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Amid wrangling on Hill, Kerry keeps visibility low

In 2004, John Kerry, as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, bestowed upon Barack Obama an honor that would catapult his career — delivering a keynote address at the party’s convention.JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

WASHINGTON – Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians chant for the ouster of their new leader, Israel and Hamas fire rockets at each other, Syria totters on the edge of a sectarian abyss.

Yet as pockets of the world have convulsed during these past three weeks, one voice is notably absent. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has not appeared on a Sunday talk show nor put out a relevant press release.

Senator John F. Kerry, in one of the most politically sensitive moments of his career, is under consideration to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a decision that could be announced soon. His recent low profile starkly contrasts not only with his previously outspoken tendencies but also with the prominence of Ambassador Susan Rice, who is widely considered the front-runner to replace Clinton. Rice has been under fire for comments she made in the days after the attacks on the US mission in Libya.

Rice on Tuesday met with several Republican senators who have been highly critical of her. If it was a test run for her confirmation battles, she barely got out of the gate. Senators emerged vowing to block her nomination until she provides more answers about what happened in Benghazi.


“The concerns I have are greater today than they were before,” Senator Lindsey ­Graham, a South Carolina ­Republican, told reporters after his meeting with Rice.

In response, Senate majority leader Harry Reid called the “personal attacks” on Rice “outrageous and utterly unmoored from facts and reality.”

During the blizzard of back and forth over Rice, Kerry spent much of the day on the Senate floor, trying to win ratification of an international treaty on rights of the disabled.

What appears to be emerging, according to those closely monitoring the situation, is that Rice has become the top pick inside the White House while Kerry is the top choice outside it. It presents the White House with a difficult scenario: Choose Rice and engage in a potentially difficult nomination process, or choose Kerry, who would probably win confirmation but might not be the president’s top choice.


The run-up to the decision continues a delicate political dance and one of the more intriguing relationships in Washington. In 2004, Kerry, as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, bestowed upon Obama an honor that would catapult his career. On a Tuesday night in Boston, the state senator from Illinois was given a keynote address that stirred the Democratic political world.

It laid the groundwork that would lead to the White House, not for Kerry, but for Obama.

Now, more than eight years later, in Obama’s hands is a fundamental choice that will affect Kerry’s career. Although he has never publicly stated so, it has long been an open secret in Washington that Kerry wants to be secretary of state.

Kerry, who was once derided with the nickname “Live Shot” for his tendency to get in front of a television camera, has been considered for such positions before — and he’s also had to vet others for positions. He considers it unseemly to openly campaign for a Cabinet post.

“I don’t think he can do anything more than be mum,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian and Kerry biographer. “Anything he spoke out and said at this point, people would be dissecting it and analyzing. It wouldn’t be helpful.


“Kerry’s doing what he should be doing,’’ Brinkley said. “This is not a time to be all over on television. You lay low.”

Were he to gain the appointment, it would trigger a flurry of political dominoes in Massachusetts. Would Scott Brown run again for a seat in the Senate just after losing his? Would Governor Deval Patrick appoint former governor Michael S. ­Dukakis to temporarily fill the seat? How many in the state’s all-Democrat congressional delegation would take a shot at it?

Elizabeth Warren, the moment she assumes her seat, would be the senior senator from Massachusetts.

Kerry’s office declined to comment.

Kerry has played both surrogate for — and provocateur to — the Obama administration on the world’s scene in the past four years. That makes his absence on the global hot spots all the more glaring.

When there was an impasse over Afghanistan’s election results in 2009, it was Kerry who spent five days in talks with President Hamid Karzai, persuading him to accept a run-off election.

When Obama wanted to broker a peace deal in Sudan, Kerry was dispatched.

Yet Kerry was among the first to push the administration to call for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt in 2011 and to impose a no-fly zone on Libya.

Kerry has no ill feelings toward Rice; she was one of his foreign policy advisers for his 2004 presidential campaign. But she has become a lightning rod for Republicans, who have criticized her for comments she made on a series of Sunday talk shows in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans.


Republicans have charged that she deliberately misled the public, that she tried to suggest that the attack was spontaneous and not something that was planned – and therefore could have been prevented. Rice, as well as the White House, has said that she was repeating talking points given to her by intelligence agencies.

The imbroglio portends a stiff confirmation battle were Rice nominated. That process would begin in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry’s domain. That means if he is not chosen, the White House would be looking to him to fulfill another request — steering the passage of the person who passed him by.

The Washington Post suggested two weeks ago that Obama was considering Kerry for secretary of defense. But those who know Kerry say that they cannot see him taking such a position — or any post other than secretary of state — and that he would probably continue in his current role.

In disengaging from any public relations battle, Kerry is taking a page out of a playbook he used in 2000, when he was on the short list to become Al Gore’s running mate. Kerry largely disappeared from public view (but still began writing notes for a possible acceptance speech at the Democratic ­National Convention).

At the time, he described the process, one in which those ­under consideration present their credentials privately while publicly remaining mum, as an unsettling “kind of limbo.”


“I went to bed last night,” he said the day Gore chose Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. “It was in fate’s hands and what was going to happen was going to happen.”

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.