Kerry Yachted While Egypt Burned. So What?

But does it matter?


The National Republican Senatorial Committee released a YouTube video over the weekend criticizing Secretary of State Kerry for being on his yacht off the Massachusetts island of Nantucket during the coup in Egypt.

Actually, it's a two-pronged criticism. One part, so far as can be discerned from the video, is that Kerry was on his pleasure craft rather than hunkered down in some secure office at Foggy Bottom or the White House basement. The second part of the criticism is that Kerry's staff initially denied that he was on the boat, but later, after photographs appeared, conceded it. 

The Kerry yacht kerfuffle got additional traction after the secretary's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry (who may, in fact, be the controlling owner of the yacht), took ill, generating renewed press coverage such as a New York Times dispatch reporting that Kerry "came under criticism when he went boating on the day that President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was ousted by the military. The State Department flatly denied that he had been on a boat that day, only to retract that two days later." 

To say I'm not a big fan of Secretary Kerry, as a general matter, would be understating it.  And the complaints about the confusion or lack of candor in describing his activities and whereabouts seem to be at least somewhat justified. The famous definition of a diplomat, after all, is someone sent abroad to lie for his country, not someone who lies to his own country about what the Secretary of State is up to.

But that said, on the basic question of faulting an administration official for spending the day before July 4 at a vacation home rather than in Washington, D.C., it takes a major dose of chutzpah for the Republicans to go after Kerry. President George W. Bush, after all, spent all or part of 490 days of his presidency at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and all or part of 487 days of his presidency at the presidential retreat at Camp David. Young America's Foundation, which now owns the Reagan Ranch in California's Santa Barbara County, reports that Ronald Reagan spent "a full year's time there" during his two terms as president.

There are some takeaway points to remember for summer vacation season beyond the partisan hypocrisy, which is bipartisan in Washington (the same Democrats who were critical of Reagan and Bush for their vacations are now defending Captain Kerry).

No matter how powerful and important you are or think you are, it's still a good idea to get away from the office sometimes.  The change of pace and scenery might prove refreshing and beneficial, inspirational even. The paradox is that all the smartphones, laptop computers, wireless Internet access, and other technology that make it easier to "get away from the office" also make it harder to "get away from the office," because even if you are physically distant you can still be in touch. 

Finally, even if Kerry had been in Washington, what power would he have had? American policy toward Egypt is a matter in which the State Department has a voice, but the final say, within the constitutional constraints of the Congressional appropriation power, belongs to President Obama. Even Obama's own influence, while substantial, has limits, as it should: in the end control in Cairo is up to the citizens of Egypt, not Obama or Kerry.

Some may interpret Kerry's appearance on the yacht during the crisis as a sign of callous American disregard for the fate of an important Middle Eastern country. But it can just as easily be seen the way Reagan's brush-clearing or horseback riding was — a kind of confidence that the job can be managed in a way that doesn't interfere with fun. How it is seen around the world depends less on the leisure activity than on what gets done during work time, and on pre-established notions about the character of the politicians doing the working or playing.