Books of The Times: John Kerry Recounts a Life Full of Incident (and a Few Regrets) in ‘Every Day Is Extra’


Remember boredom, sweet boredom? John Kerry’s new memoir, like its author, is reserved and idealistic and reassuringly dull, for long stretches, in its statesmanlike carriage.

“Every Day Is Extra” is a booster shot of old school, small-l liberal values. It is bland the way upper-class food used to be bland. It reminds you why Kerry would probably have made a very good president. It also reminds you why he lost.

Two questions swirl around “Every Day Is Extra” as copies land with heavy, 600-plus-page thumps in bookstores. Is he running for president in 2020? He won’t rule it out, he’s said.

His 2004 loss to George W. Bush still rankles, this book makes plain. It was a race he should have won. Kerry was undone by many things, not least of all smears about his Vietnam War record and apparent voting irregularities in Ohio.

Will the nation again turn its lonely eyes to this man? It seems unlikely. He’d be a worthy candidate, but another run would make Democratic voters feel, in some sense, like dogs returning to their sick.

The second question: What does this book have to say, if anything, about Donald J. Trump, the anti-Kerry, whose leadership is so unruly as to seem directed by random flops of Tarot cards?

Kerry, of course, takes the high road. Trump is mentioned or alluded to only rarely, most acerbically in closing remarks about global warming and moral responsibility. But a close reader of “Every Day Is Extra” will, as if scanning the beach with a metal detector, occasionally receive strong pings.

Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, was a classmate of Kerry’s at St. Paul’s School, the boarding school in Concord, N.H.. Both men are 74.

While investigating Ferdinand Marcos’s human rights abuses in the Philippines in the 1980s, while a United States senator, Kerry recalls bumping up unhappily against Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, Marcos regime lobbyists who were “paid handsome retainers from stolen funds.”

Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, makes a cameo during Kerry’s lament about the decline of bipartisan enterprise in the Senate. “When big people left, smaller figures seemed to replace them,” Kerry writes. “Senator Howell Heflin retired and was replaced by Senator Jeff Sessions, a hard-edge Republican with a chip on his shoulder because in the 1980s he’d been denied a judgeship over his civil rights record. Sessions didn’t work with Democrats.”

Primarily, however, “Every Day Is Extra” is a straightforward retelling of Kerry’s life. It’s been a big life, packed with incident. We can’t make our existences longer, H. L. Mencken said, but we can make them wider. Kerry has had a life as wide as his estimable chin.

His middle name is Forbes. He did not grow up poor. His extended family owned important estates in England and in Brittany, as well as an entire island off Cape Cod. These homes were forums for advantageous social connections.

He attended boarding school in Switzerland before St. Paul’s and Yale. It wasn’t a cosseted childhood, however. Kerry did serious sailing and mountain climbing; he played football and baseball and lacrosse and wrestled. He learned to fly.

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John KerryCreditKelly Campbell

When people admit to envy of Eastern dudes like Kerry, it’s not just the money and the imperious bones (he stands 6 feet 4 inches) and the serious educations. It’s what John Updike called, in one of his Henry Bech books, “that Wasp knowingness, that facility with things.” Kerry had an unteachable sort of ease; he could handle himself.

This book lingers, for several intense chapters, on Kerry’s experience in Vietnam. He enlisted in the Navy in 1966 and saw serious action on Vietnamese rivers. He earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his valor. He lost close friends.

He retains a close-to-incendiary bitterness over of the attempts to muddy his war record, led by partisans without direct knowledge of his actions. He regrets not stopping his 2004 presidential campaign cold to address them.

“What still sticks in my craw is the way these men who served on Swift boats themselves turned the words ‘Swift boat’ into a pejorative,” he writes. “It is an insult to the 3,600 men — 3,000 enlisted and 600 officers — who served as Swifties.”

Kerry’s other big regrets? Choosing John Edwards as his 2004 running mate. Not being able to persuade Barack Obama, while secretary of state, to taker firmer action against Bashir al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. And, most painful of all, he regrets his vote in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, a war he came to see as a mistake.

Kerry returned disillusioned from his war service. (“Vietnam?” he asks. “How did that happen?”) He began to speak out, testifying before Congress in a widely televised appearance that made him famous at a young age. He’d become an activist. When someone told him to support the troops, Kerry would look him or her in the eye and respond, “We are the troops.”

Kerry went to law school (Boston College) and served as a prosecutor in a district attorney’s office. He was the Massachusetts lieutenant governor under Michael S. Dukakis and went on to be a five-term United States senator.

There’s some humor in this earnest book. Ted Kennedy’s frequent appearances are blustery and welcome. Kerry recounts nearly having to miss an important annual Boston political event, held on St. Patrick’s Day, because he’d had surgery for prostate cancer. He dragged himself to the event. He went to the microphone and said, “You might’ve heard I recently had some work done on my shillelagh.” It was a zing that a skeptical crowd needed to hear.

The second half of this book, for non-wonks, should come bundled with toothpicks, so readers can use them to prop up their eyelids. The story of Kerry’s 2004 campaign ends on Page 329. There are still nearly 300 pages to go.

These slow pages detail his work in Congress and as secretary of state under Obama. There are extended sections on diplomacy regarding the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, Russia, Syria and elsewhere. Terrorism is a frequent topic. Kerry is such a low-key negotiator that it was a big freak-out when, during talks in Geneva, he banged his hand on a table and the pen he was holding landed near the Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi’s chest.

Kerry never lost his fondness for play. He has scars to prove it. He broke his nose playing ice hockey in Idaho in 2012 after tumbling over Tom Hanks. He fell off his bike in France in 2015 and snapped his femur.

There is not a good deal about either of Kerry’s two marriages in this book, nor about his two daughters. He respects their privacy.

He has a gift for making, and more importantly keeping, close friends, John McCain among them. A good portion of this memoir is about other people.

About friendships, Kerry acts locally and thinks internationally. In a sentence flung toward Washington in 2018, he writes: “World leaders don’t lie awake worrying what will happen if America is present — they worry what will happen if America is absent.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: John Kerry, A Life in Full, With Regrets And Idealism. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



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