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kerry as senator

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From the start, the newly-elected Senator Kerry was drawn to foreign policy. Soon after his 1984 election, he successfully lobbied for a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the same committee before which he testified years earlier about the war in Vietnam. Kerry quickly developed a reputation as an investigator and foreign policy expert, tackling some tough investigations and making some surprising alliances in the Senate. Here, commenting on his record as senator, are New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, former Senator Bob Kerrey, Senator Joseph Biden, Jack Blum, former special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, and Jonathan Winer, former Senate aide.

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philip gourevitch
New Yorker staff writer who has covered Kerry in the 2004 campaign.

…What do you count as his accomplishments as a senator?

Well, the question of Kerry's accomplishments as a senator is kind of a problem. Because as the junior senator from Massachusetts, he clearly lived somewhat in the shadow … of Teddy Kennedy, who is, according to those who loath him as well as those who love him, a very masterful legislator.

Kerry never was that. Kerry brought to the Senate some of these prosecutorial skills. And he was interested in investigations. He was interested in foreign policy. He was interested in the same thing that has interested him consistently throughout his public career, which is trying to look at the ways that the abuse of power by members of America's government and administrations and elites can pose a threat to the proper running of this country according to its highest ideals. Whether it was Iran-Contra, whether it was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International [BCCI]….

One of the accomplishments, I would say, of John Kerry, is that when his investigation of BCCI led him to see that there was corruption and abuse of power by Clark Clifford, a great Democratic powerbroker -- very much of the establishment that John Kerry grew up revering -- Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, sort of in the Good Ol' Boy network, said, "Leave it alone," John Kerry didn't.

He also heads an investigation that leads to the indictment of Manuel Noriega. Are these great accomplishments?

Well, one of the curiosities about Kerry and his record in the Senate is that he barely mentioned it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention this summer, which leaves one puzzled. Because it makes you think that perhaps he himself felt that it wasn't one of his strong suits. And I think it's a mistake.

I think that it may not be one of the great Senate records. He was not a senator who was a household name to most people. No question about it. He was not somebody who ever did emerge from the Kennedy shadow to be another powerful senator from Massachusetts.

… On the other hand, it's not an embarrassing record. He did a number of things using certain aspects of the Senate powers and his skills, to pursue these investigations, to conduct certain aspects of foreign policy questions, to normalize relationships with Vietnam, an extremely tedious, unglamorous, and emotionally fraught, as well as politically fraught, campaign that he led there to sort of lay to rest the POW/MIA issue.

That is perhaps, would you agree, his greatest accomplishment in the Senate?

I think that his handling of the groundwork for the normalization with Vietnam, which is to say the process by which he and his committee with John McCain as his partner from across the aisle, vetted every single one of these claims, claim by claim, that there were live sightings of POWs still in Vietnam, that there was one being held here, that there was one being held there, that there were unpatriated remains in Hanoi.

And that he managed to work both with hostile American veteran families and [families of] people who were killed, as well as with the Vietnamese government to get concessions from both and to essentially lay this incredibly toxic issue largely to rest, as well as, frankly, to manage the extremely volatile and emotionally high-strung John McCain, who wanted to launch across the table at a lot of these people, and to keep him seated and say, "Look, we're trying to accomplish something. It's cool."

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see a chronology of kerry's life

John McCain gives him a lot of credit for that. There are a lot of pictures where you'll see from that period John Kerry with his hand on John McCain's arm, just cooling out this very hot figure. And people have asked John McCain about that and John McCain has repeatedly said, "I'm grateful to him for it."

Those are the kind of skills -- they're not glamorous, they're not high-legislative skills --they are executive skills. But they're also a kind of diplomatic skill where he kept his eye on a long-term goal and he went there. So that, I think, is an accomplishment that it's puzzling that he doesn't actually take more credit for. …

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bob kerrey
Former U.S. senator. (D - NE)

…What's his rep in the Senate, among other senators?

Smart, hard-working, trustworthy. Keeps his word. Willing to get out front on an issue if it matters to him. Traditionally progressive, but willing to understand that there are times when you've got to form coalitions with Republicans to get things done. Open-minded. Team player.

Is the charge fair, a familiar charge, that he's a sort of a hearing-holder, not a real legislator?

No. ...It was the same rap on Pat Moynihan. You know, the senate is called the world's greatest deliberative body for a reason. The debates matter. They matter a lot. In spite of the appearances on C-SPAN, where you see empty rooms. The great debates, the rooms are full.

And even though they're empty, people are watching in their monitors. And opinions get changed. I've listened to John Kerry speak. I've listened to him in debates, I've watched him in debates, whether it's on issues with working people, or on education, or health care or something. And he influences. He causes people to vote differently. He's a real leader in the debates, and that's important.

You know, he could have done absolutely nothing but brought peace to Cambodia, and just checked out all the rest of the time, and his service would have been useful. But he's on the labor committee, a real player. On foreign relations he's a real player. I mean, he contributes. He was on the intelligence committee when I was on it. He's a real contributor. He comes prepared to do the work. … So, I think that John has got a very big voice. Was an enormously influential Senator as a consequence of, not only that voice, but the values that underlie it.

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Senator Joseph Biden
(D - DE)

…Senator Kerry has a very thin record as a legislator. Eight bills, I think passed-- under his name. Many of those, I mean, were ceremonial bills. Why?

If you went back and compared a record of the 100 senators here, John Kerry has, in terms of that measure, an average record. The reason why it makes sense for John Kerry to have that record is John Kerry was on one committee where he devoted a great bulk of his time -- actually two committees that aren't legislative committees. ...

