Sen. Kerry mends relationships with Pickens, Lieberman

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has worked to thaw once-icy relationships to advance his dream of passing climate change legislation.

Perhaps the most important relationship in need of mending was with his partner in the climate change battle, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

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But Lieberman wasn’t the only crucial ally Kerry worked to win over. He also buried an old grudge earlier this year with T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil tycoon who funded an attack campaign against Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004.

Kerry and Lieberman had a frosty relationship after the 2006 campaign season, when the former was one of only a few senators who went so far as to campaign in Connecticut for Ned Lamont, who was running against Lieberman in the general election. The others were Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).


Kerry challenged Lieberman over his support for the war in Iraq and attended an October campaign rally for Lamont, who defeated Lieberman in the Democratic primary.

“It was a rough spot in a long relationship,” said Lieberman, who ran against Lamont as an Independent after the primary.

Kerry’s support for Lamont was painful because Kerry and Lieberman have known each other since their college days at Yale. And Kerry helped recruit Lieberman to run for the Senate in 1987.

After Lieberman won reelection, Kerry sat down with him to repair the bruised relationship.

“I went to see him, I talked to him,” Kerry said. “I value his friendship.”

Kerry said he explained that he felt a responsibility to campaign for the Democratic nominee because he considered himself a standard-bearer for the party. Two years earlier, Kerry won the Democratic nomination for president, and he was eyeing another White House run in 2008.

In February, Kerry invited Pickens to his office to ask him to review his proposal to cap carbon emissions.

Pickens, who funded the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that essentially sank Kerry’s presidential hopes, was initially skeptical of Kerry’s cap-and-trade plan.

Pickens eventually came to see the Kerry-Lieberman climate proposal as a promising vehicle to advance his plan to boost domestic natural gas demand.

“I didn’t know [Kerry] that well until these discussions,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who participated in climate talks with Kerry. “I’ve been very impressed with how committed he is to solving this problem.

“He sat down with Boone Pickens in my presence and they buried the hatchet and John couldn’t have been nicer,” Graham added.

Graham also said he saw no lingering hint of tension in Kerry’s relationship with Lieberman.

“When it comes to Sen. Lieberman, they’ve really formed a good working relationship,” Graham said. “I know they had their differences, but I must say that both of them have pursued this with a passion and a willingness to compromise.”

Throughout the 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry was criticized for not enacting a signature piece of legislation in the Senate. Six years later, Kerry is a major player in what would be the most significant revamping of the nation’s energy laws in decades.

Kerry’s personable approach to putting together a coalition to pass climate change legislation cuts against his reputation as one of the Senate’s more aloof members.

“It’s just a misunderstanding,” said David DiMartino, a former aide who served Kerry over five years. “He approaches things with a level of seriousness that people mistake for aloofness.

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“Kerry worked 25 years in the shadow of Ted Kennedy, who was a perennial Senate backslapper,” DiMartino added. “Kerry was always taken as someone a little detached. The reality is he spends a lot of time on his relationships. He’s loyal to the people he works with.”

Kerry will be tested this Thursday when Senate Democrats meet to discuss how to proceed on comprehensive energy reform legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may bring an energy bill to the floor that will not include the Kerry-Lieberman proposal to cap carbon emissions. Kerry must convince his colleagues to include the controversial proposal in the bill before it reaches the floor, giving it a better chance of passage.

Current and former Kerry aides say the lawmaker has a history of reaching out to former adversaries to win their support for important battles.

Twenty years ago, Kerry had to ease a tense relationship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to win his support for the work of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, which Kerry chaired.

McCain, a former prisoner of war and a staunch supporter of the American mission in Vietnam, disapproved of Kerry’s participation in anti-war demonstrations after returning home from combat. 

McCain eventually came to work with Kerry on the panel after Kerry met with him to discuss their disagreements over the divisive war.

“They had met to talk about their differences on the Vietnam War before they joined the POW/MIA committee,” said Larry Carpman, who served as Kerry’s spokesman at the time. “They realized they had different points of view but they brought gravitas to the issue.

“They knew that both working on the issue would put it in more accurate perspective for the American people,” Carpman added.

Kerry also won over the Republican vice chairman of the special committee, then-Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), one of the chamber’s most conservative members.

Kerry and Smith often clashed on the panel, but emerged from the process as friends. Smith endorsed Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004.

Chris Greeley, a former aide and longtime friend of Kerry’s, said, “Those who know him and those who experienced that graciousness [and] civility — they know that getting the job done is bigger than any personal grudge.”