(WASHINGTON) — Former Senator John Kerry entered the State Department as the 68th Secretary of State for the first time on Monday morning, greeted by the cheers and applause of hundreds of State Department employees.
A jovial Kerry peppered his remarks with jokes, eliciting laughter from the crowd throughout his roughly 10 minute speech, given in the same spot former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her emotional farewell on Friday.
“Here’s the big question before the country and the world and the State Department after the last eight years: Can a man actually run the State Department?” joked Kerry, referencing his most recent predecessors, Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. “As the saying goes, I have big heels to fill.”
Kerry turned serious when talking about last September’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Kerry spoke of all four of the Americans killed by name.
“I know everybody here still mourns that loss, and we will,” he said. “So I pledge to you this: I will not let their patriotism and their bravery be obscured by politics.”
He also promised that safety and security of foreign service officers will be his highest priority.
The former senator comes to the job as America’s top diplomat from a rich history in foreign affairs. Besides sitting on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for nearly three decades, Kerry was the son of a career diplomat.
He told the crowd that while the Senate may be in his blood, foreign service and diplomacy is in his genes. To reiterate the point, the secretary pulled out his first diplomatic passport, issued to him as an 11-year-old in 1954. His family traveled with his father who was on assignment in Berlin, only a decade after World War II.
“I used this very passport to pass through into the East Sector, the Russian sector, and I bicycled around, and I’ll tell you, as a 12-year-old kid, I really did notice the starkness, the desolation,” he said. “If the tabloids today knew I had done that, I can see the headlines that say, ‘Kerry’s Early Communist Connections;’ something like that,” he joked.
But he spoke earnestly about how that first up-close encounter with communism in Berlin as a child helped shape his ideals.
“I really noticed the difference between the east and west. There were very few people. They were dressed in dark clothing. They kind of held their heads down…There was no joy in those streets,” he said. “And when I came back, 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.”
It’s those American ideals, Kerry told the crowd, that he plans to continue to promote in his new position.
“I look forward to joining with you as we march down this road together, living the ideals of our country, which is the best — imagine,” said Kerry. “What other job can you have where you get up every day and advance the cause of nation, and also, keep faith with the ideals of your country on which it is founded, and most critically, meet our obligations to our fellow travelers on this planet. That’s as good as it gets. And I’m proud to be part of it with you. So now let’s get to work.”
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