Op-Ed

What will John Kerry do next?

If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, Secretary of State John Kerry could play a role in her administration.
If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, Secretary of State John Kerry could play a role in her administration. AP

Secretary of State John Kerry and his wife are selling their Nantucket home and their 74-foot sailing yacht, Isabel. That’s interesting, in a gossipy way.

More intriguing is Kerry’s willingness to let it be known he sides with some 51 State Department diplomats who signed an internal memo that sharply criticizes the Obama administration’s policy in Syria. According to The New York Times, those diplomats want the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Kerry’s benign response — “it’s an important statement and I respect the process very, very much” — means he “more or less agrees with his diplomats,” the Times reported.

Kerry has privately pressed President Obama to take a more aggressive stance toward Syria, according to the Times. But backing other State Department critics takes their dissent even more public, when Obama’s foreign policy is already under fire — along with Hillary Clinton’s stewardship as secretary of state.

This internal dissent memo is part of a longstanding State Department tradition. It gives Kerry a respectful way to reinforce his own thinking and put policy ahead of election-year politics. On the other hand, his timing is very Kerry, setting off classic ambition alerts. As Kerry steps away from Obama, what’s he stepping toward?

Through a state department spokesman, Kerry declined comment on any specific plans. He confirmed he will stay “engaged” in Massachusetts and in civic life – although not as mayor, a subject that jokingly came up in Beijing, where he met up with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

There are legal and ethical restrictions on what a secretary of state can do in terms of signaling future career interests. Meanwhile, Kerry is fully engaged in his current job, having just returned from a trip to Norway and Greenland to explore climate control issues, and more travel is planned.

He will be 73 when the next president takes the oath of office. After pushing hard for nearly four years, he’s looking forward to rest and rejuvenation. But if 74-year-old Bernie Sanders can become a national phenomenon, don’t expect Kerry to go gently into that good night. After all, he doesn’t discourage talk of a Kerry presidential draft should an FBI investigation into Clinton’s e-mail server somehow topple her candidacy.

After Kerry failed to win the White House in 2004, the secretary of state post was his Plan B dream job. In 2008, he endorsed Obama over Hillary Clinton. Despite that show of loyalty, Obama chose Clinton over Kerry for the top diplomat’s job. Kerry got the nod during Obama’s second term. But first Obama floated the possibility of secretary of defense, a job Kerry didn’t want. Since then, he has worked hard on Obama’s behalf. Now, after life in the fast lane of high-stakes, global diplomacy, what next?

Kerry doesn’t need money, and he thrives on action. So what are the possibilities, besides speechifying, consulting, teaching, and working for a think tank? His best options, of course, occur if Clinton wins. Kerry’s criticism of Obama’s policy on Syria takes him far from his earlier view — that the Syrian leader was open to reform — and puts him closer to Clinton’s tougher position.

It’s hard to imagine Kerry would have any interest in being Clinton’s running mate — or that Clinton would want him anyway. Two ex-secretaries of state on a ticket are too many, given the already harsh Republican critiques of Obama’s legacy.

Besides, Kerry would have to quit as secretary of state to be a VP candidate.

What about secretary of defense? It’s true he now holds the No. 1 ranked Cabinet job, which he said would be his last job in public life.

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