Just as the stars looked like they might be aligning for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and his quest to become the next secretary of state, fate intervened yet again.
This time, it came in the form of a dismal debate performance by President Obama in his first showdown with Republican Mitt Romney last week. Suddenly, a second Obama term — and Kerry’s chance for a starring role in it — seemed less certain.
It didn’t help that Kerry was Obama’s chosen sparring partner as he prepared — or failed to prepare — for that all-important first debate. Michael Moore’s widely reported Twitter rant during Romney’s smack-down of the president included this tweet from the ultra-liberal filmmaker: “This is what happens when (you) pick John Kerry as your debate coach.”
And things had been going so well for Kerry.
The foreign policy speech Obama asked him to deliver in Charlotte was viewed as a tryout for the country’s top diplomatic post. Kerry’s remarks were smart, funny and, for him, amazingly self-deprecating. Peggy Noonan, the conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, described it as the speech of his life.
Then, fellow Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown — a Republican — told debate moderator David Gregory that Kerry is the right man for the job at State. Brown’s thoughts are irrelevant on that subject. But given his need to appeal to Bay State Democrats, they were a nice nod to Kerry’s hometown favorability.
Kerry’s political future is always up for local discussion. If Obama wins reelection and taps the Bay State’s senior senator for the job, his seat would open, generating another special election scramble. Kerry is also turning into a slightly tragic figure, because he spent his career positioning himself for the dream job that always slips away.
He lost to President George W. Bush by what amounted to a football stadium full of people in Ohio. By then, the convention that nominated Kerry had also launched Obama. An early Obama backer, Kerry was in the running to become secretary of state after the 2003 election. But the job went to Hillary Clinton.
With Obama in the White House, Kerry often stretches to give the president cover on delicate issues, including the current controversy over the Sept. 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
Soon after that attack, Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations who is also considered Kerry’s chief rival for secretary of state, started taking serious political heat.
In interviews given on several Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16, Rice insisted that the Libyan assault — which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including ambassador Christopher Stevens — was not premeditated. It was triggered by an anti-Islam video, she said.
Kerry rushed to Rice’s defense, saying he was “deeply disturbed” by the efforts to politicize the incident. Rice, he declared, is “a remarkable public servant” and “an enormously capable person who has represented us at the United Nations with strength and character.”
At the same time, Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is calling for more transparency on the Libyan attack. According to The Cable, a foreign policy blog, Kerry has privately “been pressing the administration for answers” and wrote a letter requesting information about security at Benghazi.
That’s the middle ground Kerry likes to seize.
Reluctant to support a troop surge in Afghanistan, he helped Obama by signing onto it in 2009. Kerry paved the way for Obama by calling upon President Hosni Mubarak to “step aside gracefully.” Last summer, when six Republican senators said they would not support Brett McGurk, Obama’s nominee to be the next ambassador to Iraq, Kerry worked quietly to convince the administration the nominee should withdraw his name.
The most careful positioning only goes so far; what happens next is beyond Kerry’s control.
Bob Shrum’s question to Kerry on election eve 2004 — “May I be the first to call you Mr. President?” — still haunts. Based on exit polls, it’s a reminder that it’s way too soon to measure for new Oval Office drapes, or to call anyone “Mr. Secretary.”
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.