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.

Kerry spoke out quickly about the need to change U.S. policy in Afghanistan and sounded early warnings about the necessity to stabilize Pakistan as a key component of the war on terrorism. On Capitol Hill, he hosted a “trilateral— luncheon for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and members of their respective cabinets.

Kerry has worked to bolster the Middle East peace process and has warned administration officials about the destabilizing threats that Syria and Iran pose in the region.

And as if the U.S. foreign policy to-do list weren’t long enough, Kerry decided to make climate change a major part of his — and his committee’s — agenda.

“He’s really starting to use his talents and make it worthwhile,— said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributing writer. “It’s been a really strong year for him.—

A Change in Status

It has also been a year of transition for Kerry. Not only did he take over the gavel at Foreign Relations, relinquishing the one he held at the Small Business Committee, but he also, after 25 years in the Senate, became Massachusetts’ senior Senator, following the August death of his legendary colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D).

Kennedy’s death was traumatic for Kerry personally, as well as for Massachusetts voters and the state’s political establishment.

“Kerry really thought that he never had a better friend in the world in 2004 than Ted Kennedy,— Cahill recalled. “And he really reciprocated in the final year of Sen. Kennedy’s life ... and that was really something Sen. Kennedy was grateful for.—

Phil Johnston, a Massachusetts Democratic insider who runs a public affairs firm in Boston, said Kerry “has become an iconic figure in Massachusetts politics at this point— after years in Kennedy’s shadow and has taken on many of Kennedy’s practical and symbolic responsibilities.

It was also a busy year for Kerry on a personal level. The 66-year-old Senator had surgery in August to replace his right hip. Just two weeks ago, he had surgery to replace his left hip. Kerry wife’s, Teresa Heinz Kerry, disclosed in December that she was being treated for breast cancer. And his younger daughter was married in October.

A Job He Was Born for

Through all the changes, holding the Foreign Relations gavel has, in some ways, kept Kerry focused and grounded. As the son of a foreign service officer, Kerry grew up all over the world and, ever since volunteering for the Navy during the Vietnam War, foreign policy has been his passion.

Some critics such as Helle Dale, a senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, sneer that becoming chairman was a “consolation prize— for Kerry, after seeing Clinton nominated to be secretary of State. But if Kerry was disappointed, he never showed it — and one of his first acts as chairman was to preside over Clinton’s confirmation hearings.

Kerry has been a solid partner for the Obama administration ever since, jumping into political hot spots around the world at a moment’s notice. He traveled to Afghanistan in October, for example, to meet with Afghan leaders in the midst of the country’s questionable election process.

In an e-mail to Roll Call, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said “Kerry’s presence and role were really decisive— in ensuring that the election was carried out to the satisfaction of world leaders.

“His impressive diplomatic skills, knowledge of the region, relationships and credibility with President Karzai and key Afghan leaders, and sheer determination were all instrumental in achieving a good outcome,— Eikenberry said.

Dale, the Heritage Foundation scholar, said the Foreign Relations Committee has become too closely linked with the Obama administration since Kerry became chairman. While politics dictates that a chairman who comes from the same party as the president is going to largely be supportive, Dale said that Kerry spends more time criticizing the previous Republican administration than the current one and isn’t holding Obama accountable for failing to meet certain deadlines for progress reports and policy updates. “I think there are opportunities for oversight that should be taken advantage of,— she said.

Kerry said the ability to work with Obama gives Democrats “a wonderful moment ... to get some big things done.—

“This is a moment I’ve been waiting for, to have a president of my party, to have a vice president who has been my friend for 25 years, and finally to have working majorities in Congress,— he said.

Kerry is also boldly playing a role in another key Obama initiative that doesn’t fall naturally into his committee’s portfolio: climate change. Not only did Kerry co-sponsor the Senate’s principal cap-and-trade bill with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Environment and Public Works chairman, but he has run the legislation through the Foreign Relations Committee — even though the primary markup will take place in EPW. Kerry is also leading “tripartisan— talks on the issue with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.).

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservative Voters, said that by putting the measure in front of Foreign Relations, Kerry has illustrated that climate change is truly a global issue, not just a question of modernizing U.S. environmental law. “It sort of in essence doubles down his ability to be effective,— Karpinski said.

Beyond policy questions, Kaufman said that Kerry has proved to be a very good manager of the Foreign Relations Committee at the most basic level. He deploys his staff well, he delegates responsibility, he’s courteous to junior members and he isn’t turf conscious. “It’s a real working committee, and I think Kerry deserves a lot of credit for that,— Kaufman said.

The Days Ahead

Looking ahead, Kerry said that the Foreign Relations Committee “will continue to ask the tough questions— on a variety of issues. He has already invited the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day, to testify before the committee this week.

On the political front, like a lot of top-ranking Democrats, Kerry has spent the last few days trying to help Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) win today’s special election to replace Kennedy — a race that has been a lot more difficult than party leaders bargained for.

Kerry penned a fundraising appeal for Coakley on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last week, and as of press time was expected to make at least one appearance with Coakley over the weekend — his first public event since his hip replacement surgery earlier this month.

Cahill, his former campaign manager, said one of Kerry’s most prized possessions is a picture of him and Kennedy together on the Capitol steps, taken on Kerry’s first day in office. “He’s determined to make sure that he and Martha Coakley can take the same picture together,— Cahill said.

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