A picture of Senator Richard J. Durbin
Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Executive Session

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2013-01-29

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I believe the business before the Senate is the confirmation of John Kerry as Secretary of State, to which I would like to speak. I actually rise in support of two Senators, one former and one current, as America's Secretary of State.

    Last week, both were guests at the Foreign Relations Committee which I served on and both did an outstanding job. The Secretary of State, former Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, has served the U.S. interests with distinction. She championed a diversity of causes that strengthen our security and at the same time improved the lives of so many around the world, particularly women and children.

    Secretary Clinton leaves an incredible legacy in her diplomatic efforts. There is no one more suited or more qualified to take up the challenges and promise than my friend and colleague and our mutual friend Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

    John Kerry came to the Senate almost 30 years ago. From his first days as a freshman, he served with distinction on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a Navy patrol boat captain in the Vietnam war, he had notable and lasting exposure to complex foreign policy challenges and the wars that result when diplomacy fails.

    Certainly one lesson he brought back with him was the heavy and all too personal knowledge of the consequences of war. But his experience in representing the U.S. interests abroad did not begin in this institution. Rather, the journey to his nomination for Secretary of State began when John Kerry was a child, when his own father was a Foreign Service officer. John tells fond stories about his time as a child living in Berlin while his father was stationed there.

    During those years, he developed a profound respect for the men and women of the Foreign Service, their sacrifice, their dedication, and their ability to demonstrate the values of our democracy. During his tenure as a Senator from Massachusetts and from 2009 as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry has been a tireless leader on behalf of the American people to ensure that our security remains strong and our interests well represented around the world.

    He has been a leading voice on the Iran-Contra investigation, the war and fragile peace in Afghanistan, arms control and verification, building lasting ties with Pakistan, and perhaps in his most personal contribution, opening diplomatic relations with Vietnam. I would like to speak to that for a moment, if I can, because it is a personal story I would like to share.

    It was John Kerry and John McCain, more than any others, who moved us from that stage in our history where we shunned the people of Vietnam to the point where we recognized their country, established normal relations with them, and built a new relationship. There were no better Senators to do it than John Kerry and John McCain, both of whom were decorated veterans of the Vietnam war, both of whom gave so much in that conflict, particularly Senator McCain, spending 5 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. They worked hard to establish normal relations with that country and to put behind the bitterness and the war that had divided the two countries, the United States and Vietnam.

    It was not easy. One of the issues front and center was the question of prisoners of war and missing in action. There were all sorts of rumors and speculation that, in fact, there were still Americans being held prisoner in Vietnam. That rumor was very strong across America. There was a lot of criticism of the Vietnamese in not cooperating with us in trying to identify anyone still remaining or the remains of American soldiers who died in that conflict.

    John McCain and John Kerry came together and put an incredible bipartisan voice to resolving these issues. It came to my attention because it was about the time when I was elected to the Senate in 1996. I served in the House of Representatives with an extraordinary individual, Pete Peterson of Florida.

    Pete Peterson had been an Air Force pilot in the Vietnam war, shot down, and himself imprisoned in a POW camp for more than 5 years. He was a quiet person and did not talk much about it. But one day, I kind of provoked him at lunch, and he started talking about what it meant to live in isolation for 5 years, how they coped, how they survived, and the impact it still had on his life.

    President Clinton at that moment decided it would be a significant symbol that the first Ambassador of the United States to Vietnam would be Pete Peterson of Florida, a man who [[Page S351]] had been held as a POW by the Vietnamese would return as American's voice in that new country. He was brought before the Senate for confirmation.

    I remember saying to my staff when I came over here: Be sure and tell me when Pete Peterson's nomination comes to the floor. I want to say a few words about my friendship with him and what he means to me and how important this appointment is. Time passed. I did not hear anything. Then there was a ``60 Minutes'' program on that I happened to watch. It was all about Pete Peterson becoming the Ambassador to Vietnam. I came back to my staff. I was upset. I said: You were supposed to tell me when this happened so I could get up and give a speech and say something nice. They said: It never happened. ``60 Minutes'' is speculating. The fact is, Pete Peterson's nomination has been put on hold--a secret hold in the Senate.

    I could not believe it. I called Pete Peterson. I think he lived in Jupiter, FL, at the time. I said to him: Pete, what is going on here? He said: Dick, I am about to give up. It has been almost 1 year since President Clinton named me to the spot and I cannot clear the Senate. Somebody is holding me up. I do not know who it is. I have to get on with my life.

    I said: Let me at least talk to some people. So I came to the floor. The first person I looked for was John Kerry and then John McCain. They said: Yes; there is a hold, but we are trying to work through it.

    I said: You know, if you cannot get this done and done quickly, then I think there has to be a speech on the floor that says: Holding Pete Peterson in a POW camp for 5 years is bad enough, but the Senate holding his nomination as Ambassador is unforgivable. We need to vote on Pete Peterson. He has given so much to this country.

    It is credit to John Kerry and John McCain that they quieted down this new Member of the Senate and said: Let us get this done quietly. They did. Pete Peterson went on to serve as Ambassador in Vietnam. He was a widower at the time. He met a lovely young Vietnamese-Australian woman. They married. They now live in Australia and we keep in touch from time to time. But I think of that moment in time in our history when John Kerry and John McCain showed what diplomacy and careful consideration can do.

    We not only established relations with Vietnam, we sent a great individual to serve as its first Ambassador. They did it quietly and effectively. Can he be a great Secretary of State? You bet he can. I will be the first to tell you that I saw his skill firsthand when I came to the Senate. If confirmed, he will bring a breadth of experience to global challenges, some new and some which we cannot even anticipate as we debate this matter. The list is vast and formidable: Iran, Syrian, North Korea, cyber security, failed and fragile states, and democratic backsliding in Russia, to name a few.

    One of the issues John Kerry has tackled for many years that will desperately need attention, and the President highlighted in his inaugural address, is that of climate change. As was mentioned during his nomination hearing last week, climate change is the one of the most pressing and consequential issues of our time. It is not just an environmental issue, it is a moral issue. What kind of planet will our generation leave for our children and grandchildren? How will history judge us if we ignore the evidence and warning signs and do nothing to head off climate catastrophes? Senator Kerry is uniquely qualified to address this great moral challenge. He knows if we are ever going to get China and India to take responsibility for their carbon emissions, we have to start from a strong position of legitimacy, having taken these steps ourselves.

    He knows when the United States tackles climate change, it also increases our diplomatic standing and reputation around the world. He knows tackling climate change will help prevent a host of terrible global problems, from famine, water shortages to political instability, any of which can draw the United States into a costly or bloody conflict.

    Addressing climate change is in our vital national, economic, and security interests. I know John Kerry will tackle this and many other challenges that await him at the State Department. He has been a trusted and admired colleague of mine and so many others in the Senate. I have enjoyed his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I wish to especially thank him for calling the Convention on Disability Treaty for consideration by the Senate. I am sorry it did not pass, but it was not for lack of effort by John Kerry.

    His passionate pursuit of a safe and just Nation and world, his deep sense of patriotism and commitment to America's most challenged values are well documented. While I am sorry to lose him in the Senate as a colleague, I can think of no better person to serve as our Nation's next Secretary of State. I congratulate John Kerry on his nomination. As a friend and colleague, I urge my fellow Senators to swiftly confirm John Kerry so he can get about the work of making America a safer nation.

    I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

    The bill clerk proceeded to call the roll.

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