Published January 13, 2015
With the smile of a seasoned politician, a flair for languages and a vast repertoire of personal anecdotes, Secretary of State John Kerry schmoozed and cajoled his way through Europe and the Middle East on his first trip abroad as America's top envoy. But as far as diplomatic triumphs go, Dennis Rodman stole the show.
Kerry plunged into his first official overseas voyage by touring the capitals of America's traditional Western European allies, charming his hosts in Britain, France, Germany and Italy with his patrician bearing, fluent French, passable German and smattering of Italian.
He greeted officials with the comfortable blue-blooded bonhomie of a well-heeled man at ease in the grand salons of London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, yet one still deeply affected by his combat experience in Vietnam, something he made clear to German youth in a town hall meeting on the second stop of the trip.
Leaving Europe behind, Kerry immersed himself in the byzantine politics of a volatile Mideast that is struggling with the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring, an area in which the Obama administration must toe a delicate line between advocacy and unwanted interference.
In Rome and Cairo, he doled out modest aid packages to the Syrian opposition and to Egypt's foundering Islamist government with an appeal for that country's bickering politicians to save their nation from economic ruin — at the same time Congress and the Obama administration were bickering about cuts to the United States' budget. In Ankara and Riyadh, he rebuked the Turks over anti-Israel rhetoric and warned Iran about its nuclear program.
The silver-maned, slightly hard-of-hearing, 69-year-old Kerry also announced a significant shift in policy toward the Free Syrian Army, providing nonlethal assistance directly to the armed rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.
However, the biggest diplomatic coup during Kerry's trip sprung from his antithesis: a flamboyant, retired NBA star with multiple body piercings who became the first American to have ever met North Korea's reclusive young leader, Kim Jong-Un.
Thus it was Dennis Keith Rodman, former Chicago Bull, Southeastern Oklahoma State attendee, basketball journeyman and Madonna boy toy, and not Yale-educated John Forbes Kerry, former Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential nominee, who was the talk of the foreign policy cocktail circuit back home.
Kerry told NBC on Tuesday that Rodman "was a great basketball player, and as a diplomat, he was a great basketball player. That's where we'll leave it."
Still, Kerry soldiered on, conscious of the legacy left by his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, but determined to make his own mark on U.S. diplomacy as America's 68th secretary of state and clean up some long unfinished business along with way.
At a meeting with U.S. Embassy staff in Abu Dhabi, the ex-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee described himself as a "recovering politician and budding diplomat" and reprised the biggest laugh line of his speech to the State Department on his first on the job.
"I have big heels to fill," he said to chuckles. "The big test, obviously, as I mentioned, is: Can a man do this job now?"
Kerry was apparently unfazed when nearly half of the Egyptian opposition figures invited to meet him at a roundtable at a luxury Cairo hotel didn't show up. They complained that the United States is siding with President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. Nonetheless, Kerry gave his message that politicians of all sides have to compromise for the good of the nation.
Kerry dutifully reassured Europeans that the Obama administration's much-publicized pivot to Asia won't leave them bereft of the trans-Atlantic ally that protected them from Cold War Soviet ambitions. He made clear to Gulf Arabs wary of Iran's growing assertiveness that Washington would not allow Tehran to get nukes and run roughshod through the region.
And, in a nod toward hopes for possible progress on the Mideast peace front, he had lunch Monday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Saudi Arabia.
The first white man to run the State Department since Warren Christopher stepped down in 1997, Kerry appears to be a throwback to the "pale, male, Yale" era of American diplomacy when the striped-pants Ivy League set ruled the roost in Foggy Bottom and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.
But despite the wardrobe of custom suits and a rack of pink and teal neckties from a Martha's Vineyard clothier that proudly caters to the preppy crowd, Kerry strove to present an everyman persona, notably to embassy staff.
He recalled his time growing up as a foreign service officer's child in post-World War II Europe. He promised to fight for funding for them even as budget cuts kick in.
"When I was the son of a foreign service officer and went to another country, and changed schools, I didn't really know where I was, and wasn't too sure why," he told employees at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, after pulling about two dozen of their offspring onto the dais with him to pose for pictures.
"And, I'll tell you folks, you put up with a lot in that respect," he said. "I know what it means to be in this great endeavor."
After nearly falling off the stage in an embassy reception room in Rome, Kerry regaled those assembled with a story about how he and the current U.S. ambassador to Italy decades ago bought a broken-down London taxi and drove through Europe with post-adolescent gusto.
"I think we left London one night at midnight and went to the ferry and went across to France and went down through France and Spain and then down into Italy and had a great adventure, running with the bulls in Pamplona and all those crazy things you do when you're 18 years old," he recalled.
A little more than a stone's throw from the Vatican on the day Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff to retire in 600 years, the practicing Roman Catholic was greeted with the headline "Kerry Arrives; Pope Goes."
In Paris, where his mother, Rosemary, of the wealthy Forbes clan, was born and later worked as a nurse's aide during World War II before fleeing the city on a bicycle as the Nazis marched into the city in June 1940, Kerry hinted at youthful fun in the City of Light.
"I spent, or misspent, a night or two of my youth here in this city," he said with a roguish grin. "I will not tell you about wandering around Paris all night long just to live it and feel it."
Now, decades later, a man whose entire life appears to have been prologue to being secretary of state is wrapping up a diplomatic dash that has taken him to nine countries in 10 days.
He has his diplomatic passport back and seems ready to use it.