He has already become known as “Mr. Secretary,’’ with a diplomatic security team and a motorcade that shuts down highways. But John Forbes Kerry was officially still a United States senator Thursday, on a nostalgia tour through the state he represented in Washington for the better part of three decades.
Here was his old desk at the Middlesex District Attorney’s office. Here were his old friends in Springfield. Here was a gathering of 200 Democratic luminaries and supporters at Faneuil Hall. And here he was in his Boston Senate office, reclining in an armchair for one last interview with the Globe as a senator, reflecting on his political journey, his determined comeback from the depths of his 2004 presidential defeat, and what he considers the sorry state of modern American politics.
A lawmaker who was never particularly known for his skills as a retail politician was suddenly waxing about all the average Joes he has met across Massachusetts. The newly confirmed secretary of state, whose sights were frequently focused overseas during his Senate career, talked fondly of walking the streets of Worcester.
“Over the years I learned this really is just all about people,” said Kerry, who is scheduled to be sworn in as the nation’s top diplomat on Friday. “You sort of gain an appreciation for the fight, if you will. Maybe it’s partly growing older. You reach a stage in your life where there’s a little less runway in front of you than there is in back of you. As a pilot, that’s not a good thing.”
Kerry grew most animated at the mention of Frank Biongorno, a Lawrence storekeeper whom Kerry met during his first run for Congress in 1972. Kerry would stop by the store from time to time to have dinner.
“Bongi!” Kerry said. “I do remember Bongi. Are you kidding? Oh. I used to visit Bongi all the time. There are loads of stories like that, of people who become a big part of your life.”
Kerry now has 60 days to clean out his Senate office. He will send to the National Archives some 1,000 boxes of documents accumulated since his election in 1985, some of which he may keep until his tenure at the state department is complete.
In the interview, Kerry struggled to name any singular accomplishment he wanted to be remembered for, or any legacy issue. Instead, he rattled off a series of issues and achievements, from electronic health records to helping commuter rail in Worcester to supplying Internet service to the Berkshires. But he acknowledged his Senate career wouldn’t fit neatly into an ideological box.
“I accomplished a lot,” he said. “A lot more than people know.”
He said one of his biggest regrets was not being able to pass climate change legislation, something he worked on for the past several years.“Probably the finest piece of legislation I did didn’t get enacted into law yet,” Kerry said.
Kerry also lamented how impersonal politics has become, saying he longed for the days when he could drop by a Catholic church, where food was set out on paper tablecloths, the room was crowded, “and everybody had a time.”
“Politics is very, very, very different. Sadly different, badly different. Different for the worse,” Kerry said.
“Bob Cranes, and Billy Bulgers, and Frank Bellottis — there was a different attitude 15, 20 years ago,’’ he added. “Now it’s much more impersonal, distant. There’s much more technology, social media, arms-length distant kind of communication. And I think it’s part of the reason we have trouble building consensus and finding solutions for things.”
When asked how he’s changed over his career, Kerry said, “I think I’ve become a much more effective and better public person. Much more.
“I think I began with some pretty normal rough edges and assumed some baggage by myself in choices that I made,” he said. Referring to his eagerness to end the Vietnam War, he suggested he may have been too aggressive.
“Running for Congress when I was 27 years old was, ‘We gotta end the war.’ I didn’t think clearly,” Kerry said. “It was not thought out. It was really rather sloppy as I look back on it. But I’m happy with it. It was honest. It was how I felt.”
Kerry said that he considered it a vindication that he was named secretary of state, a sign that his hard work after the 2004 presidential loss had paid off.
“To me, it was essential not to feel sorry for myself, lose myself in the moment,” Kerry said. “I felt very blessed. I felt constantly very blessed. It doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, but there’s a difference between … wallowing and saying, ‘Screw it, that’s what happened, let’s go. There’s another chapter.’”Continued...