I had a very Kerry weekend.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was in Denver to promote his new book, and he wouldn’t leave me alone. The senator and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, have co-written This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future (Public Affairs Books, $25).
I have always felt a strong identification with Sen. Kerry, except for the fact that he is senatorially tall and slender, with full, flowing grey locks that catch the sunlight just so and chiseled granite good looks, while I am short, bald and ugly. But we both were vigorous opponents of the Vietnam War, and … well, that’s all I can think of right now, but I’m sure other similarities will occur to me.
The senator, recognizing our long spiritual kinship, invited me to join in a four-way telephone conversation on Friday afternoon with himself, me and two other bloggers. I don’t know which is the sorrier situation: that I am now a “blogger,” or that U.S. senators and former presidential candidates are reduced to holding intimate conversations with the species.
Then the senator insisted that I attend his lecture and book signing at the Tattered Cover in LoDo on Sunday morning. He would reserve me a seat, he said. This meant I had to put off doing the New York Times crossword puzzle until the afternoon.
I arrived at the Tattered Cover about ten minutes before the anointed 11 a.m. starting hour. A gate keeper tried to hand me a ticket for the event. I waved her off. “Senator Kerry is saving me a seat,” I said.
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “I’m just supposed to give everybody one of these tickets.” I got number 169. She did, however, tell me that I could try my luck down the back corridor.
So I went and what do you know, he did save me a seat!. Right in the front row! With paper taped to the back of my chair with my name on it!
So I settled in with the crowd of about 250 politico-literati to wait. And this is where the trouble started.
For the two or three westerners who are unaware of it, I should explain that the Tattered Cover is one of the world’s great bookstores. Flogging your book in the woody reading room with the photographs of great American literary figures gazing down on you is a religious experience for some of us. I can say this because I flogged my own book — a novel — there a few years ago to an enraptured audience of, I don’t know, ten or twelve, half of whom were store employees. I still have the commemorative bookmark they gave me.
But the dynamic in a room full of 250 thirsty Democrats is different. Eleven a.m. came and went with no Kerrys in attendance. Then 11:15. The conversations in the room went from muted to noisy. By 11:25, they had gone from noisy to surly.
This communing with U.S. senators is not all lox and bagels. There are pitfalls. I worked as a writer and editor for Wyoming’s Casper Star-Tribune during much of the 1990s where, by reason of my expendability, I was designated to deal with Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo., ret.). If the senator killed me, I wouldn’t be much missed. Simpson at the time was Senate minority whip, a very important and powerful post. But he insisted on handling all media calls personally. If you had a question, you didn’t get the answer from a press secretary, or from a legislative aide. You got it from Al himself. Al had very little use for the Casper Star-Tribune or any of its minions, including me. While he growled at me for half an hour or so, clearly elucidating my incompetence and my failure to evolve as a fully sentient being, I would think to myself, “The man is minority whip. Doesn’t he have more important things to do?”
My relations with Senator Kerry had so far been more cordial, but I couldn’t be held responsible for what might happen if his appearance were delayed much longer. A reserved seat in the front row is all very nice, but it takes a stronger man that me to stand down a roomful of power-hungry Democrats. It was fewer and weaker than these who defeated the Persians at Thermopylae.
I’m willing to concede that the time of a ketchup heiress and a U.S senator/presidential nominee is more valuable than mine is. The New York Times crossword puzzle wasn’t going anywhere. But I’m not sure that a half hour each of their time — they finally arrived to thunderous applause at 11:30 a.m. — is more valuable than the cumulative time of all the people in the room. The one hour the two Kerrys used being late swallowed up roughly 125 hours of all the people they kept waiting. That’s a little over five days.
The senator said when he finally arrived, “We are pleased to be here. So many people have told us about this wonderful store, the Tattered Cover. They said that when you get here, you won’t want to leave, you’ll make it a second home. One of the reasons we are late, the weather on the East Coast is such that we may have to make this our home for a while.” This had the advantage of being charming, but the disadvantage of not explaining anything.
I had meant to offer him some tips from my own experience on how to wow the bookish Tattered Cover audience. But he didn’t need it. Clearly Kerry has spoken in public before. He was by turns funny, modest, self-assured, charming and informative. Teresa Heinz Kerry was, if anything, even more charming than he was when she spoke softly and knowledgeably in her lightly accented English.
But Kerry hadn’t come to just joke around. He was here to talk about serious matters: The Environment. Kerry said that he was heartened when he spoke to Americans during his presidential run.
In their book, the Kerrys write of the “new environmentalists” of the subtitle. They cited a couple of westerners: Janine Fitzgerald of Colorado, a rancher who is fighting coalbed methane development; and Helen Reddout of Washington, who battled to enforce water quality standards for dairy farms.
In the book, the Kerrys ask, “If a family has worked the land for six generations as ranchers, is it right that an energy company can drive holes through it, impose new roads across it, and abandon old wells without consent?”
It’s not right, if you ask me (though nobody did). But neither is it new. When I first moved west 30 years ago, these were the same issues that faced ranchers in that energy boom. And it was ranchers and allied environmentalists who took on those issues, just like the ones Kerry cites. The Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming was formed by ranchers, including the late Bill Barlow. Buffalo, Wyoming, native Lynn Dickey was the first director of the group. Tom Bell, a small rancher in Lander, Wyoming, founded the Wyoming Outdoor Council in 1971. At the time, Tom was virtually the only “environmentalist” between Omaha and Seattle. Wally McRae and allies formed the Northern Plains Resources Council in Montana to deal with coal energy issues there.
The scandal is that thirty years later people still have to fight over these very same issues, on which virtually no progress has been made, despite the good intentions of Sen. Kerry.
Kerry said, “I am sick and tired with the game that gets played, and it just gets worse. We need to call people to account on these issues. The American people are way ahead of the politicians in Washington.”
Sen. Kerry emphasized that the presentation was about their book, and not a political discussion, but the crowd had waited for him for quite a while now, wasn’t going to settle for that. One questioner urged him to try again for the presidency. Kerry dodged the question with his typical casual good humor and charm — and then noted aloud, “You notice how I dodged that question.” Hmmm.
Dan Whipple is a guest columnist for New West writing from Broomfield, Colorado. Find his “Due West” columns at www.newwest.net/duewest.