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John Kerry Reflects On Smear Campaigns And Not Taking Anything For Granted

Sep 5, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 2:11 pm

Former Secretary of State John Kerry says that partisan politics are harming America — and they have been for a while. In fact, when he ran for president in 2004, Kerry, then a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, contemplated naming Republican Sen. John McCain as his running mate.

"I considered it," Kerry says, "because I thought that our politics were broken. ... We needed a jolt to try to figure out if there was a way to bring the parties together and restore the kind of bipartisanship and the values-oriented politics that makes a difference to America."

Ultimately, Kerry picked Democrat John Edwards as his running mate instead of McCain, but Kerry says the problems of 2004 persist today. Though he calls President Trump "ill-equipped to do the job that he is in," Kerry does not believe that it is time to talk about impeachment.

"What you need to do is let the Mueller investigation run its course," Kerry says. "You need to see if there are sort of a baseline of prima facie impeachable offenses there, not just your dislike of the president or your belief that he's not equipped to do the job."

In his new memoir, Every Day Is Extra, Kerry looks back on his life and the current state of American politics. He notes that political falsehoods were used against him in 2004, when opponents smeared both his character and his record of military service in Vietnam.


Interview Highlights

On the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ad, which aired during Kerry's 2004 presidential bid and claimed that he was lying about his military record in the Vietnam War

They just made things up. They made them up right, left and center. And people [in the ad] said, "I served with John Kerry." That means they served in swift boats, but it didn't mean they were on my boat. It didn't mean they were on the mission. It didn't mean they knew what had happened, and they weren't, in those cases. And the guys who were [on my boat] contradicted them. ...

It was skillfully done as an attack ad, obviously. I remember being in Ohio and listening to that ad and I called my campaign headquarters and said, "Guys ... if I heard that ad, I wouldn't vote for me."

On the Trump administration pulling out of treaties that Kerry and the Obama administration were instrumental in negotiating, like the Paris climate agreement

Well, regrettably, this is part of the transformation that has taken place in our nation. The right wing has made it orthodoxy within their party that treaties are a relinquishing of American sovereignty, and that somehow a treaty is going to contribute to "world government." So the highest standards that we try to apply to one thing or another — even if they're the best thing in the world and America is the only country that does it and we want other countries to raise their standard — if it's in the context of a treaty, people seem to oppose it nowadays.

On his knowledge of Russian interference in the 2016 election and on President Obama's handing of that information

We weren't aware of the election interference in a major way until sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2016 when the intel community laid it out. ...

I think the president handled it as effectively as he could at the time, and later in the summer I was involved in some of those conversations, which took place in the White House. I absolutely guarantee you, having run for president and having been in elected politics for a period of time, that given Trump's continued attacks against the legitimacy of the election system, given the degree to which he was already labeling it rigged ... I guarantee you that if President Obama had stood up and said, "The Russians are hacking our system, they're gonna do this and that," you would have had a Trump campaign on steroids arguing about the rigging and the game that was being played. ...

And so the president did, I thought, the most credible thing possible, which was turn it over not to the politicians to define but to the intel community, that is apolitical and nonpolitical, and that's what he did.

On naming his memoir Every Day Is Extra

It's something that we talked about in Vietnam ... those of us lucky to come back and be alive when others didn't. You've got to look at life like every day is an extra and be happy about it, because a lot of guys didn't come back, and that's the baseline, if you will, and you don't have to go to war to feel that way — you escape cancer, you escape an accident, whatever it is that happens. I view myself as lucky.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is John Kerry. He's written a new memoir. And in reviewing his life, he gets to issues that are central to politics today, like the use of falsehoods in American politics and how during his presidential campaign falsehoods were used to smear both his character and his record of service in Vietnam and how as secretary of state, he was instrumental in the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership only to have President Trump pull out of each of them.

