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John Kerry, A 'Recovering Politician,' Settles Into Diplomatic Role

Mar 6, 2013
Originally published on March 6, 2013 8:44 pm

Secretary of State John Kerry describes himself as a recovering politician. He's just getting used to the fact that he can't speak quite as freely as he did when he was a senator.

"Each word means more, each relationship is played differently," he said in an interview with NPR, at the end of a nine-nation swing through Europe and the Middle East. "As a senator, you just don't have those stakes riding in it."

Now, he's part of an administration that, by most accounts, runs its foreign policy out of the White House.

Kerry is sounding like a good soldier.

"I've been part of a team a lot of my life, one way or another, and I understand hierarchy," he says. "I served in the military. I am pleased to be part of President Obama's team particularly."

When Kerry ran for president in 2004, he downplayed his French language abilities. Now he flaunts it and often talks about his international upbringing, which seemed to involve a lot of bike trips.

Growing Up In Germany

Kerry says his mother rode a bicycle to safety when German troops approached Paris during World War II. Then, there was this often repeated tale of a 12-year-old John Kerry living in Germany with his diplomat father, having his own bicycle adventure in Communist East Berlin.

"When I came home, I told my dad and he got upset with me and said, 'You could have been an international incident, I could have lost my job' ... so I got grounded," Kerry said during his stop in Berlin.

In Paris, at the gilded Quai d'Orsay, Kerry thanked his French hosts, in perfect French, for one of those "wonderful French lunches that have been drawing Americans to Paris for centuries."

He then said he would switch back to English, "otherwise I won't be able to go back home."

Kerry rarely ventured out from the official meetings in palaces and foreign ministries on this trip. When he did try his hand at public diplomacy at an Internet cafe in Berlin, he got a bit carried away as he made the case for free speech and tolerance in America.

"Americans have the right to be stupid if you want to be," he proclaimed in what became one of the most quoted phrases of the trip. It even made headlines in Iran.

The former Massachusetts senator also had a penchant for bringing up his home state whenever he could, even when it came to his choice of ties.

When a young German man at the cafe complimented Kerry on his pink tie, Kerry helpfully pointed out, "You can get it on the Internet."

"It's inspired by my state, Massachusetts, but the company is in Connecticut next door to me, and I'll tell everyone it's called vineyardvines.com," Kerry said.

Kerry, one of the wealthiest Cabinet secretaries in the Obama administration, was quick to add that he doesn't own any stock in the company.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We are starting to see a different side of John Kerry, now that he's a globetrotting diplomat as the new Secretary of State. When the former senator from Massachusetts ran for president, he downplayed the fact that he speaks French; a tad bit elite for a candidate. Now he can flaunt it.

NPR's Michele Kelemen filed this report on what it's like to travel with Secretary Kerry, who just finished a trip to nine countries through Europe and the Middle East.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At first, we heard a lot about bike trips. How Kerry's mother, who was born in France, rode on a bicycle - with her sister and friends - out of Paris as German troops approached in World War II. And then there was this often repeated tale of a 12-year-old John Kerry living in Germany with his diplomat father, having his own bicycle adventure in Communist East Berlin.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: When I came home, I told my dad and he got very upset with me and said, You could have been an international incident, I could have lost my job, blah-blah-blah. So I lost my passport. And I was grounded and I never did a trip like that. But I've never forgotten it.

KELEMEN: The new Secretary of State was eager to show off his international experience and his ear for languages, whether in German, Italian or French.

KERRY: (French spoken)

KELEMEN: In a gilded room at the Quai d'Orsay, Kerry thanked the French foreign minister for one of those, quote, "wonderful French lunches that have been drawing Americans to Paris for centuries."

KERRY: (French spoken)

KELEMEN: Now I will speak in English, he then said, because otherwise I won't be able to go back home.

(LAUGHTER)

KELEMEN: He got so used to speaking and understanding the various languages on this trip that he forgot, at one point, to listen to the translation, at a news conference with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, who seemed to get a kick out of it.

(LAUGHTER)

AHMED DAVUTOGLU: Ah, yes. I think that's because we are speaking not from the tongue to the ear, but from the mind to the mind.

KELEMEN: Kerry rarely ventured out from the official meetings in palaces and foreign ministries on this trip. But when he did try his hand at public diplomacy at an Internet café in Berlin, he got a bit carried away as he made the case for free speech and tolerance in America.

KERRY: In America, you have a right to be stupid if you want to be.

KELEMEN: And that became one of the most quoted phrases of the trip, even making headlines in Iran. The former Massachusetts senator also had a penchant for bringing up his home state whenever he could - even when it came to his choice of neckties.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I like your tie.

(LAUGHTER)

KERRY: You can get it on the Internet.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Great, cool.

KERRY: It's inspired by my state, Massachusetts. But the company is actually in Connecticut next door to me. And I'll tell everyone it's called VineyardVines.com.

(LAUGHTER)

KELEMEN: Kerry, who is one of the wealthiest cabinet secretaries in the Obama administration, was quick to add that he doesn't own any stock in the company.

When he visited U.S. embassies, in nine countries on this trip, Kerry often joked that he's a recovering politician. When I asked him what it was like traveling as a diplomat rather than a senator, Kerry made clear he's just getting used to the fact that he can't speak quite as freely.

KERRY: Each word means more. Each relationship is played differently. And so, you have to think - needless to say - about the implications of that in terms of policy and potential missteps. I mean that you do feel. You know, as a senator, you just don't have those stakes riding on it.

KELEMEN: And you are part of a team now, which seems to be very...

KERRY: I like being part of a team. I've been part of a team a lot of my life, one way or the other. And I understand hierarchy. I've served in the military. I am pleased to be part of President Obama's team.

KELEMEN: Well, thank you very much for...

KERRY: Thank you.

KELEMEN: ...letting me tag along.

KERRY: My pleasure, thank you for doing so. Glad you are.

KELEMEN: I'm Michele Kelemen traveling with the secretary in Doha, Qatar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.