Remembering John Adler

By Sen. John Kerry

A busy week with the work we’re engaged in on the special committee on the economy and the deficit, and obviously right now all of us up and down the east coast are buttoning up and getting ready for Irene’s arrival this weekend. Still, I wanted to take a few minutes to post something that has nothing to do with politics, it just has to do with the spirit and memory of a very good friend of mine, former Congressman John Adler.

It’s been almost five months since we lost John, and this week would’ve been John’s 52nd birthday. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone, let alone gone so unbelievably young. Particularly as I look not too distantly into the future at 70, and Teresa and I both revel in grandchildren, it’s a particular shock to think that John Adler, who was so full of energy and so proud of his family, won’t get to have those experiences many of us take for granted.

Still, something happened this week that made me smile thinking of John, and made me proud to see his widow Shelley carrying on in the causes and commitments that animated John as a public servant: on Tuesday, on what would’ve been John’s 52nd birthday, Shelley launched the John Adler Memorial Fund for Veterans’ Affairs at Harvard, John’s alma mater.

Other than his family, and public service itself, no issue defined John’s passion more than veterans — in the couple years he spent in Congress, he didn’t just serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, he made it a platform to demand fairness — and specifically to demand accountability from the VA for botched prostate cancer treatments at veteran’s hospitals. It was a crusade for him, but not a surprising one, because before he ever got a chance to come to Washington, in the New Jersey Senate, John was one of the real forces of nature behind the 2008 law that expanded voting rights for military personnel and state citizens living abroad to include state and local elections. He had a deep conviction — even though he’d never worn the uniform himself — that no American who had served should ever get the short end of the stick from their government whether in Trenton or Washington.

And so there’s something I know John Adler would be really proud of to know that spirit — that instinct — that commitment — is living on in his name.

But there’s something more I keep thinking about when I remember John. And that’s the urgency his life and his death underscore for all of us in politics, which is that because you never know when it’s going to end, you better spend every day leaving behind something you’re proud of. The word legacy is almost too high fallutin.’ It’s simpler than that. It’s just about being a good public servant and trying to get something good done, no matter how bitter or difficult the times.

John did that. He never let any grass grow under his feet. He wasn’t just a young man in a hurry, he knew where he was going — he knew what he wanted to get done for people, and people respected that about him which is why he was the first Democrat elected to represent his traditionally Republican congressional district in New Jersey since the late 19th century. He was only 28 when he was elected to the Cherry Hill Township Council. Just three years later, he was elected to the New Jersey State Senate, where he served until his election to Congress. And through it all, John was a Pied Piper whom people were happy to follow — from his town hall meetings and his epic door-knocking, he broke down barriers and he just put it out there what he stood for and cared about. (He did the same thing for me in the snow-covered neighborhoods of New Hampshire — even when a lot of people thought he was delusional when the polls didn’t give us much of a shot.) That was John Adler — a guy we lost way too soon, but who left behind an example that — quite frankly — a lot of people in Washington should study in times like these.

But today, I’m thinking especially of the wife John left behind — Shelley — who through this project at Harvard — has given all of us a lesson in how to keep a spirit and a legacy very much alive. And I know most of all that John Adler is looking down very proud of her. Remembering John Adler