There Once Was a Secretary of State in Nantucket
The Fourth of July is a time for reliving American history—the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the 2004 Presidential Election… Yes, a controversy over Secretary of State John Kerry’s in-state vacation has us feeling a little nostalgic for those Bush ads showing Kerry on a windsurfer.
Reporters caught wind on July 3 that Kerry was on his yacht in Nantucket. Of course, July 3 was a momentous time in international diplomacy as Egypt was busy deposing its first democratically elected leader, and so conservatives got the old 2004 gang back together to call John Kerry a derelict snob. The State Department swiftly contested reports that Kerry was on the yacht, saying he’d worked all day on Egypt. But the State Department eventually had to walk back its own denial, and regardless, by July 4th itself, it became clear that Kerry was, in fact, on Nantucket for the holiday.
As one of the reporters who first spotted him there noted, this doesn’t mean he wasn’t working on Egypt issues on July 3rd.
For the record, the fact he was working on Egypt issues all day and also happens to be in Nantucket are not mutually exclusive.
— Mosheh Oinounou (@Mosheh) July 4, 2013
But this is the textbook D.C. story where it doesn’t matter what you’re doing… it matters what you look like you’re doing. Just see the way in which Republican strategists criticized him in the Boston Herald story on the matter:
“It doesn’t look good, and I think it sends the wrong message” said Republican strategist Brad Marston.
“I would think the secretary of state would interrupt his vacation and at least send a very clear signal — even by flying back to Washington for a day or two — that on our Independence Day we are very concerned about the freedom and democracy that we hope is instilled for some period of time in the Arab World,” said Patrick Griffin, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist.
D.C. people and partisan-types are all concerned with “messages” and “signals” and “projecting an image.” (And it comes from both sides, as when people got incensed that Condolleezza Rice had her nails done amidst tough negotiations with Iraq.) Meanwhile, the questions a non-Washingtonian human might want the State Department to answer are things like: What equipment or material does the Secretary bring with him to Nantucket that allow him to monitor the situation as well as he could from his office? For that matter, what exactly should a Secretary of State be doing during another country’s crisis, and was Kerry doing it? Maybe the answers would leave us in doubt that he was fulfilling his duties. But maybe not.
Put another way: If John Kerry was working remotely from some cabin in Adirondacks, would we be having the same conversation about how this looks? Or is this about putting the words “yacht” “Nantucket” and “John Kerry” in the same sentence as often as possible, as Boston Herald wind-up doll Howie Carr used the opportunity to do? His column felt oh-so-2004 with its imagining of Kerry eating Grey Poupon and speaking French. Kerry might have hoped that in taking on a non-partisan role as chief diplomat, he might be left to windsurf in peace, putting aside all the focus on image. Apparently not.