WASHINGTON — His voice quavering, Secretary of State-designate John Kerry bid farewell to the Senate after 28 years with a plea for comity and cooperation.
“The political process works only when leaders are willing to listen,” Kerry told his colleagues in his valedictory speech on Wednesday.
More than a dozen Democrats and just a few Republicans listened as Kerry stood at his desk and spoke for close to an hour. The Massachusetts Democrat became emotional when he tapped on his desk and remarked that it had been used by both John F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, one who became president, the other a Senate legend.
It was a sober reminder that senators are merely “temporary workers,” Kerry said.
The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Kerry for the nation’s top diplomatic job, succeeding Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan will swear in Kerry on Friday afternoon in a private ceremony, and his first day at the State Department is Monday.
Kerry thanked his staff, Senate employees, even the 1,393 interns who worked in his office. Congressional aides sat along the wall at the back of the chamber and the senator’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, watched from the gallery above.
Kerry said he was “closing a chapter, not the final one.”
Expressing his appreciation for the Senate, he dismissed suggestions that the institution is broken in a politically divided Washington and urged senators to sit down, listen and work together.
Kerry said lawmakers face three major challenges — the decline of civility, the corrupting force of campaign money and the disregard for facts.
He recalled moments of bipartisanship during his tenure, from working with Republican Sen. John McCain on normalizing relations with Vietnam and the fate of POWs to joining forces with former Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., on combatting AIDS.
“The Senate cannot break unless we let it,” Kerry said.
The unsuccessful 2004 presidential candidate remembered his travels throughout the country during the campaign when he came “within a whisper” of winning the presidency against a wartime commander in chief, President George W. Bush.
Kerry praised Republicans and Democrats, highlighting President George H.W. Bush’s willingness to raise taxes in a budget deal and his recognition that it might make him a one-term president.
“He did what he thought was right. That’s courage,” Kerry said.
Kerry said it was only fitting that he came to Washington some 42 years ago as an activist protesting the Vietnam War. He had served in the Navy and was wounded during the war. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and famously asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Last week, he testified before the same committee — as its outgoing chairman seeking approval for his nomination to be secretary of state.
Kerry said he came to Washington as a voice, not a vote.
Hours before he spoke, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick selected a former top aide, William “Mo” Cowan, to serve as interim senator until a special election to fill the seat.
At the conclusion of Kerry’s remarks, senators, staff and those watching in the gallery all rose and applauded. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hugged Kerry; other senators shook his hand and wished him the best.
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