Why John Kerry Is the Ultimate Comeback Kid

National Journal

The John Kerry Lovefest was something. There was John McCain, sitting at the witness table to back Kerry’s nomination as secretary of State. There was Hillary Rodham Clinton doing the same, even though Kerry had been an early supporter of Barack Obama in 2008.

With his wife, Teresa, by his side, Kerry looked more in command — astride the world — than he did eight years ago when he won his party’s presidential nomination. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Bob Corker, asked Kerry how he’d deal with the apostate views of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, it was a telling moment. When Republican senators are rallying around a former Democratic presidential nominee and are exercised over a former Republican senator, something’s amiss, and it’s telling of the affection that Kerry’s Senate colleagues feel for him.

He is getting the white-glove treatment in part because Republicans have their guns trained on Hagel and other Obama nominees. But Kerry is also a breed apart. The Washington pundit class had focused on him being stiff, had lumped him in with Michael Dukakis, another losing Democratic nominee from Massachusetts. That Kerry’s vice presidential nominee turned out to be the relentlessly self-destructive John Edwards hasn’t added to his standing with the political class.

But Sen. Kerry and presidential nominee Kerry were always two different creatures. Kerry was an ace senator who may have grown up genteel poor, taking a cab to Mass when he was at St. Paul’s, but who was very much at home in the rich man’s club. (At the hearing, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho offered to keep an eye on Kerry’s Sun Valley estate.)

In the odd family politics of the chamber of 100, Kerry spent more than a generation in the shadow of a larger public figure, Edward Kennedy. Junior members are about due diligence. Long before al-Qaida reared its head, Kerry launched an impressive, painstaking investigation of BCCI, the Bank of Commerce and Credit International, exposing its links to criminal enterprises. On Thursday morning, McCain praised their work together restoring U.S. relations with Vietnam. Kerry commands the respect of his Senate colleagues, and that showed up this morning.

Still, Kerry is a mix of national-party figure and diligent senator. He is the party's first presidential nominee since Charles Evans Hughes to become  secretary of State and the first Foreign Relations Committee chairman in over a century to become secretary of State. He brings an absurd amount of diplomatic experience to the job. No one is more comfortable at Davos or Vital Voices or the Atlantic Council or the Council on Foreign Relations, where he and Teresa are like their own NGO. He’ll never need a name tag.

In a world where much of diplomacy is conducted through these independent groups, Kerry is totally at home. When he quoted Henry Kissinger at length in his opening statement before the Foreign Relations Committee on building a “new world order,” Kerry was totally oblivious to the black-helicopter conspiracy buffs for whom that phrase is incendiary. The son of a Foreign Service officer is out of place in a world of tea-party politics, but he’ll be at home in the world of diplomacy.

There is an intersection of politics and policy that is worth reflecting on. Kerry was caught unawares by the assault leveled against him in the 2004 campaign. There were the savage ads from Bush media point man Mark McKinnon, now ironically a voice for the Kumbaya group No Labels, and there was the extra-campaign assault from Swift Boat groups. Kerry had been proud of his volunteering in Vietnam and his service there and his protests following the war, and he never really knew how to respond to the attacks.

The Swift Boat assault upended his worldview of himself, and his hapless campaign leadership, which didn’t want to dignify it with a response, was culpable for the damage. In many respects, Kerry did better than any presidential challenger should have just three years after 9/11. He almost won, save for a small number of votes in Ohio, and he didn’t have to concede until the next day.

So it’s not that Kerry had poor political instincts. But the way he got blindsided on Swift Boats is a cautionary tale. No one knows foreign policy better than Sen. Kerry. But candidate Kerry learned that what you don’t know and can’t anticipate can kill you.

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