He writes about how he became friends with John McCain even though Kerry opposed the war in Vietnam while McCain was a POW. Kerry even considered inviting McCain to be his vice presidential running mate. Kerry served five terms as a U.S. senator from Boston and became secretary of state under President Obama in 2013 following Hillary Clinton's departure. His new memoir is called "Every Day Is Extra," a reference to the gift of life after surviving the war in Vietnam.

We started by talking about a turning point in the use of falsehoods to smear a political opponent, the swift boat campaign against him during his 2004 run for president. Swift boats were designed for shallow water and were used by the U.S. Navy for patrolling the coast of Vietnam during the war. Kerry commanded swift boat missions and was injured in one of them. The swift boat campaign against him included a series of ads and a book saying that Kerry didn't deserve his service medals and that he'd lied about the swift boat mission in which they were ambushed.

John Kerry, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start with the swift boat campaign against you, which you write about in your memoir. And I want to start here because it's a turning point in how lies, falsehoods that are demonstrably untrue can be used effectively against a candidate. So before we talk about the falsehoods, let's talk about the reality of what happened on your swift boat, the mission that people were talking about when they were trying to call you a liar.

JOHN KERRY: In the early spring of 2004, a book came out by Doug Brinkley called "Tour Of Duty," which was a book about my service in Vietnam. And a small group of veterans who disagreed with some of the characterizations by Doug Brinkley, not me, rebelled against it and attacked me for it. He used it as a vehicle to try to attack me. It was led by a guy who had actually appeared in my life way back in the antiwar days - 1971 - who had acted on behalf of the White House - the Nixon White House - and attacked back then. But this time they did it by major distortions in the record.

And initially our campaign pushed back against it and corrected the record. My military record spoke very directly to what had happened. The people who were actually on the boats involved in these ambushes in Vietnam in these attacks and incidents spoke to it. But that didn't stop them. They had a strategy. Their strategy was simply to provide alternative facts, to make them up much in the vernacular that we see today. And we answered that as forcefully as we could. We released my military records. We had people speak who were there. And the major media of the nation carried it.

So in the campaign, our advisers believed we had adequately, quote, "answered." The problem was that the right wing got behind this with major funding from some of the very same names who are doing major right-wing funding in the country today. And they started to pick up on these alternative facts and pushed them out there in the context of advertisements, television advertisements. And regrettably...

GROSS: I'm going to stop you there because I want to...

KERRY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Play one of the ads. Not everybody will remember this. Not everybody was old enough to have heard it when it happened. So this is one of the anti-John Kerry ads used in the 2004 presidential campaign in which veterans speak, calling Kerry a liar for what he said and what others said, what the official records had said he'd done as the leader in a swift boat mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you have any question about what John Kerry's made of, just spend three minutes with the man who served with him.

AL FRENCH: I served with John Kerry.

BOB ELDER: I served with John Kerry.

GEORGE ELLIOTT: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

FRENCH: He is lying about his record.

LOUIS LETSON: I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury.

VAN ODELL: John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star. I know. I was there. I saw what happened.

JACK CHENOWETH: His account of what happened and what actually happened are the difference between night and day.

ROY HOFFMANN: John Kerry has not been honest.

ADRIAN LONSDALE: And he lacks the capacity to lead.

LARRY THURLOW: When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.

ELDER: John Kerry is no war hero.

GRANT HIBBARD: He betrayed all his shipmates. He lied before the Senate.

SHELTON WHITE: John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam.

JOE PONDER: He dishonored his country. He most certainly did.

BOB HILDRETH: I served with John Kerry. John Kerry cannot be trusted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement.

GROSS: OK, I want to specifically ask you about one of the men there who says, I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury. Who was that?

KERRY: I don't remember his name. I just don't remember his name. It might have been the doctor or the aide - I forget which - who was in the Cam Ranh Bay medical facility where they took the shrapnel out of my arm. But I don't think there was any discussion about what happened with him. He would not have known. He wasn't there. He wasn't on the mission. All he did was take the piece of metal out of my arm. That was his job. And I don't know what he's referring to in terms of what he knows or doesn't know.

