John Kerry Doesn't Care About the Haters, Just History

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Before he took the job of Secretary of State, John Kerry interviewed seven of his predecessors, prompting him to declare an intention to be both D.C. manager and overseas world-changer. But Kerry, secure only in his determination to leave his mark on the world, has so far set that advice and his stated intentions aside.

In The Atlantic's December cover story, David Rohde profiles President Obama's No. 2 choice to be the second person to lead the State Department. (Choice No. 1, Susan Rice, was submarined by Republican opposition.) The portrait is bipolar: an eager, ambitious man with impeccable international pedigree who often stumbles, baffles, and yet insists in his own capability. His efforts to sound blasé about his role often seem transparently insincere, as awkward as the details about Kerry "sipping a Sam Adams" as his jet crosses an unnamed ocean. Kerry tells Rohde that he "could care less about" criticism of his job performance and that he doesn't "care about risk, honestly," when it comes to international negotiations. Nearly everything else in the profile depicts a man who is far from carefree.

The contrast between Kerry and his immediate predecessor, Hillary Clinton, is drawn quickly. Like Clinton, Kerry is depicted as an insular leader reliant on aides; unlike Clinton, his days of running for president lie in the past, not future. He's enormously hands-on, leading to hours-long negotiations with foreign leaders and tied hands at State Department headquarters when he's absent, with no one empowered to make decisions. He's known for being "aloof, keeping to himself, and not bothering to read staff memos." 

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In those seven interviews, Kerry learned that the job is a see-saw between the stay-in-D.C. work of running the diplomatic bureau and the wheels-up, phone-in-hand internationalism that wins Nobel prizes (which one diplomat told Rohde is every secretary's dream). Kerry's fervent push for a massive international win — the sort of thing that would bump 2004 to the second paragraph of his obituary — is reflected in his distance from the staff in D.C., and from D.C. itself.

And it's exactly the opposite of the advice offered by the deeply popular Colin Powell. Rohde writes:

Colin Powell told me that before he became secretary of state in 2001, he received a letter from George Kennan, the famed foreign-policy thinker, then in his 90s. Kennan warned Powell about the dangers of traveling too much — of prioritizing activist diplomacy over providing the White House with solid foreign-policy analysis. “This office has in recent decades, in my view,” Kennan wrote, “been seriously misused and distorted.” Kennan urged Powell to minimize his travel and focus on advising the president.

Powell gave that letter to Kerry. Powell, Rohde says, is the favorite secretary of long-serving diplomats — "the vast majority of whom are politically liberal" — because of his attention to the management of the department itself. Ultimately, Kerry decided to emulate not Powell but George Schultz, according to Rohde, for Schultz's balance between diplomacy and management. And then he seems to have set that aside, for the time being at least. In Kerry's first nine months, he'd already done more international traveling than Clinton did in her first year.

I asked Kerry last summer whether he was traveling too much. “Hell no,” he said fiercely. “I’m not slowing down.”

Kerry's unapologetic response is what you'd expect from the person Rohde outlines: confident if not pompous, determined if not flawless. The sort of man that asks his predecessors for their advice and then does the thing that is most likely to see him end up in the history books.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.