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.