BY EMMA RUBIN ’20
Mount Holyoke students, faculty, staff and neighboring community members gathered in Chapin Auditorium on Sept. 25 for a conversation between former secretary of state and Massachusetts senator John Kerry and Dean of Faculty Jon Western. Western facilitated a relaxed discussion with Kerry about his new autobiography, “Every Day is Extra.”
As Kerry and Western walked onto the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m., the audience’s chatter quickly silenced and Kerry was greeted with a standing ovation. Eva Paus, professor of economics at Mount Holyoke, opened the event with a brief introduction for both Kerry and Western.
Western began the talk by discussing Mount Holyoke’s history, recognizing it as the oldest women’s college in the country and commending it for fighting against gender discrimination for over 180 years. “None of you look 180 years old,” Kerry said, prompting laughter from the audience.
Western then asked about a highly publicized comment of Kerry’s in which Kerry compared President Trump to a teenage girl. In response, Kerry spoke highly of his two daughters, who work in medicine and the film industry. He said that when he first joined the U.S. Senate, only two senators were women. And while he recognized how this number has ballooned over the years, he also expressed frustration with the gender inequality that continues to be perpetuated in the U.S.
Kerry’s critique of pay inequity and lack of women in the government was met with loud applause. He emphasized the importance of the upcoming midterms in continuing to support women in office and women’s rights.
Western then turned the discussion to the current administration, asking whether democracy is self-executing or not. Kerry quickly rejected the idea of democracy as self-executing and emphasized that it requires huge participation.
“Nobody can retire right now. We have to save our country,” Kerry said.
Kerry compared democracy to the countless other forms of government humans have tried throughout history. “I think we Americans have landed on something pretty special,” he said.
Still, Kerry was quick to acknowledge democracy’s imperfections as well, referencing the Winston Churchill quote, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Western and Kerry discussed the content of his book, beginning with his college years. Kerry recalled that during his freshman year at Yale University the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened war with the Soviet Union. During his sophomore year, he was sitting in the bleachers of a football game when he first heard murmurs that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. He also remembered driving south in the spring of his junior year and seeing a “whites only” sign for the first time.
Kerry enlisted in the military at the end of his senior year and he spoke about his service and his postwar activism. He recalled hearing that a good friend had died in Vietnam and how that, among other realizations about the war, galvanized him to organize against it.
On the topic of the current administration and Republican control of Congress, Kerry maintained an optimistic attitude. “There isn’t any problem today that we can’t solve,” he said.
Kerry then emphasized the importance of compromise in politics, even as he admitted that today’s Congress is far less willing to negotiate than in years past. “The fact is that sadly members of the U.S. Senate care more about power, their party and the president than they do about upholding that oath they took,” he said.
Environmental policy also proved to be a major theme in Kerry’s discussion. He stressed the importance of politicizing environmental issues, noting the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the creation of the EPA by President Richard Nixon in 1970. Kerry said that activism is a powerful force in making the environment a voting issue, and said that right now people are more energized in solving these problems than in recent years.
As long lines of audience members began to form to ask Kerry questions, Western posed one last query. “Who do you see emerging in the democratic party?” he asked, specifically hinting at the 2020 presidential election.
Kerry refused to answer that question, and instead highlighted the upcoming midterms. “All the focus needs to be on electing the house and senate,” he said.
Kerry answered questions from Mount Holyoke students and community members that dealt with foreign policy in Iran and North Korea, the most effective forms of activism, the future of the state department and more.
Alex Moreno ’22 said, “I appreciated his honesty because I think he really understands the places of privilege he comes from.”
One student asked for Kerry’s favorite anecdote from his time with President Barack Obama. Kerry replied, “Oval office, he turns to me and says, ‘John, you’ve got the best hair in American politics.’” Members of the audience laughed.
During the discussion, Kerry cited voter turnout statistics over the past years, pointing out the 58 percent voting rate in the 2016 election. Moreno said, “I think his point about decreasing voter turnout was very relevant, especially with the November elections coming up on us and it just made me think more about critically about why these things might be happening.”
Moreno said that John Kerry’s visit to Mount Holyoke is not only motivating to students, but also the Pioneer Valley community at large.
Moreno added, “For someone like John Kerry to come to a place like South Hadley ... I think it really motivates a lot of the people around here and the local community to get more involved.”
Karla Esquivel ’22 appreciated Kerry’s optimism throughout the evening. “This is something I never really thought I would experience before,” she said while waiting in line to get her copy of Kerry’s book signed. “That’s why I bought the book, to commemorate the moment.”