But the simple bottom line is we were in a very small boat, three of us at night. And we took enemy under fire. And in the course of that, you know, the - that's when I got a piece of shrapnel in my arm. And I had nothing to do with it, you know, quote, "getting a first - a Purple Heart" or even the Bronze Star. I mean, I listened to that just again now. And somebody said I lied about, quote, "getting a Bronze Star."

I didn't even know I was getting a Bronze Star. The recommendation came from an Army captain that I pulled out of the water who weeks after I left Vietnam apparently put me in for the medal. So, I mean, they just made things up. They made them up right, left and center. And when people said, I served with John Kerry, that means they served in swift boats. But it didn't mean they were on my boat. It didn't mean they were on the mission. It didn't mean they knew what had happened. And they weren't in those cases. And the guys who were contradicted them.

So what they did was they just built up with little phrases. It was skillfully done as an attack ad, obviously. I remember being in Ohio and listening to that ad. And I called my campaign headquarters and said, guys, I just heard an ad. And if I heard that ad, I wouldn't vote for me.

GROSS: So I want to talk with you about something that you actually did say but that the message was used against you also in a way that we see done today. You returned from the war opposing it because so much of the war just seemed senseless to you. And the South Vietnamese, who we were supposed to be defending, you say, didn't seem to want us there. They just wanted to live in peace.

So when you came home, you became one of the leaders of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. You delivered testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which years later you ended up chairing. You delivered testimony in 1971 based in part on your experiences and based in part on the experiences of other vets who you'd heard testify at a meeting in Detroit organized by a group called the Winter Soldier Campaign, which was also veterans who were opposing the war in Vietnam. And I want to just play a bit of your testimony about atrocities that had been described by vets who committed them and now were deeply regretful about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KERRY: It's impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. But they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.

GROSS: So that testimony was used against you by people saying, he's saying what the enemy, what the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese, want him to say because this is exactly the kind of thing they're trying to get prisoners of war - American prisoners of war to say that they'd committed - that they'd committed these atrocities. So that statement kind of haunted you through your career because of the way it was used against you.

So in retrospect, looking back at that and on its impact on the antiwar movement - it had a very positive impact on the antiwar movement - what are your thoughts about what you said and how you said it and the impact it had on your life and the impact it had on the war?

KERRY: Well, Terry, I think that if you - as you just played, my voice is calm, and I was recounting what they had said, what their agony was. I recounting something that happened in America that these veterans - each of whom produced what is called their DD 214, their discharge papers that indicated what unit they were in and where they served and when and so forth and that they were honorably discharged.

And these were people who were undergoing great difficulties, as many veterans did when they came home from Vietnam. I mean, people forget that. We've lost more veterans of Vietnam to self-medication, to alcohol abuse, drug abuse, to, you know, wrecked lives than there are names on the wall in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. And this was what happened to certain numbers of people in certain places at certain times. It wasn't everywhere, and I made that clear.

But people just didn't want - didn't like - I mean, there was a truth that was difficult to deal with. And other authors have written about some of the agony of what happened there. And it was a sad byproduct to some degree of a lot of young guys running around at a time of great cultural and social turbulence when military discipline to some degree broke down in Vietnam.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Kerry, former senator and secretary of state. He has a new memoir called "Every Day Is Extra." We're going to take a short break and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is former senator and secretary of state John Kerry, who's written a new memoir called "Every Day Is Extra."

So I think it's interesting that you, who became an outspoken antiwar activist, and John McCain, who was a prisoner of war for five years, and - you know, emerged from that with, you know, physical problems - he was never able to lift his arms - that you became friends. And in fact, when you were running in 2004 for president, you had considered inviting him to be your running mate.

John McCain was also the victim of a smear when he was running in the presidential primary. And in South Carolina, there was, like, a whisper campaign saying that he had fathered a child with a black prostitute. In fact, John McCain...

KERRY: That was a terrible campaign.

