Political Intelligence

For John Kerry, a day of joy and sorrow

John Kerry listens as President Obama announces his nomination as secretary of state.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
John Kerry listens as President Obama announces his nomination as secretary of state.

On the day he was to be tapped as the country’s next secretary of state, Senator John F. Kerry began with a somber reflection on the costs of his first government assignment overseas.

Accompanied by a lone aide, he drove to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and visited the grave of his college classmate Richard Pershing, who died in the Vietnam War.

Kerry, himself a Vietnam veteran, was cruising the Pacific Ocean aboard the USS Gridley when Pershing died in the Tet offensive. His friend was on his mind 44 years later amid tspeculation Kerry would be nominated for secretary of state, and following the death of Senator Daniel Inouye. The Hawaii Democrat was not only a Senate colleague but also a Medal of Honor winner for his heroics in World War II.


Friends and advisers say the soul-searching was part of an emotional day in which Kerry would later travel to Washington’s National Cathedral for Inouye’s funeral, stand silently in the White House as President Obama nominated him as the country’s 68th secretary of state, and then head to the Capitol to cast a procedural vote.

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It did not end until 8 p.m. Friday, when Kerry called Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who serves as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

His time in the Senate now fleeting, he asked her if she could include fisheries disaster aid in an upcoming farm disaster funding bill. It was a backup plan, after a Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill that included $100 million for Massachusetts fisheries had gotten bogged down in the Senate.

Kerry has not talked about when Obama offered him a post in his second-term Cabinet. But with the president set to leave Washington Friday for his Christmas break in Hawaii, Kerry sensed an announcement could come that day.

The possibility was seemingly undercut after “fiscal cliff” negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John ­Boehner broke down Thursday and the House plunged into disarray that night.


Nonetheless, Kerry forged ahead Friday on the presumption of an announcement.

Before departing for Arlington National Cemetery, the senator had a phone conversation with his younger daughter, ­Vanessa, and an iPad video look at his 8-month-old grandson, who was in Boston.

Word of his nomination began to leak at 10:13 a.m., when the Globe tweeted that Obama planned to proceed with the announcement Friday afternoon. Two minutes later, as stories flooded the web and airwaves, the president got into his limousine at the White House for the drive to Inouye’s funeral.

By the time he arrived, Kerry was seated with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Obama sat down four rows ahead.

The first inkling Kerry got of the breaking news came when his cellphone — set to silent mode — began to vibrate with an incoming text message. It was from his former brother-in-law, David Thorne, now the US ambassador to Italy. Thorne reported that Italian TV had picked up on the news of Kerry’s impending nomination.


As he sat looking at the back of the president’s head, text messages came from his staff, urging him to call the office.

The senator decided to stay in silence at the funeral. But when it was finished, Kerry and his wife raced out of the Cathedral and headed to their home on O Street in Georgetown.

Kerry’s phone rang again. This time the caller was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Home recovering from a concussion, she could not attend the announcement, but she offered her congratulations and the two made plans to speak over the Christmas holiday to discuss the job.

Kerry put on a baby blue tie he had favored for important occasions since his 2004 presidential campaign. He, his wife, and the staff driver then set out for the White House — only to get stuck in a traffic jam.

But they made it to the White House with time to spare. Among those greeting him was Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, who had been director of scheduling for Kerry’s failed 2004 presidential campaign.

The group exchanged hugs, then entered the West Wing.

Awaiting them was National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, as well as a larger group that included the senator’s brother, Cam, who is general counsel at the Commerce Department, and former Kerry staffers.

They included Marvin Nicholson, who had traveled every step of the 2004 campaign as Kerry’s personal aide, and who now works as Obama’s trip director; Heather Zichal, a former Kerry legislative director now overseeing White House environmental policy; and Amy Brundage, formerly Kerry’s Senate communications director and now a deputy White House press secretary.

Kerry and his wife rounded the corner and headed into the Cabinet Room, where Vice President Joe Biden awaited them. The senator then made a solo trip to the Oval Office, while the others made their way to the Roosevelt Room.

Joining them was Deputy OMB Director Heather Higginbottom, who served as deputy policy director for Kerry’s presidential campaign.

The podium inside stood against a backdrop of US and presidential flags, as well as an equestrian portrait of Theodore Roosevelt titled, “Rough Rider.” White House reporters stood at the back of the room.

Once the president formally nominated the senator, the group of supporters broke into applause. Afterward, Kerry returned with Obama to the Oval Office, where they had another private conversation.

As he was leaving the White House, his phone rang. It was UN Ambassador Susan Rice, whose decision a week earlier to drop out of the running for secretary of state had cleared the path to Kerry’s nomination.

The senator later described her call and the warm sentiments she conveyed as “very, very thoughtful.”

From there, it was back to business as usual. Kerry went straight to the Capitol, where he cast the first of five votes. He returned to his office in the Russell Senate Office Building, where he fielded calls from former state secretaries Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, as well as former and current senators.

Kerry also assembled his staff, becoming emotional as he told them, “I never would have had this day we’re it not for you: the best staff I’ve ever had, the best staff in the Senate, and the best for Massachusetts.”

By the time he left his office, the emotion of the day’s beginning had been replaced by the cold reality of politics: Two of his health care aides already had been hired by Senators Bill Nelson and ­Dianne Feinstein, also Democrats.

Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available online at www.boston.com/politics. He can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.