The good news for Secretary of State John Kerry is that the right femur he fractured while bicycling in France last May—during a respite from those testy nuclear negotiations in Geneva with Iran—has healed nicely.
Kerry, a fit 71-year-old with a perfectly silver mane, bounded onto the stage of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Thursday night as though his excruciating accident never happened.
Venturing into comedy mode, he even attempted a joke about a sketch in the previous segment in which an actor playing an indigent Marco Rubio staffer named Tyler sat in Colbert’s lap while the talk show host stroked his face.
“Tyler’s not gonna jump in my lap, is he?” Kerry quipped.
“If you give him some cash, he will,” Colbert replied. “How much do you miss fundraising?”
“Zero,” Kerry murmured, making the “0” gesture with his thumb and index finger. “It’s the worst thing in the world.” Not having to dial for dollars is “one of the great things about this job.”
“You don’t have to ask anybody for money—just not end the world,” Colbert mused.
What a lovely, light-hearted moment.
The rest of the show, however, was as excruciating as a broken leg, but in a different way.
Like a fading movie actor half-heartedly plugging his latest project, which you could tell he knew was a dog and certain to bomb at the box office, Kerry recited his rosy explications and defenses of the Obama administration’s failed attempts to solve problems around the globe.
Our vicar of foreign policy (as Kerry’s long-ago predecessor, Alexander Haig, once described the job), repeated his well-worn pitch on the benefits of the recently concluded deal with the truculent, sneaky, saber-rattling mullahs to slow Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. He uttered a lot of strange phrases not normally heard on late-night television—“enriched fissile material,” “nuclear fuel cycle,” “additional protocol,” and so on and so forth.
And Kerry bravely tried to locate a bright side in the escalating catastrophe in Syria, where our well-muscled frenemy, Vladimir Putin, has begun raining fiery hell on our “moderate rebel” allies who seek to depose Russia’s client-dictator, the bloody Bashar al-Assad, instead of Putin’s stated purpose of attacking the beheaders of the Islamic State.
But the sporadically obsequious talk show host—who, in a depressing development last week, actually apologized to Donald Trump for some well-deserved jokes—wasn’t buying it.
During the first of two segments in which the navy-pinstriped diplomat (wearing, as apparently is required by every U.S. public official, an American flag lapel pin) submitted himself to Colbert’s interrogation, the comic made little effort to conceal his skepticism.
“Congratulations—I assume. I don’t know,” Colbert began his grilling on the Iran deal. “Some people say you’ve saved us. Some people say you’ve killed us. Which do you think it is?”
Kerry chuckled—mirthlessly, as with every single one of his subsequent chuckles.
“Tell me why, if I’m someone who thinks you capitulated like Neville Chamberlain, why that’s wrong?” Colbert persisted, citing the ineffectual British prime minister who was duped by Adolf Hitler into believing the fuhrer’s promise that he wouldn’t continue hostilities if he was allowed to annex a bit of Czechoslovakia.
“For the simple reason that Neville Chamberlain relied on words,” Kerry argued. “There was no agreement. He simply listened to what Hitler said.”
“He held up a piece of paper and said ‘I got us peace in our time,’” Colbert pointed out.
If Secretary Kerry had expected the same comfy free ride that Colbert granted to Trump, he must have been stunned at his host’s grumpy rebelliousness.
“Aren’t we kicking the nuclear can down the road 15 years?” Colbert demanded, “letting somebody else’s secretary of state—Secretary of State Taylor Swift—letting her deal with this 15 years from now?”
“Better than Gary Busey,” Kerry bantered, possibly hoping with a sense of relief that they had finally entered the entertainment portion of the program.
“How can we trust them if they believe we’re the ultimate evil?” Colbert asked. “Why wouldn’t they lie to us in order just to get what they want, because they don’t owe us anything—because we’re evil?”
“Well, they might, Stephen,” Kerry conceded. “But this was not ever intended to solve all of our problems with Iran... So the first objective was to deal with a nuclear weapon. And we had a very targeted, disciplined effort here, where we did not get sidetracked into other issues. Some people think we should have, and there’s been some criticism of us for that.”
Indeed there has been a great deal of criticism, and it would have been gratifying if Colbert had asked Kerry why the United States didn’t secure Iran’s release of four unjustly imprisoned American citizens, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.
Colbert dropped the ball there, but did yeoman work after the commercial break, pressing Kerry on the Syrian disaster—and the U.S.’s role in it.
“What’s the plan in Syria?” Colbert asked. “And, as follow-up question, is there a plan in Syria?”
Kerry laughed mirthlessly again, flashing a “you-scamp-you!” grin at his harasser.
“Both questions are fair. Yes and yes. The plan is that we’re gonna continue to put pressure on ISIL”—the Obama administration’s preferred acronym for the so-called Islamic State, whose operations and increasing territory grabs have been barely hindered by American bombing runs.
Colbert noted that now that the Russians have launched their own military campaign, “they’re flying and we’re flying. Two great superpowers flying over a war-torn country. What could possibly go wrong, sir? Does that make you nervous at all?”
“Sure,” Kerry admitted, and then recounted various meetings with his Russian counterparts to discuss “deconflicting” the situation.
“Deconflicting,” Colbert repeated, hammily scribbling on a notepad. “That’s a new one for me.”
“It’s a lousy word,” Kerry admitted.
“I’m sure it’s a good goal,” Colbert retorted with a soupcon of sarcasm.
After Kerry catalogued the various ongoing atrocities and millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the carnage, Colbert wondered: “Who are we helping? The ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria? Who are the good guys? Are there any good guys?”
Kerry claimed there are—probably the beleaguered refugees are an example—and claimed, in the sort of diplo-speak that George Orwell might have appreciated, that the U.S. is “working very hard on a political track for Assad to transition over a period of time in a structured, managed way.”
“How do you get him to leave?” Colbert asked. “He has done such terrible things” to stay in power. “Do you tease him out with a piece of cheese at the border?”
“There are ways to do it,” Kerry answered, without specifying them, except to encourage “the Russians to persuade Assad to be the savior of his country, not the killer of his country.”
This, about a tyrant who is responsible so far for more than 200,000 dead Syrians, deploying poison gas and barrel bombs among other lethal weapons.
After Colbert’s dismantling of Kerry’s arguments and the credibility of current U.S. foreign policy, I rather doubt that the secretary will be appearing on too many more late-night talk shows in the foreseeable future.