The phrase "strange bedfellows" doesn't even begin to describe the relationship between Sen. John Kerry and T. Boone Pickens. The former is an avowed environmentalist and a Massachusetts Democrat who campaigned for president in 2004. The other is a Texas conservative whose ventures in oil have yielded him billions—a chunk of which he used to underwrite the infamous “Swift Boat” ads that fatally wounded that very same campaign.
Letting bygones be bygones may also be an inadequate way to characterize how the two have reconciled with the past. Both men have always shared the broad goal of transitioning to a clean and secure energy future. But earlier this month reporters were surprised by the revelation that the two men hadn't just met cordially, but they appeared to be forming an alliance of sorts to push an energy bill through the Senate this year.
The person bearing the onus to forgive has been Kerry, who was faced with a $2 million ad campaign funded substantially by Pickens that questioned his patriotism and military service just weeks before the 2004 election. But late last month, against the advice of aides, the senator called up Pickens at his home in Texas and invited him to Washington to talk about how they could "work together," according to a source familiar with the discussion, who asked not to be identified speaking about a personal conversation. "He told [Pickens] that he wanted to put the past behind them and figure out a way to work together," the source says. The meeting included aides of both men, as well as Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has been working to cosponsor an energy bill with Kerry. (Despite a report by Politico claiming that Sen. Lindsey Graham was also present, Graham's office tells NEWSWEEK that he did not attend.) "It was a productive meeting in which the two…[talked] about the serious energy issues facing America," says Jay Rosser, a Pickens spokesman.
When it comes down to specifics, the approaches of both men are strikingly different. Kerry has been the main driver of energy and climate legislation in the Senate, pushing several cap-and-trade measures to reduce carbon emissions and spur innovation in renewable sources. Pickens has spent much of the past two years hosting town halls and editorial-board meetings to push his Pickens Plan, aimed at reducing oil imports for national-security purposes by building technology for natural gas and blanketing the middle of the country with wind turbines. But both have met significant resistance. Senate Republicans remain opposed to any climate legislation that will constrain industry, which any of the current proposals inevitably would. Pickens's plan, meanwhile, hit speed bumps last year when corridors for transmission lines to transport power from the proposed wind farms, which the plan depended on government mandates to provide, were slow to materialize.
Yet even though Kerry's motive is environmental protection and Pickens is driven by energy security, the two may well work most effectively in tandem. Both see the best outcome for their causes to be a broad energy bill that includes almost everything: nuclear subsidies, carbon-sequestration research grants, wind and solar incentives, and natural-gas expansion efforts. Such a bill would not aggressively confront climate change with emissions-reduction mandates, but the Obama administration has already suggested that climate legislation by itself would be difficult to pass this year. Kerry's environmental credentials and the 1.6 million online supporters of Pickens's plan could go a long way toward forging a legislative compromise.
Sources close to both men say that at the end of the meeting, Kerry asked Pickens to take a look at his cap-and-trade plan, to which Pickens replied that he was still "very skeptical" of such a proposal. But the two did agree on the ambitious goal of trying to get a bill to the president's desk by Memorial Day. "They know that working together will get them a lot further than if they go after their goals individually," says a Democratic aide not authorized to speak on the record, who was as surprised as anyone to see Pickens leave the office of a man sometimes described as his "archenemy". And here we thought bipartisanship was dead.