'Big heels to fill': What John Kerry signaled to State Dept. on his first day

On his first day at State Department, John Kerry introduced himself with humor, passion, a nod to the women who preceded him, and a pledge to focus on the 'security and safety of our people.'

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
New Secretary of State John Kerry shows his first diplomatic passport, which he got when he was 11 years old when his father was in the foreign service, during a ceremony welcoming him as the 68th secretary of State, Monday, at the State Department in Washington.

Secretary of State John Kerry says he has “big heels to fill” in his new role as America’s chief diplomat, acknowledging that for the past eight years women held the post he publicly assumed Monday morning.

Speaking to employees in the State Department’s lobby as he arrived for his first full day of work, Secretary Kerry also told a heartfelt “this-is-why-we-do-this” story of himself as a 12-year-old boy in a divided Berlin – where his father was a US foreign service officer – deciding one day to use his passport to ride his bicycle over to the eastern, Communist side of the city. 

“I really noticed the difference between the East and the West,” Kerry said. People in East Berlin “kind of held their heads down.… There was no joy in those streets."

"When I came back [to West Berlin],” he added, “I felt this remarkable sense of relief and a great lesson about the virtue of freedom and the virtue of the principles and ideals that we live by and that drive us.” 

Whether it was designed that way or not, Kerry’s story – and a few jokes about getting lost in the big building he’ll run – served as an antidote to speculation that an aloof and humorless old-style diplomat would replace the warm, passionate, and much-loved Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Kerry’s allusion to filling the “big heels” of Ms. Clinton – and before her, Condoleezza Rice – also touched, intentionally or not, on pre-confirmation speculation that the secretary of State job has in some eyes come to be considered as one best filled by a woman. 

As Kerry himself quipped in his comments, “The big question before the country and the world” is now: “Can a man actually run the State Department?” 

Gender typecasting of the secretary of State job was helped along by postelection rumors that the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was President Obama’s first choice for replacing Clinton. Another factor was a line of thinking that holds that the rise of “soft power” issues in diplomacy, like development and democratization, mean that women may be best-suited to directing America’s 21st-century diplomacy.

As he assumed his new position, Kerry seemed intent on scuttling the typecasting – of himself, but also of the role he is embarking on, both on the world stage and within the president’s national security cabinet.

Before heading to his new offices, Kerry also alluded to last September’s terrorist attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya – a tragedy that killed four Americans including the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and shook the morale of State Department employees.

“I guarantee you that, beginning this morning when I report for duty upstairs, everything I do will be focused on the security and safety of our people,” Kerry said.

Noting that the dangers US diplomats face “could not be more clear,” Kerry cited the names of the four fallen Americans – Ambassador Stevens, information officer Glen Dougherty, and security officers Tyrone Woods and Sean Smith – and pledged to “not let their patriotism and their bravery be obscured by politics.” To applause, he said he would “do everything I can to live up to the high standards that Secretary Clinton and her team put in place.” 

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