WASHINGTON -- 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.”
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.”