Kerry's on a Foreign Relations Committee, which is my other committee. We don't legislate anything. Because what happens is the Foreign Relations Committee, under the Constitution, doesn't initiate foreign policy. It can only respond to foreign policy.

For example, we can't pass a law saying, "Mr. President, sign a peace treaty. Mr. President, have an arms control agreement. Mr. President, change the trade agreements. Mr. President--" there is not that authority. You cannot make foreign policy.

So, it's a bum rap?

It's a bum rap. And secondly, John Kerry was more effective in doing what the committee is designed to do institutionally -- educating the public, and exposing mistakes being made, oversight. What he did with the bank issue. What he did with Nicaragua. What he did in the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

You know, everybody looks back, and says, "Oh, yeah. He and McCain normalized relations with Vietnam. Yeah, yeah." As if that was easy. Think how unpopular that was at the time. These were the first two guys to stand up and say, "By the way, those folks that killed 57,000 of our people, those folks who wounded another 300 or some odd thousand of our people, those folks that are still communists -- we think we should normalize relations with them." That took incredible courage.

I remember when John started to do that, people thought he was writing his political death warrant. No joke. So, what did he do? He believed so strongly in it, as did John McCain, he persisted. He took on the Senator Smiths of New Hampshire, and others who said, "You're abandoning the MIAs, and the POWs." He took on the constituents. They said, "There are still communists over there." He took it. And he did it. He did it. I'm the author of the crime bill. Major chunks of that crime bill were written by John Kerry. Major chunks. It wouldn't have passed without John Kerry. …

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jack blum
Former special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations.

…So, how does John Kerry, as you observe him, deal with the Iran-Contra investigation?

He wanted to figure out what was going on. But he also didn't wan to wind up, I think, dealing with the tin foil hat kind of crowd. He wanted to get to the substance and find out what was really happening. It doesn't get you very far to tell tales about the strange people and funny dealings in Miami.

At that time, if you were someone who came back with tales of exotic stuff from Central America or even from Miami, people said, "Oh, he's been in the sun too long." He wanted to get to the substance. What was the US government doing? What was our role? Were we paying for it? Were we sponsoring it? And he wanted it to come from people who were reliable witnesses who could at least tell us what was really going on.

It's a risky position for him politically.

Yes. But, again, he came to the Senate and he came to the Foreign Relations Committee specifically interested in that risk -- to be involved in that kind of issue.

Where did this come from?

It came out of Vietnam. I mean, his experience was to come back and to tell the Foreign Relations Committee that Vietnam was a losing cause which was costing us very dearly. And that it was a mistake. And he saw the Foreign Relations Committee as a place where, if something like this happened again, he could stand up and do something. He could be a member of that committee which had so changed the course of America's perceptions of Vietnam.

So, here he was in exactly that situation. A member of the committee seeing this kind of thing going on and saying, "Wait a minute, this is why I'm here." ...

And where did he go with it?

The problem here was getting support. Getting other members of Congress to work with him. And he worked very hard at that. And, in fact, most of his support in this enterprise came from Republicans. He worked very closely with Helms, with Al D'Amato, and got the issue on the table in a way in which forced changes at state, at DEA and got a different public perception. The problem was that there was a systematic trashing that went on of everything we did. Every time we held a hearing, the spin-meisters from the White House would say, "Oh, this is crack pots. The witnesses are crazy."

The Republicans accused us of spending and wasting taxpayer money. And the attack was so powerful and so effective that there were times when the press coverage of the hearings was minimized. We'd be shodded off to back pages and the spin on it was always, "Well, this is fruitcake stuff." Of course, later, when the report is issued and we make the statement about it, there's still a certain amount of skepticism of press. But then when it is 10 years later repeated in the San Jose Mercury and the CIA and the Justice Department go out and do Inspector General reports, they have, in effect, validated everything we had done in the earlier period. ...

Perhaps you can put him in historical context. I mean, you don't often get investigators of his type in Congress...

Well, there are very few people who come to the Senate with a beginning as prosecutors who are also war veterans, who have a burning interest in foreign policy because they've come out of a war that was fought on dubious grounds for dubious reasons. And are motivated to try to make an issue of that. To try to follow their own instincts.

This guy had a certain set of skills and a capacity to do things that very few members of the Senate have. Most people who come to the Senate get there by a kind of chair-sitting which is in the state legislature or they come up through the ranks -- maybe they've been a governor of a state. But they haven't been the prosecutor or the investigator, the person who picks the case apart. And he did have that background. …

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johnathan winer
Former aide to Senator Kerry.

…The alliance with Jesse Helms in the Senate. Did that surprise you?

Yes. It was not something any of John's staff would have been adult or mature enough or experienced enough to see, or to believe possible. What John said to us very early is, "You need friends. Make friends. Give people a chance to work with you. If they feel you can trust you, you may be able to trust them. See if you can build trust. I'm not going to miss the opportunity of working with Jesse Helms. He feels very strongly about these issues."

And he chastised us for assuming that because the politics were so different on so many issues, that you couldn't form a close alliance that would work. And he was very clear about that. I mean, that's a conversation I remember with precision. "Don't take people who differ with you for granted as enemies. They can be your friends. They can be your allies." And he was right about Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms was loyal and trustworthy on everything that he made a commitment on to John Kerry. And I know that John Kerry tried to be as loyal and trustworthy back to Senator Helms. And that mattered to him. And it helped, and it was effective. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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