GROSS: Yeah. And John McCain in fact did have a black child who he adopted from Bangladesh. But these things - even when they're not true, they make an impression on people. And it's like, I don't know about that John McCain. But I'm wondering. If you were disappointed in McCain when he had Sarah Palin, who is - I don't know if you want to call her a climate change sceptic or denier - as his vice presidential running mate - she also spread a lot of falsehoods about vaccinations and about death panels; there will be death panels if Obama is elected and we have his health care reform. So were you disappointed in the choice?

KERRY: Well, I was surprised by the choice. It wasn't up to me to be disappointed, but I was surprised obviously by the choice. But I think John did what he did to win the nomination, obviously. I think it was a - I was disappointed that he couldn't acknowledge that, you know, climate change was happening because of human beings and so forth, that his party had created a new orthodoxy of almost - every single candidate had to say that they didn't accept the idea that climate change was real. That's a sad commentary on American politics when all of our scientists - 98, 99 percent of scientists - and it's a settled issue that human beings are contributing to it. So I think John was disappointed in his own choice later on. And obviously - I mean, Sarah Palin was not invited to his funeral, and I think that makes its own statement about how John McCain felt about it later on.

But John and I managed to find - I write about this in the book at length because it mattered to me. One of the most important conversations I ever had in the Senate was the one I had on an airplane flying to Kuwait with John McCain when we really began to decide to work together to try to make a difference. And ultimately John McCain and I went back to Vietnam together on this quest to try to find the answers on POWs and MIA.

And I stood alone in the Hanoi Hilton with John McCain in the very cell in which he had spent, you know, several years of his life as a prisoner. And it was one of the most remarkable moments I had in my life to stand there, this conservative Republican war - prisoner of war, a war hero, with this guy who protested the war and obviously came from a different place on it. And yet we found common ground, common ground in a prison cell in Hanoi.

GROSS: I want to ask you an impeachment question since a lot of people are wondering if Democrats win back the House, will they try to impeach President Trump. And also Brett Kavanaugh is undergoing his confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice. And he worked on the Starr report, which led to President Clinton's impeachment.

After the Starr report was released - the final report on the investigation into President Clinton and his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky - you proposed that the president should testify before the House Judiciary Committee and answer any questions and explain his decision to mislead the nation about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And in return, Congress would commit to an expedited vote to censure the president and that you believe it could have passed the Senate unanimously and would have been the first presidential censure since 1834.

But the House moved forward with Newt Gingrich's impeachment plan, and the president was impeached in the House. So I'm wondering what your thoughts are now, looking at the question of impeachment and President Trump, and if you have any comment on Brett Kavanaugh, whose work you were familiar with, in some respects, through the impeachment of President Clinton.

KERRY: Well, no, I don't have any comment on Brett Kavanaugh because I just don't at this point in time. I think the Senate needs to just do its job. I do not believe that talk of impeachment right now is the way to try to resolve the problem of President Trump, who clearly is ill-equipped to do the job that he is in and who is violating all norms. I mean, on Tuesday, the president tweeted about how Jeff Sessions is doing a bad job because a couple Republicans were indicted, Republican congressmen, and he says that's going to hurt the midterm election.

So the president is weaponizing the Justice Department as a political tool, that you just don't do your duty to uphold the law if it's going to affect the elections. And that is so completely contrary to all expectations of how a president should behave, let alone the separation of powers in the country and the importance of upholding our institutions. But I think to get locked into a discussion of impeachment right now is a mistake. I think it politicizes everything.

What you need to do is let the Mueller investigation run its course. And you need to see if there are in - sort of a base line of prima facie impeachable offenses there, not just your dislike of the president or your belief that he's not equipped to do the job, but are there high crimes and misdemeanors? And make a judgment outside of politics, and that can't be done in the context of an election period, which we're in right now.

