Senator John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, easily fielded his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday after receiving adulation from colleagues on the committee he has chaired for the past four years.
“Yours is a big chair to fill, and I will do my best today to live up to your example,” incoming Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in his opening statements. “You will need no introduction to the world's political and military leaders, and will begin—on day-one—fully conversant not only with the intricacies of U.S. policy, but with an understanding of the nuanced approach necessary to effectively interact on a multinational stage.”
The change in tone on the Hill Thursday was evident, just a day after outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee for more than five hours combined regarding her role in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September that left four Americans dead, including a U.S. Ambassador. Tensions from a series of contentious exchanges between Clinton and Senators on the committee Wednesday went largely unnoticed Thursday as Kerry took the podium, embraced by his colleagues.
Clinton praised Kerry as “a determined and effective representative of the United States” and “the right choice to carry forward the Obama administration’s foreign policy” while introducing him Thursday. She seemed at ease before the same committee that grilled her just a day earlier over insufficient security at the Benghazi compound and at one point, failed leadership at the Department of State.
A handful of Republican Senators tried to provoke debate over the Benghazi controversy during Kerry's hearing, including Senator Ron Johnson, whose testy exchange with Clinton sparked an impassioned defense from the Secretary of State Wednesday. "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” an exasperated Clinton told Johnson after he accused the Obama administration off misleading the public as to the nature of the attacks.
Johnson walked back the comments Thursday morning, telling a cable morning show, "The bottom line is, I agree with Secretary Clinton that we need to understand what happened so we can prevent it in the future."
Kerry told Johnson Thursday in response to a question about the Benghazi attack, "If you’re trying to get some daylight between me and Secretary Clinton, that’s not going to happen." He took issue with the Senator's characterization of the Obama administration "misleading" the American public over whether the attack was a planned act of terrorism or stemmed from a spontaneous protest.
"When you say 'why we were misled'—that implies an intent to actually mislead you somehow. I think there was a description of a variance of talking points." Later in the proceedings, McCain said, "We still haven't gotten the answers about what happened in Benghazi," and reiterated the notion that "Americas were misled by the talking points Secretary Rice told the American people, which were false," along with other factors he claimed were misleading.
The talking points in question—an unclassified document repeated by Ambassador Susan Rice on the Sunday morning shows following the September 11, 2012 attack on the mission in Benghazi—may have sealed Kerry's fate as head of the Department of State. Considered to be in the running to head the department, many close to the Obama administration speculated that Rice was in fact the frontrunner until she removed her name from consideration after never having been formally nominated.
After sustaining criticism from Republican Senators including John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-Ga., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Rice said in a letter to President Obama, "I am convinced now that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly-- to you and our most pressing national interests and international priorities."
Kerry, in contrast, began his confirmation process with a series of jokes to his colleagues. "I don't want this to affect your opening questions. But let me say I've never seen a more distinguished and better looking group of public officials in my life," Kerry said to laughter. In a show of bipartisanship, McCain introduced "[his] friend Senator Kerry" along with introductions from Clinton and newly-elected Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
"Our friendship has been affected from time to time by our enthusiasm for our differing views and by the competitive nature of politics," McCain said in his introduction. "But the friendship has endured, I believed, is based on mutual respect. Some observers have attributed that respect to the fact that when we were much younger, nicer, and better looking men than we are now, Senator Kerry and I spent some time at the Navy's behest, in a certain southeast Asian country in less pleasant circumstances than we're accustomed to in the United States Senate."
Both McCain and Kerry served in the Vietnam war, with four Purple Hearts earned between them. McCain cited their experience working together under former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey to investigate whether Americans remained in captivity in Vietnam and, after an investigative report found no credible evidence supporting that, to open relations between the U.S. and Vietnam.
Kerry in turn praised McCain's involvement in the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs of 1991-1993, saying "John had every reason to hate, but he didn't." McCain spent more than five years in captivity in northern Vietnam as a prisoner of war.
The testimony turned emotional when Kerry spoke about his late father, foreign service officer Richard Kerry. "I would take office as Secretary, proud that the Senate is in my blood, but equally proud that so too is the foreign service," Kerry said. "My father's work under presidents both Democrat and Republican, took me and my siblings around the world for a personal journey that brought home the sacrifices and the commitment the men and women of the foreign service make every day on behalf of America."
Kerry deftly deflected an interruption by a protester during the proceedings, who shouted concerns about the Middle East and Iran. "I'll tell you Mr. Chairman, " Kerry resumed, "when I first came to Washington and testified, I obviously was testifying as part of a group of people who came here to have their voices heard and that is above all what this place is about. So I respect I think the woman who was voicing her concerns...People measure what we do and in a way that is a good exclamation point to my testimony."
If confirmed, Kerry will be the eighth secretary of state from Massachusetts, but only the second in the past 100 years according to the Boston Globe. Sen. Menendez pointed out Thursday that Kerry would be the first member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ascent directly to Secretary of State in more than 100 years. Kerry would be the fifth chairman of that committee to be appointed, and the first sitting chairman.