John Kerry and Barack Obama as Leaders

Ryan Lizza’s recent New Yorker piece on the aborted climate change legislation of John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham is dispiritingly illuminating. Like previous long-form pieces we’ve seen of late (George Packer’s New Yorker article on the Senate, Todd Purdham’s morbid look at Washington in Vanity Fair) it is heavily discouraging in its recounting the mangling of a well-intentioned bill, as well as the juvenile and often pathetic relationship between official Washington and wealthy lobbying groups.

Perhaps inadvertently, the Lizza piece presented a contrast that to me was inescapable; that of the presidency that is, and that which could have been. Two clips from the article will help illustrate my point. First is a scene in which, if Lizza’s account is correct, the Obama White House commits horrendous political malpractice on the climate change issue, bumbling so badly that it makes one’s head spin.

In February, the President’s budget proposal included $54.5 billion in new nuclear loan guarantees. Graham was also trying to use the promise of more loan guarantees to lure Republicans to the bill, but now the White House had simply handed the money over. Later that month, a group of eight moderate Democrats sent the E.P.A. a letter asking the agency to slow down its plans to regulate carbon, and the agency promised to delay any implementation until 2011. Again, that was a promise Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman wanted to negotiate with their colleagues. Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach. Graham was the only Republican negotiating on the climate bill, and now he had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues.

If the reportage is accurate, this is tragic foolery, and bodes extremely ill for whatever hopes we liberals may have for our shining ray of presidential hope.

Later in the article, we are treated to this scene.

… Kerry and some aides were in his office discussing the progress of their bill. Someone mentioned T. Boone Pickens, the author of the so-called Pickens Plan, an energy-independence proposal centered on enormous government subsidies for natural gas, which is abundant, cleaner-burning than other fossil fuels, and sold by a Pickens-controlled corporation at some two hundred natural-gas fuelling stations across North America. Back in 2004, Pickens had helped to fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that ran a sleazy—and inaccurate—ad campaign proclaiming, among other things, that Kerry had lied about the circumstances that led to his Bronze Star and Purple Hearts.

Kerry had an inspiration. “I’m going to call T. Boone,” he said. Frangione was surprised. “You really want to call that guy?” she asked. Kerry told an aide to get Pickens on the phone. Minutes later, Kerry was inviting Pickens to Washington to talk. Rosengarten, who watched Kerry make the call, thought it was “a show of extraordinary leadership.” The following week, Pickens and Kerry sat in two upholstered chairs in the Senator’s office. Between them loomed a giant model of Kerry’s Vietnam swift boat. Kerry walked Pickens through the components of the bill that he and his colleagues were writing, but Pickens seemed uninterested. He had just one request: include in the climate legislation parts of a bill that Pickens had written, called the Natural Gas Act, a series of tax incentives to encourage the use of natural-gas vehicles and the installation of natural-gas fuelling stations. In exchange, Pickens would publicly endorse the bill. At the end of the meeting, the Senator shook hands with the man who had probably cost him the Presidency.

Think about this. T. Boone Pickens is given a lot of credit these days for being some kind of happy prophet of reasonably-attained clean energy, but let none of us forget the grossly shameful character assassination of John Kerry for which he was responsible, paving the way to the second, perhaps more disastrous half of the George W. Bush presidency.

And here is John Kerry, swallowing his pride to get something done that he knows is right and necessary.

When the words “cost him the Presidency” crossed my view, I could not help but think: What if the Swift Boat liars had failed, and President Kerry had been able to score a second term in 2008. How far along would climate change legislation be now? Passed? What about the rest of the progressive agenda?

Where Obama is professorial, John Kerry is often mocked for being ultra-professorial — pedantic and dull. But from my admittedly-poor vantage point, it seems to me that it’s the more boring of the two men who seems to have had the guts to actually lead, to get his hands dirty with the Senate’s intractably egomaniacal blowhards and solve some problems.

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