when you walk out of that room, their word is still good. Being honest and being a person of your word -- I've seen more peoples' success or failure determined by those two qualities than by innate smarts or anything you can learn in a book.