GROSS: My guest is John Kerry. His new memoir is called "Every Day Is Extra." After a break, we'll discuss negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran and then watching President Trump pull out of it. And we'll talk about what Kerry knew about Russian interference in our election and if he thinks that the Obama administration should have done more to warn American voters. Later, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review Steve Coleman's new album recorded live at the Village Vanguard. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Kerry. After serving five terms as a Democratic senator from Boston, he was appointed secretary of state by President Obama in 2013 after Hillary Clinton's departure. He's written a new memoir called "Every Day Is Extra."

President Trump has been trying to undo a lot that the Obama administration did, including pulling out of treaties that you were instrumental in writing - the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the climate change accord in Paris, the Iran nuclear deal. I've often thought about how hard it is to pull together a treaty and how easy it is to undo it or pull out. But you write that you think treaties just developed a bad reputation, that the far-right saw treaties as an attack on American sovereignty, including the disabilities treaty that was opposed by the Tea Party. This is, like, a U.N. treaty from December of 2012 that America fell six votes short of ratifying.

KERRY: Well, regrettably, this is part of the transformation that has taken place in our nation. The right wing has made it orthodoxy within their party that treaties are a relinquishing of American sovereignty and that somehow a treaty is going to contribute to, quote, "world government." So the highest standards that we try to apply to one thing or another, even if they're the best thing in the world and America is the only country that does it and we want other countries to raise their standard - if it's in the context of a treaty, people seem to oppose it nowadays.

And that is what happened with the disabilities treaty. I write about the story - the poignancy of former United States senator and majority leader Robert Dole in his wheelchair coming in to the floor of the United States Senate for this vote on the disabilities treaty. And all that the disabilities treaty did was require other countries to raise their standard of accessibility for those who are physically challenged to the gold standard of America.

It raised the standard to American standards. And other countries all signed up to it. We were the ones who motivated it. George Herbert Walker Bush is the one who negotiated it. But the right wing in the United States Senate stood firm saying, we're not going to have a treaty. We're not going to have a treaty - disabilities treaty.

And what happened was right there with Robert Dole and Liddy Dole, the United States senator - you know, they - his own colleagues rejected this treaty right in front of him. I thought it was one of the most stunning, shocking, sad moments that underscores where these extremist advocates have taken the United States Senate. And they've hijacked it. They've hijacked a great institution.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about the Iran nuclear treaty. How did you have any idea that you could talk to Iran and begin a negotiation?

KERRY: I had the idea through conversations that I had with key players in the region and through my belief in diplomacy. And I had messages and indications that Iran might be ready to talk. And I thought it was worth testing it. And in diplomacy, you're constantly, I think, in need of testing the possibilities.

GROSS: There were countries in the region that wanted us to bomb Iran to prevent any progress on its nuclear program. There were people in America who wanted that as well. Were you concerned that if there wasn't a treaty, that the U.S. would be bombing Iran to stop their nuclear program?

KERRY: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: And what did you think the outcome of that would be if it happened?

KERRY: Disastrous because the capacity for self-delusion had already been demonstrated pretty aptly in the Iraq war. And it seemed to me that having a war as an alternative to diplomacy was an invitation to a long, long period of asymmetrical warfare, which would be very ugly, very costly to the region and very dangerous.

GROSS: Give us an example of, like, one part of the negotiation that was especially tricky to deal with.

KERRY: Well, all parts of it were tricky to deal with to be honest with you because we hadn't talked to the Iranians in 35, 40 years. And there was huge mistrust. The right-wing hard-liners in Iran were very much against the possibility because they - of a treaty because they wanted a nuclear weapon. And the president of Iran, Rouhani, who was trying to move in the direction of a more reasonable approach, knew that Iran needed to try to join the world and take a different tack.

So we had to construct a treaty that we knew would be attacked, that we knew would be highly suspect, that would require the most intrusive inspection and accountability of any agreement ever. And we could not have an agreement for the sake of having an agreement. It had to be one that passed the highest standards. In the end, I believe we did that.

