With Friday’s announcement by President Barack Obama that he had nominated Sen. John Kerry to become the next secretary of state, the Massachusetts Democrat would go from a diplomat’s son to the nation’s top diplomat – overcoming a few setbacks along the way.
The lantern-jawed and lanky senator had hoped to be winding down his second term in the White House by now but was defeated in 2004 by incumbent President George W. Bush. He longed to be Obama’s secretary of state four years ago only to be bypassed for Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Democratic primary rival.
But after each political disappointment Kerry did what Senate colleagues who’ve watched his career say he always does: He went back to work.
“The defining feature of John Kerry is whatever the setback, he gets back in the saddle,” said Karl Inderfurth, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs during Bill Clinton’s presidency. “He’s clearly a fighter – he gets back up.”
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Republicans outside the Capitol seemed eager to raise questions about Kerry, but inside the Senate, colleagues had praise. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called him a "very popular choice," and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, "I don't anticipate any surprises." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., maintained Kerry was "a popular choice with the Senate."
In nominating Kerry to replace Clinton as secretary of state, Obama has chosen a decorated Vietnam Navy veteran who exploded onto the political scene by protesting the war, an ambitious but deliberate lawmaker well-versed in international affairs and treaties, and an avid athlete who hasn’t let hip replacement surgery stop him from playing in rough and tumble ice hockey games. He showed up at a White House event last January with a broken nose and two black eyes courtesy of a friendly pickup game back home.
“He knows most of the leaders and the hot spots of the world, he’s a known quantity on the world stage, he’s had 20 years of experience on the Foreign Relations Committee, he understands the Congress, he has a lot of friends over here,” said Graham, who was among a group of Republican senators who opposed Obama’s presumed support of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to replace Clinton. “What he brings to the table is continuity. It’s not bringing in someone from part of the foreign policy world that people don’t know who they are or generally what they believe.”
Not everyone laud’s Kerry’s political skills. Some Democrats still maintain that he lost to Bush in 2004 because he failed to quickly and forcefully respond to a controversial group that launched ads that challenged Kerry’s military record, which was one of the cornerstones of his failed presidential campaign.
Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign suggested that Kerry’s political career has been more style than substance, a charge echoed by some Massachusetts political observers. In 2004, the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org determined that only 11 bills that Kerry authored passed during his Senate career at that point.
“He kind of reminds me of the actor Bill Murray,” said Thomas Whalen, associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. “He has all this talent, but what’s he have to show for it? He doesn’t have any legislative achievements.”
But several foreign affairs experts argue that while Kerry’s penmanship may not be on significant pieces of legislation, his imprint and influence on U.S. foreign policy is. Obama tapped Kerry for sensitive diplomatic missions to Pakistan in May 2011, shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed there, and to Afghanistan at times when tensions were running high between Washington, Islamabad and Kabul.
“He’ll be remembered as someone who was very active on foreign policy,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “He played a significant role behind the scenes.”
As Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Kerry has embraced the traditional role of “a statesman on several issues,” West said. In the waning years of the Bush administration, Kerry took a leading role in trying to end the Iraq war, often losing by lopsided votes with efforts to tie the U.S. to a withdrawal date.
In 2010, he pressed for ratification of a “New START” nuclear arms treaty with Russia, overcoming fierce Republican resistance by sometimes tossing Senate collegiality and diplomacy-speak aside to accuse Republicans of political foot-dragging on a pact desperately wanted by the Obama administration.
“Kerry has demonstrated that he’s loyal and solid, he’s been a good soldier on several diplomatic assignments that were almost ‘Mission Impossible,’” Inderfurth said.
John Forbes Kerry was born Dec. 11, 1943, in Denver, the son of Rosemary Forbes Kerry, a member of one of Boston’s wealthy upper-class Brahmin families, and Richard Kerry, who served in the U.S. Foreign Service. Growing up, Kerry lived in Berlin and attended a Swiss boarding school. He graduated from Yale University in 1966 and earned a law degree from Boston College in 1976.
During the socially and politically turbulent 1960s when most young men from means used family connections to avoid military service and Vietnam, Kerry joined the Navy in 1966. He became a lieutenant junior grade and commanded a Swift Boat patrol that ran counterinsurgency missions in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. He won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts during his service.
But Kerry grew to oppose the war and became an organizer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1971, he spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and created a stirred when he tossed of some of his military ribbons – but not his medals – on the Capitol lawn to protest the war.
Despite eschewing talk of entering politics in media interviews, Kerry unsuccessfully ran for the House of Representatives in 1972 and went on to serve as lieutenant governor under Michael Dukakis from 1982 to 1984. He was elected to the Senate in 1984.
Divorced from his first wife, Julia Thorne, in 1988, Kerry married Teresa Heinz, the widow of Rep. John Heinz, R-Pa., in 1995. The marriage to the ketchup fortune heir made Kerry one of Capitol Hill’s wealthiest lawmakers. The congressional publication Roll Call ranked Kerry as the third-richest member of the Senate and House in 2011, worth an estimated $193.07 million.
If approved by his Senate colleagues, Kerry will move from the comforts of Capitol Hill to the spacious seventh-floor secretary’s office in the State Department’s Foggy Bottom building, where he’ll get a different view of an unsettled world: a still-tense Pakistan, a civil war in Syria, a bellicose North Korea, a grumpy Russia, a nuclear-ambitious Iran, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a rising China.
“John Kerry will no longer have the luxury of issuing a statement and calling for a hearing,” Inderfurth said. “He’ll have to deal with issues in real time.”