In June 2001, as he flew back to Washington from what would be the first visit to Iowa of his 2004 presidential campaign, Senator John F. Kerry made a remark to an aide and reporter accompanying him that had no trace of irony to it despite the endeavor he was about to begin.
Being secretary of state, Kerry said, was in some ways better than being president.
The secretary doesn’t have to raise campaign money, and is prohibited by law from engaging in politics, he said.
And the secretary’s ultimate goal is to promote world peace while advancing US interests abroad.
“Colin Powell’s got the best job in the world,” Kerry said, singling out the former Army general who at that time was just beginning his tenure as President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state.
Today, Kerry is the top prospect to be nominated as President Obama’s second-term secretary.
It is a position for which the 69-year-old seemingly was not only groomed, but one that he has aspired to if he could not hold the levers of the presidency themselves.
The son of a diplomat, he spent part of his youth overseas and is fluent in French, the primary language of diplomacy. As a senator, he gravitated toward foreign affairs as his senior colleague, the late Edward M. Kennedy, carved out his domain on domestic matters.
And after losing the 2004 presidential race, Kerry redoubled his efforts and spent the past four years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
With that official title as well as his stamp as an unofficial Obama emissary, the senator has engaged in diplomatic missions to world hot spots that were “off-the-record” in nature but cloaked in administration credibility.
The reasons for wanting to leave the Senate now and officially become the country’s top diplomat are myriad, if you pay attention to Kerry’s recent words and actions.
First, he has lamented the seemingly intractable partisanship of Congress.
When Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican with whom he had worked, announced in March that she would not seek reelection in part because of her own exasperation with the stalemate, Kerry lashed out.
“Because of an ideological rigidity and stupidity in Washington, we’re having an impossible time doing the most simple things,’’ he said most undiplomatically.
Kerry echoed the theme earlier this month after the Senate defeated an international disabilities treaty supported by Republicans including former Senator majority leader Bob Dole.
“This is one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate, and it needs to be a wake-up call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people,” the senator said.
Second, Kerry has an international portfolio that extends beyond reacting to every world crisis.
He has long been an advocate for addressing climate change issues, and stature as secretary of state would only enhance his bully pulpit. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has also targeted her personal philanthropy toward world health and women’s issues.
Finally, there would be a level of personal achievement accompanying an appointment.
Secretary of state is no ordinary Cabinet position; it is the top one. The first person to hold the title was Thomas Jefferson.
It is fourth in line of presidential succession, behind the vice president, House speaker, and Senate president pro tempore.
The secretary oversees 12,000 workers and 265 diplomatic missions. The job also comes with trappings akin to those of the presidency: its own Air Force Boeing 757, and a Secret Service-style detail provided by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
More fundamentally, an appointment by Obama would publicly affirm his respect for Kerry.
The senator tapped Obama for his first high-profile speech — the keynote address at Kerry’s 2004 presidential nominating convention — and he has since represented Obama not only abroad but domestically on the congressional budget supercommittee.
Most recently, the senator assumed the role of Mitt Romney for Obama’s debate preparation sessions.
Each assignment has engendered gratitude.
After practice for the third and final debate had ended at Camp David, Kerry and Obama posed in front of the mock debate stage, crouched toe-to-tie in a fighter’s stance.
In a framed photograph of that private moment that Obama recently signed and presented to Kerry, the president wrote, “I couldn’t have had a better sparring partner.”