You know, Secretary Mattis was in favor of staying in it. Secretary Tillerson was in favor of staying in it. All the key security people were in favor of staying in it. Only Donald Trump persisted in this notion together with a few people from the region who didn't like it because they wanted to put more pressure on Iran who had a different attitude about it. But what's happened is by getting rid of it - by getting the United States out of it, I should say - because the Russians, Chinese, French, Germans and British are all staying at it as well as Iran. And Iran is living up to it, so only Donald Trump has moved away from this treaty that was working.

GROSS: You spoke with John...

KERRY: Not a treaty, excuse me. I misspoke, Terry. It's an agreement. It's an executive agreement, not a treaty.

GROSS: When President Trump was on the verge of pulling out of the deal but before he actually did, you apparently spoke to a couple of European leaders and, I think, to your Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, about the importance of this agreement. I don't know exactly what you said to them. But then you were accused by some people on the right of violating the Logan Act, which says that an American citizen can't interfere in changing American policy.

KERRY: No. What the - what it says is you can't interfere in a negotiation. You can't negotiate. This, by the way, came from people who had written a letter to the president of Iran in the middle of our negotiations saying, you can't trust this administration. And, I mean, you want to talk about interference.

But I was not negotiating. The policy of the United States of America - we were signatory to the agreement. We hadn't pulled out of the agreement. And all I did was have conversations with them about what was maybe going to unfold, how it would unfold. It's something that - Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton all have conversations with leaders in other countries. We have relationships. And all I did was the normal conversation of anybody engaged in thoughtful dialogue internationally. And it's one more evidence of a president who simply doesn't understand the process for his own country or our own laws.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Kerry. And he's written a new memoir called "Every Day Is Extra." Why don't we take a short break here and then talk some more? This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is John Kerry, former senator, former secretary of state. Now he has a new memoir called "Every Day Is Extra." I want to ask you about negotiations with Russia. When you were secretary of state and negotiating with Russia, for instance, about the new START treaty which was to further reduce arms in both countries - nuclear weapons - how much did you know, if anything, about Russian interference in our elections, in our democracy?

KERRY: We didn't learn about the interference until the summer of 2016, at least in my position. We knew that the Russians were hacking. We had known that previously. There was one period of time where the Russians had hacked into State Department servers, and we had to change our whole system. We shut down over a weekend, and we knew that it was the Russians. So we were aware, and I had raised the issue obviously with my counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as well as with President Putin when I met with them, but we weren't aware of the election interference in a major way until sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2016 when the intel community laid it out.

GROSS: So once you found out that information, how did it change your relationship with your counterparts in Russia with whom you had talked with about, you know, the treaty and a lot of other issues? Did you...

KERRY: Well, there...

GROSS: Did you ever confront them and say, we know this?

KERRY: Yes, they were confronted, and President Obama...

GROSS: But by you or just by President Obama?

KERRY: I raised the issue with Sergey Lavrov and got the - you know, the regular denials. And based on that and other things, that's when the president made the decision to absolutely confront Putin on it, which he did, I believe. And whenever - whatever that late meeting was that took place at the G-20 in China is when the president face-to-face confronted President Putin about it. But we had to confront all kinds of things that were happening as we were going along. And we had already, I think, expelled some Russians and shut down some facilities.

But we knew that Russia was, for instance, supporting Assad in ways that were completely contrary to efforts to have further accountability on chemical weapons. We knew that Russia was playing games with little green men running around in uniforms in Crimea and then Ukraine and that they were challenging the Baltic states and so forth. So Russia - you know, the nature of diplomacy, the nature - and this is a challenge for any administration.

You have to compartmentalize to certain degrees. You have so many issues on the table. You have a need to tackle what is doable at certain times and make it clear what will happen if they continue to do X, Y or Z but then put it over on a side and still try to make progress on climate change or the START treaty or the Iran nuclear agreement or whatever. And we did that. Even as we had great difficulties in these places, we got Russia to cooperate on any number of things.

