John Kerry and Water Sports: An Unfortunate History

The secretary of state is being mocked for staying on his yacht as Egypt erupts. His latest troubled encounter with the sea.

It's a holiday week, but as you may have noticed, there are some events going on in the world -- most notably, a coup in a major U.S. ally in the Middle East. You know, the sort of thing that would probably concern you if you were the secretary of state.

John Kerry spent much of Wednesday dealing with goings-on in Egypt. According to the State Department, Kerry participated in a National Security Council meeting and also spoke with the foreign ministers of Norway, Qatar, and Turkey; talked to Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei; had five conversations with American Ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson. He also made the mistake of being photographed in a kayak on Nantucket the day of the coup. The Boston Herald has the pics. Embarrassingly, Foggy Bottom had to reverse a previous denial that Kerry was on his yacht and admit that he had briefly been there.

Of course, there's no reason why, in an era of modern communications, the secretary can't work effectively from a resort island in Massachusetts, but this is just the sort of tempest in a teapot custom-made for a slow Friday in the summer. Between the pictures and the message confusion, it's a goofy unforced error, and conservatives have lost no time capitalizing on it; a Republican strategist quipped to the Herald that Kerry should be on a plane to the Middle East, not a boat. The setting is what makes it so eyeroll-worthy. If Kerry had been seen at a barbecue, no one would bat an eye. But on board a $7 million yacht? It just doesn't seem like he's working hard. 

The incident fits a pattern for Kerry: a strange penchant for foppish gaffes involving water sports. First, of course, there was the epic television ad that George W. Bush ran against Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign. Using footage of Kerry windsurfing and comparing his zig-zagging to a supposed propensity to change his positions, the spot became a devastatingly iconic attack, forever tying Kerry's name to the sport:

Then fast-forward to 2010, when then-Senator Kerry admitted that he had listed the home port for the yacht, Isabel, as being in Rhode Island, rather than Nantucket -- a move that saved him half a million dollars in taxes. Under criticism, he voluntarily cut a $500,000 check to the state of Massachusetts to cover the sales tax.

Not that Kerry has any better luck with sports on frozen water -- in January 2012, he was spotted in Washington with an impressive black eye he got while playing hockey.

The secretary can rest assured that his boss doesn't seem bothered about it. The Twitter handle @BarackObama -- now run by Organizing for Action, the Obama-affiliated outgrowth of his presidential campaign -- tweeted this out this afternoon. It could be a coincidence, but given OFA's usual web-savvy, it sure looks like an intentional gag making fun of the boat blow up:

As for the president? Well, he's on the golf course today.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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