ROME — John F. Kerry has long tried to break out to the international stage, but now that he is secretary of state, he’s still glancing homeward.
On the first leg of his maiden trip abroad as secretary of state, Kerry rarely let a stop go by without mentioning Massachusetts. “In my home state” was a frequent phrase.
Whenever he quoted President John F. Kennedy, he would quickly add, “he was from my state of Massachusetts.” He talked about the Salem witch trials while in Berlin and, when asked, revealed to the crowd that his ties were from Vineyard Vines.
“You can get it on the Internet,” Kerry explained, looking at his pink tie. “It’s inspired by my state, Massachusetts — but the company’s actually in Connecticut. And I’ll tell everybody. It’s called VineyardVines.com.”
He added that he didn’t own stock in the company, which specializes in preppy clothing.
When he spoke at the US Embassy in London he was quick to note that it was near “where, 225 years ago, John Adams was housed.”
“Son of Massachusetts, I’m proud to say,” he added. Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams (also a son of Massachusetts), followed, Kerry noted. Then he mentioned Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy (also of Massachusetts) and told a story about the ambassador’s son, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Of Massachusetts.
Kerry learned French while at boarding school in Switzerland. He picked up German while living in Berlin as a boy. And Italian came at boarding school too, particularly, his brother has said, swear words.
He utilized all three during his foreign trip, often to great effect (save for the swear words, at least in public).
“Ihre Schuhe sind fantastisch!” Kerry told the moderator of a town hall meeting in Berlin, as the crowd applauded his comment that, “Your shoes are fantastic!”
“Buon pomeriggio,” he told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, wishing them a good afternoon in Italian.
At a press conference in Italy, a reporter began asking him a question in Italian. Kerry began to put in his earpiece to listen to the translation, but as he did so he asked for time — in Italian.
“Aspetta momento,” Kerry said. “Grazie.”
His most extensive comments came in France, when he launched into the native language for more than a minute at the start of a press conference.
It won him glowing coverage in Le Monde, which noted that “Kerry is considered the most ‘French’ of the American officials.”
Indeed, a skill that could make him seem elitist during his 2004 presidential campaign has turned into an asset in his new role. But he still seems aware of how his multi-lingual talents can play among some in the homeland.
After the long introduction in French, he came to a close.
“And now I’ll speak in English,” he said, still speaking in French. “Because otherwise they won’t let me return home.”
Kerry came to Rome for two nights, the longest stopover on his trip.
While Kerry was in town, Pope Benedict formally stepped down, gripping the city as he rode in a helicopter to Castel Gandolfo.
Kerry didn’t meet with any religious officials, and never visited the Vatican. But he did acknowledge the history, saying there was not “a more moving and emotional and historic a day than today.”
“So it is a momentous day to be here,” Kerry said, addressing US Embassy staff in Italy. “Somebody teased me with a headline earlier today — say “Kerry Arrives; Pope Goes.” I don’t know. But I’m not going near that one. “
As a politician, Kerry sometimes struggled to connect on the campaign trail and made some cultural miscues. He famously asked for swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak (American, Provolone, and Cheez Whiz are the standard options). While in Wisconsin, he misstated the legendary Lambeau Field, where the Green Bay Packers play, as “Lambert Field.”
That hasn’t happened on his foreign trip. Just about everywhere he’s gone, he’s had a strong personal connection that he’s utilized to its fullest.
Kerry’s mother was born in Paris. His father worked in Berlin. Kerry himself got lost in the London Zoo as a young boy (a story he mentioned more than once).
Kerry rode his bike past the Brandenburg Gate when he was 12 years old, a dangerous excursion that infuriated his father (but gave him a story he told at least four times while in Berlin for less than 24 hours).
When he was in Rome, he spoke in personal terms of a culture he has long admired.
“We’re not as old as you, obviously, but we’ve, I think, grown in our appreciation of so many different things, from the prosaic, like me, going to Maranello and driving a wonderful car, or the much more sort of visually pleasing like the Raphael that I had a chance to see in Villa Madama.”
Then, like any good politician, he made a joke.
“We’ll make you a deal,” he said, mentioning that Italy had loaned one of the David statues for display in the United States. “If we can keep David, you can keep George Clooney. I think that works, doesn’t it?”
As Kerry embarked on a job he’s been training his whole life for, he seemed to relish the moment. As he walked up the steps and boarded his plane at Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday, he carried a large binder full of briefing materials.
He was so eager to get started that he forgot to turn and wave to a small group of photographers trying to capture the moment.
He has shed the title of “US Senator,” and with that no longer has to raise money for political campaigns — in fact, it is forbidden — which he mentioned with glee.
“I am now officially a recovering politician,” he told US embassy staff in Paris. “And I’ll tell you, it feels great.”