How John Kerry Could End Up Outdoing Hillary Clinton

Critics say he's pompous and reckless—but his relentlessness may end up making him the most consequential secretary of state in years.
Sony Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty

When John Kerry succeeded Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in February, Clinton’s emotional departure from the State Department received blanket media coverage. Kerry’s arrival received next to none.

“So here’s the big question before the country and the world and the State Department after the last eight years,” Kerry said in a speech to State Department employees on his first day on the job. “Can a man actually run the State Department? I don’t know.”

As the crowd roared with laughter, Kerry pushed the joke too far.

“As the saying goes,” he said, “I have big heels to fill.”

Nearly three weeks later, Kerry’s first foreign-policy speech as secretary, an hour-long defense of diplomacy and foreign aid, was a flop. The Washington Post gave it 500 words. The New York Times ignored it. (He was also accused of accidentally inventing a new country called “Kyrzakhstan,” an apparent conflation of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)

The nearly universal expectation was that Kerry’s tenure would be overshadowed by his predecessor’s, for a long list of reasons. For starters, he was arriving in Foggy Bottom when the country seemed to be withdrawing from the world. Exhausted by two long wars, Americans were wary of ambitious new foreign engagements—certainly of military ones, but of entangling diplomatic ones, too. Barack Obama’s administration, accelerating a process that had begun in the early 1960s under President Kennedy, was centralizing foreign-policy decision making in the White House’s National Security Council, marginalizing the State Department. Kerry hadn’t even been Obama’s first choice for the position, getting nominated only when the candidacy of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice was derailed by her tenuous association with the Benghazi-consulate tragedy in 2012. (Rice ended up running the National Security Council.) The appetite for risk taking in the White House is never high, but after the Benghazi imbroglio, it was particularly low. Finally, Kerry, a defeated presidential candidate, was devoid of the sexiness that automatically attaches to a figure, like Hillary Clinton, who remains a legitimate presidential prospect. The consensus in Washington was that Kerry was a boring if not irrelevant man stepping into what was becoming a boring, irrelevant job.

Yet his time at the State Department has been anything but boring—and no one can argue his lack of relevance. Nearly a year into his tenure, Kerry is the driving force behind a flurry of Mideast diplomacy the scope of which has not been seen in years. In the face of widespread skepticism, he has revived the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; brokered a deal with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria; embarked on a new round of nuclear talks with Iran, holding the highest-level face-to-face talks with Iranian diplomats in years; and started hammering out a new post-withdrawal security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Some of these initiatives seemed to begin almost by accident; all of them could still go awry; any of them could blow up in Kerry’s face. His critics say that even if these initiatives don’t collapse, they may do more to boost Kerry’s stature than to increase geopolitical stability. But it’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.

As Kerry’s provisional successes on disparate fronts pile up, the White House’s praise for him, both in public and in private, has become more fulsome. “If you step back and look at his stature in the administration and the world, you know, it’s been consistently elevated,” says Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser and a longtime speechwriter for President Obama, referring to Kerry’s work on Israel-Palestine, Syria, and Iran. “He’s front and center on all these issues. That clearly represents a very ambitious first year for any secretary of state.”

Despite the administration’s general approbation, the secretary of state’s diplomatic adventuring has sometimes whitened knuckles and furrowed brows in the White House, and produced guffaws inside the Beltway. Kerry has a bad habit of wandering off script. On a trip to Pakistan in August, he created two diplomatic incidents in a single interview. First he said that the Egyptian army was “restoring democracy” when it toppled the country’s democratically elected president. Then he said that President Obama had “a timeline” for ending U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Neither of these declarations aligned with the White House’s position; within hours, officials in Washington were scrambling to correct Kerry’s statements. In September, while trying to make the case to Congress for air strikes on Syria, he said during sometimes rambling testimony that the administration might deploy American “boots on the ground”—a statement he had to spend the next several hours trying to roll back. At a press conference in London a week later, he overshot in the opposite direction, promising that any American strike against Syria would be “unbelievably small”—a bit of impressively self-defeating rhetoric that undermined days of administration efforts to argue that a few dozen Tomahawk cruise-missile strikes would be more than what hawkish critics were calling a pointless “pinprick.” Even one of his most notable successes—getting the Russians to work with the Syrians to forswear chemical weapons—may have been an example of what some have called “gaffe diplomacy,” because Kerry, in saying the wrong thing at the right time, accidentally carved out room for President Obama to maneuver. (For his part, Kerry insists that he meant to say what he said.)

To help Kerry—and to help keep him reined in—the White House dispatched Obama’s 2012 campaign spokesperson, Jen Psaki, to become the State Department’s chief spokesperson. Psaki, who had previously worked as a spokesperson for Kerry’s presidential campaign, was trusted by both men. (Psaki told me she took the State Department position because she’s a longtime fan of Kerry’s.)

When I asked Ben Rhodes about Kerry’s veering off script, he said that the view from the White House is that Kerry’s gaffes are genuine mistakes, not Machiavellian efforts to influence policy debate. “Look, he’s out there a ton, he’s out there more than anyone else,” Rhodes said. “Nobody would challenge the notion that he’s been very much a team player and willing to take on really hard assignments from the president and go to the toughest places.”

Kerry’s critics take a less charitable view, saying his gaffes are caused by arrogance and indiscipline. They say that even in a city swollen with egotism and pomposity, Kerry stands out. To mention Kerry’s name among jaded Washington-establishment types is to elicit rolling of eyes; a word that comes up frequently in conversations about Kerry is gasbag. He had few close friends in the Senate, where he served for nearly 30 years. A former diplomat says Kerry’s recent foreign-policy successes have made him more insufferable than ever. One theory holds that his years in the Senate ruined him: too many hours speaking to a c-span camera in an empty Senate chamber have left him prone to run-on sentences and bloviating “Senate speak.” (In one late-night press conference in Moscow last May, he uttered a staggering 95-word sentence.) This theory is undercut by those who have known him longer. “Even as a junior or senior, he was a pompous blowhard,” says someone who attended Yale with Kerry in the 1960s and asked not to be named.

