John Kerry as Secretary of State

January 2, 2013

John Kerry as Secretary of State

By W Scott Thompson

W Scott Thompson is emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, United States

COLOURFUL LIFE: A decorated war veteran and itinerant politician, John Kerry’s time as US Secretary of State will be interesting.

John Kerry

JOHN Kerry, in the new role of United States Secretary of State, will have reached his summit: not the one he hoped for (as President), for which he ran in 2004, but a fine mountain top indeed. Even, and especially, his Republican colleagues pressed President Barack Obama to appoint him and some deliberately messed with the candidacy of Ambassador Susan Rice to see that Kerry got what he so craved.

His career didn’t start auspiciously. Kerry rented and bought places in three different Massachusetts districts while trying to ferret out which one might prove most hospitable to a congressional run by a young wealthy guy from a different part of the state. He earned the reputation of a carpetbagger, too clever by half.

In his first run though, he shot himself in the foot even while fighting long odds. His brother was arrested on election eve in a break-in that though the differences are substantial, reminded everyone of the all-too-recent Watergate break-ins. It seemed that Kerry would do anything to get ahead. He lost that round soundly, went to law school and soon worked — to the astonishment of his liberal friends — in the district prosecutor’s office. His personal life also got messy.

I recall something more from that period than the break-in. The legendary Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt was visiting my wife and I in Boston in the late 1970s, and I asked him if he wanted me to invite the Kerrys to dinner. Only that one time I saw Bud lose his cool. He told me that his men had to practically restrain Kerry, but Kerry managed decorations for heroism nevertheless. Bud was at the material time Naval Chief for Vietnam, and it was exactly those riverine moves that he presided over and for which Kerry was to claim such fame.

A personal reminiscence suffices. The Kerrys came to my 40th birthday party, held in a large tent behind our house, and wife Julia gave me a large box of notepads with my name at the top and a musical notation background. It seemed especially kind given my known love of classical music — I often staged string quartets at home. A month later a friend noted that the background was from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the famous aria La Liste where his valet Leporello unrolls a long list of the Don’s conquests from Rome to Madrid. Julia was sending a message. Sure enough Kerry’s philandering was soon public gossip and the two divorced, to Julia’s great pain (even serious depression, about which she wrote a book).

Kerry moved along. He built a fine political machine and in the 1980s won a Senate seat. His larger ambition was no secret and in 2004 he won the nomination for the presidency. He lost but he did one thing that helped with today’s appointment. He invited a young African-American state politician from Illinois to keynote the convention. That speech electrified the nation and propelled one Barack Obama into history’s most remarkable national election just four years later.

During the 2004 campaign, I returned to the US to watch. At a dinner where I was the only one not directly involved in high levels of the Kerry apparat, I asked about the role of the new wife, the billionaire Ms Heinz-Kerry as she calls herself (honouring the source of the fortune, her first husband also a senator who was killed in a plane crash). I had seen her bulldozing around Washington. I sensed delicacy in the response and picked up that Kerry was smart and savvy, but just not a strong person.

But on 9/11 he came over to the Fletcher School, my home base, to give a speech of assurance that students from the Middle East were secure and not to take fright from the overwhelming public outrage. So he was developing guts.

Kerry evolved into a very statesman-looking fellow after his presidential election defeat. No longer was his fluent French a debit; indeed now it’s a strong asset. As chair of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee he has travelled the world and been involved one way or the other in almost every major contentious issue America is involved in. Life is developmental, Freud tells us. I think we can readily overlook Kerry’s overweening ambition as a young man. After all, he’s made it, and we can hope he can bring an unusual variety of experience to bear on a very difficult job.–

4 thoughts on “John Kerry as Secretary of State

  1. Hillary Clinton will be a tough act to follow, even for a political veteran like Senator John Kerry. Mrs. Clinton worked very hard and traveled extensively to put American diplomacy (not military might) back on track. I hope she is fine and will take a good rest before planning for her next major undertaking. As far Kerry, we can only pray that he will not be flip flopping with US foreign policy.–Din Merican

  2. Huh? I did not say she died. Joe Biden was supposed to step down as Vice President.
    Why should Joe step down as Vice President. He is an important link between the White House and the Senate.–Din Merican

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