epa04382822 US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) is joined by five former US Secretaries of State (L-R) Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, at the reception before the groundbreaking ceremony for the US Diplomacy Center, at the State Department in Washington DC, USA, 03 September 2014. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)
Opinion writer September 3, 2014

It was all going well until John Kerry tried to kill off George Shultz.

The secretary of state was welcoming five of his predecessors to the State Department’s groundbreaking ceremony for a new museum of diplomacy Wednesday when he inadvertently eliminated one. “Join me, all of you, in thanking five of our six living former secretaries of state,” he said.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

There were murmurs in the crowd and confused glances onstage. There are seven living former secretaries of state.

Kerry likely forgot about the 93-year-old Shultz, who, though not in attendance, is still very much alive. Or perhaps Kerry was symbolically eliminating Condi Rice, also absent; she was, after all, a key adviser to the man who defeated him for the presidency in 2004.

Kerry didn’t clarify. He looked down the row of luminaries seated on the stage: 91-year-old Henry Kissinger, 84-year-old James Baker, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, both 77, and Hillary Clinton, 66.

“They all look so great,” said the 70-year-old Kerry. “It makes me — I’m sort of thinking, 2016, okay!”

There was weak laughter in the room. Clinton did not look amused.

The early front-runner to be the next president did get a vote from Kissinger, if his Delphic utterance was properly understood. “We know we will never do anything more challenging in our lives,” he said of the former secretaries on the stage. “I would say all of us except one,” he added.

The assembled diplomats were some of the key figures in American foreign policy over half a century, from Vietnam and the Cold War to Iraq and Afghanistan and the unstable new era. Sharing the stage were the first woman to be secretary of state and the first African American, the victors of the Gulf War, the most celebrated foreign-policy strategist of our time and, possibly, the first woman president.

But they are also political figures — four of them had run for president, considered it or been urged to run — and they embraced their chance to weigh in on current affairs. Baker, a Republican, spoke of “tough times like today, as crisis brews in the Ukraine, the entire Middle East burns, tensions rise in the Far East and terrorism grows stronger, not weaker.” Kerry nodded slightly — or perhaps it was a flinch.

Albright, a Democrat, had a different take: “I was very proud to listen to President Obama today in Estonia really saying how we have to defend our allies and our values.”

The wisest, as usual, was Kissinger, now stooped and unsteady in his walk but still in possession of that rumbling voice and enduring accent. “The organizers are anguishing at this moment to see how long it will take me to place my first verb,” he quipped. But his words were brief and potent, and there seemed to be an implicit lesson for the current administration in his advice that “it is imperative to outline the concept of what our country is trying to do, to prevent foreign policy from becoming a series of tactical issues.”

A few of the returning secretaries offered some self-justification for the history books.

“I prioritized the promotion of core values such as democracy and human dignity,” asserted Albright.

Clinton boasted that “we did build a digital division to amplify our messaging across a broad range of platforms, from Twitter and Facebook to Flickr, Tumblr and beyond.”

Powell, who famously made the case for the Iraq war on what turned out to be bad intelligence, said that “with diplomacy we do everything we can to prevent wars.”

But Wednesday was a time for mutual praise and back-patting. Clinton, in a trademark pantsuit, remarked on Albright’s brooch selection and uttered the phrase “from Benjamin Franklin to John Kerry.” Kerry spoke of the “revered” Powell, the “moral leadership” of Albright, the “tough Texas poker player” Baker, and how Kissinger “gave us the vocabulary of modern diplomacy.”

Kerry, the 68th secretary of state, told the audience, “I’m very privileged to be here with 56, 61, 64, 67,” he said. Powell, overlooked, raised his hand. “And 65,” Kerry added.

The groundbreaking for the future U.S. Diplomacy Center began with a before-noon cocktail reception and ended with the six secretaries outside the 21st Street entrance to the State Department, each holding a silver spade embossed with the State emblem. They dug up about a tablespoon apiece of earth in the 90-degree heat and then were promptly relieved of their digging implements as they exited the construction site via a carpeted walkway. “They wouldn’t even let us keep the shovel,” groused Baker.

Of course not. Kerry had already eliminated one former secretary of state. They couldn’t afford to lose another.

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