Others who have known Kerry a long time say that he is not so much arrogant as awkward. James Manley, a former aide to Senator Ted Kennedy who watched Kerry in Congress for decades, says he came to understand that part of what makes Kerry seem “pompous” is that “oftentimes he tries too hard.” According to Manley and others, Kerry had a knack for walking up to fellow members on the Senate floor at precisely the wrong time. Two senators would be having an argument or a private conversation, and Kerry would wander over and interrupt. As a reporter who covered him for years in Massachusetts put it to me, Kerry “just can’t dance.” Current aides argue that Kerry’s recent successes belie the caricatures of him. “Show me where he hasn’t done this job well,” one demanded when I interviewed him in mid-October.

Some old foreign-policy hands say that instead of acknowledging the limits of American power in the post–Arab Spring Middle East, Kerry looks for misguided ways to apply power the country no longer has. Liberal Democrats call his hawkish views on Syria a betrayal of his antiwar past. Republicans say he is a perennial flip-flopper: he fought in the Vietnam War and then protested against it; he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then opposed it; he tried to negotiate with Bashar al‑Assad in 2009, then compared him to Adolf Hitler—and then reopened the door to negotiating with him again.

“He’s famous for saying ‘How can you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?,’ ” Rand Paul, the Republican senator, said on Meet the Press at the height of the Syria debate in early September, when Kerry was making the case for air strikes on Assad’s forces. “I would ask John Kerry, ‘How can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake?’ ”

Meanwhile, Washington mandarins dismiss Kerry’s foreign-policy ambitions as grandiose and overweening, especially relative to what America’s diminishing power can achieve after Iraq and Afghanistan. One day last summer, a few days after I’d landed in Washington after accompanying the secretary on one of his peripatetic trips abroad, I ran into a widely respected foreign-policy journalist. “So,” the journalist asked sardonically, “has John Kerry changed the Middle East yet?”

He hadn’t, of course—no one person could. But his relentlessness could yield some genuine diplomatic breakthroughs. It turns out that some of the same traits that made Kerry off-putting to some of his Senate colleagues serve him well as America’s top diplomat. His enormous ambition motivates him to aim for major breakthroughs despite daunting odds. And his healthy self-confidence allows him to believe that he can convince anyone of virtually anything. “Sometimes there’s a feeling that Kerry thinks the only reason his predecessors in the job didn’t bring about a peace agreement” in the Middle East, an unnamed Western official told an Israeli newspaper last spring, “is that they weren’t John Kerry.” Kerry also has bottomless reserves of patience that allow him to engage for hours in seemingly fruitless negotiations; he persists long past the time others would have given up in exhaustion. The amount of time he’s spent negotiating with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov alone should qualify him for some kind of diplomatic medal of honor.

Kerry has something else that makes him unusual in Washington—something that sets him distinctly apart from his immediate predecessor, and that serves him well as secretary of state: an indifference to his own political standing. Political calculations may have constrained the risks Hillary Clinton was willing to take. Kerry, in contrast, no longer needs to heed political consultants. Nor does he need to worry too much about what his detractors say. When I spoke with him by phone in mid-October, I asked about the criticism that gets leveled at him. “I don’t care at all,” he said. “I could care less about it. You know, David, I ran for president, so I’m not scared of failure.” (He’d said as much when I interviewed him in his State Department office in August: “After you lose the presidency, you don’t have much else to lose.”) He explained further that he believed his failures had helped make him a better senator and secretary of state. “I think I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I think I’m better, you know, I’m a more effective public person after some of the failures I’ve had through my career.” Current and former aides agree that Kerry changed after his dream of becoming president died. When he was named the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, he told Frank Lowenstein, his longtime foreign-policy aide, that he was focused on results. “I’m not worried about the politics,” Lowenstein recalls Kerry telling him. “I want to get things done.” (It’s worth noting that Obama, too, no longer has to worry about reelection; concerns about the 2012 election may have limited the president’s own appetite for diplomatic risk taking in the Mideast during his first term.)

Kerry is just days away from his 70th birthday. His wife has health problems. He could be sailing, or playing hockey, or writing his memoirs from the vantage point of a peaceful retirement. But his enthusiasm for his current job is unquestionable; one aide told me that he will have to be dragged from the office—fingernails scraping against the floor—at the end of his term.

“I’m very blessed to be in a position where I can work on these issues full-time without having to go out and raise money and without having to worry about, you know, the sort of domestic politics of it,” he told me this fall. “I can just focus on the substance, focus on the challenge, focus on the facts, and try to get something done. And I like that. I find it very rewarding and a lot of fun.”

One can understand how being freed from constant fund-raising and politicking would be liberating. Beyond that, though, his aides say that becoming secretary of state has allowed him to be himself in a way that being an electoral politician didn’t. As a presidential candidate, he had to downplay his obsession with foreign policy and his fluency in foreign languages, for fear that such things would play badly with voters; as secretary of state, he can freely leverage those qualities.

Of course, if there is no breakthrough with Iran, or if his efforts to broker peace in Syria fall short, or if the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks founder, history will likely view Kerry as the tragicomic figure his detractors already judge him to be. But while traveling with Kerry around the Middle East over several months last spring and early summer, I came to believe that he might succeed in proving the skeptics wrong. “He will just never give up,” Lowenstein told me.

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David Rohde, a columnist for Reuters, is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book is Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East.

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