Ok so technically one can only jump the shark once–it’s supposed to be the moment in which things irrevocably go from good to bad, as in the show Happy Days, when Fonzi jumps over a shark wearing a pair of waterskis in a desperate ploy to keep the show relevant. How, then, does John Kerry keep on jumping that shark, always managing to recover only to jump it again?
As US Secretary of State, Kerry arguably has one of the most rhetorically demanding jobs in the world. One false word out of his mouth could literally blow up the world. So it’s more than a little mind-blowing to me the way Kerry often seems to think out loud, say his actual opinion, and stand up for something about which he feels strongly. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, was the opposite–she flew under the radar for the most part.
Kerry, on the other hand, has been making headlines since his 1971 Senate testimony that helped end the Vietnam war. Even back then he didn’t mince words; as msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell observes, “John Kerry didn’t play it safe when he testified against the war,” and called him “the most valuable kind of war hero, the hero who helps end the war.” Kerry’s bold speech called out several Democrats by name and could have spelled the end of his political career. Instead it earned him a place in the hearts of many Americans who had begun to feel like pawns in their country’s proxy wars against the USSR.
And actually Kerry’s display did come back to haunt him during his 2004 presidential campaign. A closer examination of his war record and his history of opposition to the Vietnam war ultimately culminated in a shark-jumping moment for his campaign. (It didn’t help that America was then embroiled in multiple wars as a result of the September 11th attacks.)
But he rose again, like a Fonzi-phoenix from the shark-ashes…only to jump the shark again in 2006, when he was caught making a joke about soldiers serving in Iraq. (Kerry maintains that it was a misunderstanding.) But perhaps most damaging was his change of heart about the war in Iraq. He had initially voted in favor, but later changed his position, leading Republicans to ridicule his perceived lack of resolve. His awkward and contradictory attempts to explain his new position produced a bonanza for Republicans and a headache for Democrats, though I find it admirable that he had the courage to change his mind after receiving more information. Nevertheless, he jumped the shark with these explanations and lost all Democratic support for a 2008 presidential run.
Kerry learned an important lesson in diplomacy in September, when an offhand remark he made about how Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, could avert a US-led attack was taken as a serious proposal. Within a few hours of Kerry making this comment, Russia and Syria were already making plans to turn over Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons to international control. A blindsided and bewildered Kerry tried to backtrack, but the wheels were already in motion, and by the time UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon threw his support behind the proposal/”rhetorical argument,” there was no turning back. This led to headlines such as “Did John Kerry just accidentally find a workable solution for Syria?” I wish my mistakes worked out that well…
Kerry’s recent comments about Egypt don’t seem destined to have the same miraculous effect that his Syria arguments did. In an effort to make nice with Egypt’s army-backed administration, Kerry has been busy lambasting the Muslim Brotherhood for stealing the 2011 revolution from young, secular-minded Egyptians. His comments are a pretty obvious ploy to show that the US is not in cahoots with the Brotherhood, but they appear to have emboldened Egypt’s rulers to impose new restrictions on freedom of assembly. Now secular activists are being arrested–79 on Tuesday–and the embattled nation seems poised for another bout of devastating civil strife. By no means is Kerry responsible for all of this, but it is worth wondering if these events are in part a result of Egypt’s leaders feeling supported by the US. I’d say this is another shark-jumping moment for Kerry, though his comments aren’t the usual off-the-cuff Kerry accidents, but seem more like a change in the official stance of the US administration.
John Kerry will go down in history as an ambitious and impassioned Secretary of State. His major undertakings include the resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, helping broker a deal to end the Syrian civil war, and a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran; given his reputation as the Energizer Bunny of international relations, he just might achieve these goals. Luckily for us, it seems that jumping the shark agrees with John Kerry.