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John Kerry Slams Trump Administration in Harvard Commencement Speech

Reminding everyone at Harvard that free trade is great, Trump is bad, and climate change is real.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and
kerry crop
kerry crop

Former Secretary of State John Kerry largely held his tongue on Donald Trump’s raucous and controversial presidency -- until now. In a commencement speech Wednesday before Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Kerry slammed Trump and the noxious political environment in Washington in which politicians and former politicians slam each other.

“I did not come here to be partisan or political or pessimistic. But I did come here to tell the truth,” he said, before launching into a partisan, political, and somewhat pessimistic tirade.

He told a few jokes at the Trump administration’s expense -- jesting that Harvard Kennedy School graduates could take any of the thousands of empty jobs in the Trump administration, and the best way to get ahead in Trump’s Washington was to brush up on all things Russia.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry largely held his tongue on Donald Trump’s raucous and controversial presidency — until now. In a commencement speech Wednesday before Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Kerry slammed Trump and the noxious political environment in Washington in which politicians and former politicians slam each other.

“I did not come here to be partisan or political or pessimistic. But I did come here to tell the truth,” he said, before launching into a partisan, political, and somewhat pessimistic tirade.

He told a few jokes at the Trump administration’s expense — jesting that Harvard Kennedy School graduates could take any of the thousands of empty jobs in the Trump administration, and the best way to get ahead in Trump’s Washington was to brush up on all things Russia.

“I’m often asked what is the secret to having real impact on government,” he said. “Well, it’s recently changed. I used to say, either run for office or get a degree from Harvard Kennedy School. With this White House I’d say, buy Rosetta Stone and learn Russian.”

And he took a swipe at the toxic and faction-riddled political environment in the country today.

“It’s not normal that when you close your eyes and listen to the news, too often the political back and forth in America sounds too much like it does in the kinds of countries that the State Department warns Americans not to travel to,” he said.

Then he veered back toward what could have been pages from his own stump speeches in his 2004 run for the White House.

“We need people with the courage and guts to stand up and tell the truth and put forward better choices, not lowest common denominator choices calculated to win votes,” he said.

He outlined some of the choices: Finding a way to alleviate Americans’ widespread economic anxiety, because few know economic anxiety like Harvard Kennedy grads; reminding graduates new technology is cold comfort to those who lost their jobs to it; remaining committed to combating climate change; and keeping the United States as a leading force in the world. Because the world’s just a little bit nervous about Trump right now.

“My travels to Asia, to the Middle East, to Europe … have informed me the global community is watching and unsettled about the leading nation in the free world,” he said.

Kerry, who made fighting climate change one his big priorities both in the Senate and in the State Department, spoke at length about the severity of the climate threat, warning of the dangers of pulling out of the landmark Paris climate change agreement.

“It would be a self inflicted wound that would hurt our own businesses, diminish our leadership, and set back our own future,” he said. Instead, he urged graduates to “bet on science, bet on reality.”

“Class of 2017,” Kerry closed, “your job is to disturb the universe.” Because the universe apparently hasn’t already been disturbed quite enough lately.

Photo credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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