Kerry Sees ‘Big Heels’ to Fill as New U.S. Secretary of State

Secretary of State John Kerry said he has “big heels to fill” and recalled a childhood brush with Communism in first-day remarks to State Department employees that gave no indication of changes he may envision for U.S. foreign policy.

On Kerry’s first formal day on the job, he pledged today to focus on the safety of U.S. diplomats around the world and to not let politics obscure the legacy of four Americans killed in the September attack in Benghazi, Libya. He spent the weekend after his Friday swearing-in ceremony making calls to allies around the world.

The former Massachusetts senator is the first white male to hold the job as top U.S. diplomat in 16 years. He takes on the post as the U.S. is working toward withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, facing a civil war in Syria and rising Islamist threats in North Africa, and dealing with tensions over disputed claims in the oil-rich South China Sea. Most pressing may be the looming specter of a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.

None of that made it into Kerry’s welcome remarks, which he kept light and -- for a famously loquacious speaker -- relatively short. He alluded to his two immediate predecessors, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.

“Here’s the big question after the last 8 years,” Kerry told the hundreds of employees who crowded the lobby of the Harry S. Truman Building. “Can a man actually run the state department? As the saying goes, I have big heels to fill.”

‘Awesome Task’

Kerry thanked Clinton and President Barack Obama “for his trust in me to take on this awesome task.”

Obama’s “vision and what he has implemented” over the last few years, “without any question, has restored America’s place and reputation in the world,” Kerry said.

Kerry, 69, is the first white male to hold the job since Warren Christopher stepped down as Secretary of State in 1997. Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Rice and Clinton have held the office since then.

Kerry, a 28-year veteran of the Senate and the former chairman of its Foreign Relations Committee, told the crowd he had the Senate in his blood, “but it’s also true that the foreign service is in my genes.”

His father was a foreign service officer who took his family overseas to Berlin. His sister worked at the United Nations and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, speaks five languages, he said.

Holding up his first diplomatic passport, issued when he was 11 years old, Kerry told the crowd that when his family lived in Berlin, he once used the passport to bicycle into the Russian-controlled sector of the postwar divided city.

“As a 12-year-old kid, I really did notice the starkness,” Kerry said, recalling the dark clothing and that “there was no joy on those streets.”

Joking that today’s tabloids would comment on “Kerry’s early Communist connections,” the new secretary of state said the experience taught him a great lesson in the virtues of freedom, even if it did get him grounded by his angry dad.

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