GROSS: President Obama decided not to disclose to the American public that Russia was hacking us and interfering in the presidential election. And my understanding is part of the reason why he decided not to disclose this was that candidate Trump was already saying the election is rigged, and President Obama didn't want to create any impression that by saying that Russia was interfering, that he was trying to sway the election, put his thumb on the scale and do anything that would help Hillary. And he didn't want to do anything that would make it seem like it was a political decision on his part to disclose this information.

But the argument's been made that by not saying anything, by not disclosing it to the American public, that that was a political decision motivated by the fear of how it would look if it was disclosed as opposed to being motivated by the decision of what should voters know was actually happening in our democracy. So looking back in retrospect, how do you think that should have been handled?

KERRY: Well, I think the president handled as effectively as he could at the time. And later in the summer, I was involved in some of those conversations which took place in the White House. I absolutely guarantee you having run for president and having been in elected politics for a period of time that if given Trump's continued attacks against the legitimacy of the election system, given the degree to which he was already labeling it rigged, given the degree to which he was anticipating his own defeat and therefore was already laying the groundwork for an ongoing fight against the legitimacy of the elections, I guarantee you that if President Obama had stood up and said, the Russians are hacking our system and they're going to do this and that, you would have had a Trump campaign on steroids arguing about the rigging and the game that was being played, and they were trying to blame what they were doing on the Russians. I guarantee it.

And so the president did, I thought, the most credible thing possible, which was turn it over not to the politicians to define but to the intel community that is apolitical and nonpolitical. And the intel community went out and did tell the American people what was happening in the most credible way possible. And the president himself challenged President Putin one-on-one very forcefully about what would happen if they continued to do it.

GROSS: Politics is not just a balancing act when it comes to getting elected and staying in office and all the balancing you have to do as secretary of state. There's the balancing of the personal and the political when you're in office or secretary of state, and you've been confronted with major events happening on both sides at the same time. So for instance, right after one of your presidential debates, your first wife, the mother of your two daughters - her cancer had returned. It had spread through her body, and you knew that she was dying. And you had to continue with the campaign and all the preparation knowing that that was happening.

Before the Iran deal was finished, you broke your leg and had to deal with all the stuff you have to deal with when you break your leg. I think it was during one of the campaigns when you were dealing with surgery from prostate cancer - you'd had your prostate removed, and so - but you had to still keep campaigning. Your wife, Teresa, had a major seizure while you were secretary of state, and she was hospitalized, initially, in critical condition and had to take medication to prevent future seizures. She needed 24-hour attention in case she had another seizure, in case she fell. And, of course, you had to continue with your work as secretary of state, although she was not able to travel with you because of her medical condition.

If you could just speak a little bit about the difficulty of having any kind of personal life at all and of being true to your family while also doing the job that you know you need to do in public life when you have the career that you had - and I think this is something everyone in public life has to deal with. And most people have to deal with it in their own jobs no matter what their jobs are. But at your level, it's important to the world. So if you could just address that a little bit, I'd love to hear how you've thought it through, how you've tried to balance that in your life.

KERRY: Well, I've never found it - frankly, I've never found it hard and difficult. Maybe sometimes, I've failed to balance it. Who knows? Others will judge that. But I've been blessed with extraordinary family. My daughters are incredible. My wife is incredible. She's the one who's, you know, been so strong, and she's doing terrifically and fighting a, you know, continued thing here and there. But she's wise and strong about it. And I marvel at what all our kids have been able to do to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that come with public life.

I'm lucky. I mean, that's why "Every Day Is Extra" is the title of my book. It's something that we talked about in Vietnam, that those of us lucky to come back and be alive when others didn't, you got to look at life like every day is extra and be happy about it because a lot of guys didn't come back. And that's the base line, if you will. And you don't have to go to war to feel that way. You escape cancer. You escape an accident. Whatever it is that happens, I view myself as lucky.

GROSS: Secretary Kerry, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for your time.

KERRY: My pleasure entirely, and thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: John Kerry's new memoir is called "Every Day Is Extra." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album he describes as the convergence of two jazz institutions. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.