Joan Vennochi

Kerry’s sharp eye on the secretary spot

Senator John Kerry, in his role as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, holds a hearing on Iraq and how to transition to a civilian government. Senator John Kerry, in his role as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, holds a hearing on Iraq and how to transition to a civilian government. (Associated Press)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 4, 2011

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AS EGYPT battles over its future, Senator John Kerry is negotiating his own.

The Bay State’s senior senator is running an unofficial campaign to become the next secretary of state. For once, he looks artful, as well as ambitious.

His recent opinion piece in the New York Times said what President Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t: Mubarak must go.

Kerry’s conclusion was elegant, but unequivocal: “President Hosni Mubarak must accept that the stability of his country hinges on his willingness to step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure.’’

Secretary of state is the spot Kerry wanted when Barack Obama won the presidency. He lost out to Hillary Clinton and Obama’s “team of rivals.’’ But his fallback position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee provides a powerful platform to press his case.

For months, there has been speculation that Kerry will get the job he wants in an Obama second term. Clinton said publicly that she is not committed to the position beyond 2012. She also tamped down speculation that she wants to move to the Pentagon as secretary of defense.

Right now, Clinton is caught up in an administration that looked unprepared and off-balance when Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo. Clinton initially said Mubarak’s government was stable and “looking for ways to respond to legitimate needs and interests’’ of the Egyptian people. During an interview, Vice President Joe Biden declined to label Mubarak a dictator. According to the New York Times, when the Obama administration sent an emissary to Cairo last Sunday, its message to Mubarak “was still in flux.’’

By Tuesday, Mubarak was pushed to the point of promising not to run again, a pledge that did not satisfy the people in the streets. In his address to the nation on Tuesday night, Obama said he told Mubarak “that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.’’ The president’s words fell short of Kerry’s clarity. It took until Wednesday for the White House to say “Now meant yesterday.’’

After more than a quarter-century in the Senate — a tenure that included an unsuccessful run for president — it’s about time Kerry finds his voice. For years, he toiled in Ted Kennedy’s shadow. Then, as the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, he squandered the opportunity by presenting himself in a way that allowed him to be caricatured as an overly-nuanced flip-flopper. After Kennedy’s death, Republican Scott Brown won the newly-dubbed “people’s seat,’’ shocking the political world and creating a new shadow for Kerry to toil under.

Back at home, Kerry doesn’t always get respect. He’s either being dogged over docking a yacht in Rhode Island instead of Massachusetts to avoid taxes, or ignored. A recent speech he delivered to the Center for American Progress about what’s broken in American politics was overshadowed when Joseph Kennedy III, Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson, sounded a similar theme on the same day.

But in Washington, it’s different. Kerry’s speech got great respect. Gushed the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, “Frankly, it’s the speech President Obama should be giving.’’ Kerry also won praise for helping Obama win Senate ratification of the START arms control agreement with Russia.

This week, Kerry’s committee released a report concluding that American diplomats may not be safe if the US military leaves Iraq at the end of the year, as planned. Kerry — who now calls Iraq “our forgotten war’’ — is also scheduled to hold committee hearings on Afghanistan. His backing of a military “surge’’ in that country helped Obama win support for it. Since then, Kerry has expressed doubts about Afghanistan, supporting the war but questioning the strategy.

As an early Obama supporter, but one who is not committed to every policy as an Obama administration insider would be, Kerry can take a different stance on complex issues. He can stake out personal turf, as he did with Mubarak, and showcase the combination of diplomacy and boldness that catches the world’s and the president’s attention.

With Egypt as the backdrop, Kerry knows the truth of an often-cited maxim that is associated with Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Out of crisis, comes opportunity.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at