John Kerry told a mostly supportive audience that change will come from getting citizens — especially young citizens — involved in the political process.
Kerry, the former secretary of state and one-time nominee for president, made his comments to a packed Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs Saturday night after a screening of “The Final Year,” a documentary of the final year of the Obama presidency.
The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival held a special screening of the film as part of its summer film series.
“The Final Year” gives an inside view of former president Barack Obama’s last year in office. The crux of the film is foreign policy, focusing on the ups and downs of the Obama administration’s globalism.
The film focuses primarily on former President Barack Obama; Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former national security advisor and speechwriter; Samantha Powers, a former special assistant to Obama and the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Kerry.
After the film screening, Thomas Bena, founder and president of the film festival, sat with Kerry on stage to answer questions that had been submitted by Islanders in advance of the screening.
Kerry’s talk ranged from foreign policy to domestic issues, from the Iran deal and the Paris agreement, to infrastructure projects and midterm elections. Kerry kept an optimistic and powerful tone on each topic. “We have to reclaim our own democracy in the United States of America. It’s a fight, you have to fight for it.”
The first question posed asked Kerry to comment on the current political climate and compare it to the troubled times of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“This is far more serious right now in many different ways,” Kerry said. “It’s not as daunting as it appears, I believe. I’m actually an optimist. I’m an optimist about our choices, I’m an optimist about where we’re going, I’m an optimist about the possibilities of what we can do, and need to do, and what we will do to reclaim a genuine vision for the direction of our country.”
Kerry also touched on aspects of the film and how a globalist approach to foreign policy is the right approach. “We dealt with more crisis, with greater impact, in more places simultaneously than any other American administration in history,” he said, citing healthcare programs in Africa preventing children being born with AIDs and the stop of the spread of Ebola among other achievements.
Bena raised the question of division in the country — how should disaffected people talk to those who voted for President Donald Trump. Kerry called for unification.
“Don’t label folks. Don’t push them away into a corner. They have a lot of legitimate gripes,” he said. “Government’s working in a half-assed way and most Americans understand that, but they’re coming at it in different directions. I believe we have to listen to each other, we have to put real ideas about how you fix these kinds of problems on the table.”
Touching on the future of the Democratic party, Kerry said the primaries are wide open for the 2020 presidential election. For now, the Democrats are focused on the midterm elections in November, hoping to win a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
At the end of the talk, Kerry walked offstage to shake hands and pose for pictures with an audience that had been moved by his speech. Speaking to the small crowd that raced to get a face-to-face encounter with him, Kerry spoke on the importance of citizen activism. Talking about the civil rights movement and the protests of the Vietnam War, Kerry told a group of young adults, “you people were the ones making the difference. You had to fight for it and you’ll find more power available to you sooner than you know.”
“We’re not building for the future, my friends. I think Americans want it. I think Americans still aspire to a genuine definition of greatness. By the way, I don’t think you have to make America great again. America is great — we have to make it greater. And there’s a better way to do that than running around denigrating individual citizens and criticising people the way we currently are. I think it’s time to fight. I don’t know any other way to do this. You’re not going to win it sitting at home, you’re not going to change America by omitting it. You’re not going to whine it into its future. You’re going to have to get off your rear-ends and go out and work unlike any battle before and win back at the ballot box by making the issues that matter voting issues.”