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Chairman Kerry: Born for the Job

1971 Testimony Heralded Future Role on Committee

There is something novelistic and poignant about Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) heading the Foreign Relations Committee.

Kerry first burst into the public consciousness as a decorated 27-year-old Vietnam veteran, laying out his opposition to the war in spellbinding testimony before the committee on April 22, 1971.

His haunting question, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” is seared in the memories of many Americans — and remains controversial to this day.

After listening to Kerry’s remarks, then-Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), who would later spend eight years as Foreign Relations chairman, predicted that Kerry would someday become a member of the committee. It didn’t take long for Pell to be proved right: Kerry was elected to the Senate in 1984 and was immediately assigned to the Foreign Relations panel.

In its 194-year history, the committee has produced six presidents of the United States and 19 secretaries of State. In 2008, then-Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) was elected vice president.

Kerry has come close to being part of those elite groups but has fallen a little short. He almost won the White House in 2004. And it was widely assumed that he hungered to become secretary of State when President Barack Obama took office, only to see the job go to a Senate colleague, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Whatever political disappointments Kerry has endured, “he’s just decided he’s going to live in the present. ... John Kerry, at heart, is a patriot,” said Mary Beth Cahill, who was the Senator’s campaign manager during his 2004 White House run.

“I learned a long time ago from a great teacher — Ted Kennedy — that you just have to put your head down and do the work and see where it leads,” Kerry said in an e-mail to Roll Call.

By all accounts, Kerry has jumped enthusiastically into his committee work since becoming chairman a year ago. He’s committed to helping the young president and his administration but is mindful of the panel’s constitutional duties and oversight powers. People who follow the committee closely say Kerry has brought a forward-looking approach to the job, buttressed by the kind of intellectual and political heft that is unique to a former presidential nominee with 40 years of involvement with foreign policy.

“He ran for president, he came very close to being president, so he brings more than the regular gravitas to the job. And he handles it very well,” said Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Biden’s replacement in the Senate.

In Kerry’s first year as chairman, the committee held 125 hearings and recommended 127 Obama administration nominees to the full Senate. He also delivered 13 major foreign policy speeches and wrote two dozen opinion pieces on a broad range of topics that his committee has jurisdiction over.

But more important than the quantity of the work product is the direction in which Kerry has tried to lead his committee. While remaining a steadfast ally to Obama, Clinton, Biden and the rest of the administration’s foreign policy team, Kerry has sought to provide a road map of international challenges and opportunities for the U.S.

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