For a change, people were laughing with John Kerry, not at him.
Through much of his political career, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, his party’s 2004 presidential nominee, was easily lampooned for his awkward self-importance. But when he showed up in Foggy Bottom on Monday for his first day as secretary of state, Kerry delivered punch lines without strain or struggle.
“So here’s the big question that’s before the country and the world and the State Department after the last eight years,” he told hundreds of diplomats who packed the State Department lobby to greet him. “Can a man actually run the State Department?”
As the laughter and applause died down, he added, “As the saying goes, I have big heels to fill.”
He went on to describe riding his bicycle into East Berlin as a 12-year-old when his father was serving as a diplomat. “If the tabloids today knew I had done that, I can see the headlines that say, ‘Kerry’s early communist connections,’ ” he quipped.
He continued, easily and smoothly, for just 14 minutes (in the Senate, it took him that long just to clear his throat), without notes and with obvious joy at beginning what he called the “great adventure” of being the nation’s top diplomat.
Mentioning the cubicle he occupied during the transition between Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure and his, Kerry told his new colleagues, “I cannot tell you how great it feels to, sort of, be liberated. . . . I’ve been freed.”
This was true on multiple levels. Kerry, after much striving, was finally where he belonged. At 69, he is in the job he had trained for his whole life — as a diplomat’s son, as a military man, as a young politician in a hurry, as a failed presidential candidate and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Often rumored to be in line for the post in the past, Kerry was palpably joyful to have the prized assignment.
“This — this is beyond a pleasure,” he told the diplomats.
Not since John Quincy Adams, perhaps, has a man been bred to be secretary of state as John Kerry has. A son of the world and a scion of privilege, he struggled to demonstrate the common touch, mocked in 2004 for his windsurfing and his French. But for this job he’s well-suited, literally: He wore a lustrous blue suit and a salmon-pink tie for his first day; as he was being introduced, he fished in his jacket sleeve for his shirt cuff, making it peek out that perfect half-inch.
The crowd, although not quite as large as the one for Clinton’s departure on Friday, was as adoring as any Kerry has seen since ’04. One man carried a hand-lettered sign that read, “WELCOME JFK”; some women shouted from the balcony in unison: “Mr. Secretary!” Kerry, preceded by a security squadron, waved, shook hands and chatted up his audience — even the reporters. “We’ll catch up!” he called out to Time magazine’s Jay Newton-Small.
“What’s your first priority?” Newton-Small asked.
“Find my office!” he returned. (This may not be as easy as it sounds; it took this reporter 30 minutes, and multiple redirections, to gain admission to the State Department lobby.)
“If I’m wandering around the building later,” Kerry cautioned his new colleagues, “and I, sort of, wind up in your office, it’s not because I’m there for a meeting. It’s because I’m lost and I need directions.”
He began with the requisite praise for his predecessor, then invoked the memory of the Americans killed in the assault on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, last year. “I guarantee you that beginning this morning when I report for duty upstairs, everything I do will be focused on the security and safety of our people,” he said.
Later, he held up the green diplomatic passport he had as a 4-foot-3, brown-haired child (“There’s a picture of a little 11-year-old John Kerry — and, no, you will not get to see it”). He described his passage to Europe (“the United States government sent us over, the entire family, first class — don’t get any ideas”). And he recalled his unauthorized visit to East Berlin (“When my dad learned what I had done, he was not enthralled. . . . My passport, this very passport, was promptly yanked, and I was summarily grounded”).
“But that was a great adventure,” Kerry said. “And I will tell you, 57 years later, today, this is another great adventure.”
In the applause that followed his remarks, Kerry pressed his palms together for the crowd, as if in a prayer of thanks.