America’s right wing calls him ‘Lurch’ after the creepy manservant to the Adams Family. During his bid for the presidency in 2004, he was criticised for his “wooden delivery”. The Philadelphia Enquirer wrote that his demeanour ranges from “dour to very dour”. Some years later, John Kerry countered saying, “My stiff delivery, my wooden, robot-like hand gestures, were all an attempt on my part to be hilarious.”
The US secretary of state was accused of being too elitist, a wealthy man with an even wealthier wife, unable to connect with ordinary folk. Worse, he was seen as a Europhile, a sophisticate fluent in several European languages, not at all the sort the kind of guy who would be at home munching burgers at a neighbourhood barbecue like George W. Bush or comfortable serving meals in a soup kitchen as President Barack Obama and Michelle appear to be.
Kerry’s ambitions were further hobbled by the perception that he’s prone to making gaffes. In October 2006, he stunned the nation telling Californian college students, “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq,” a comment he described as “a botched joke” targeting Bush.
He may not be the diplomats’ diplomat but he does possess an endearing self-deprecating quality. Rather than attempt to bury his misplaced remark, when speaking to US troops he said he planned to skip the 2008 race to concentrate on comedy, adding “Do you know what happens to comedians who botch a joke? They get stuck in Iraq.” Unable to raise a laugh, Kerry’s comedic future was dead in the water.
As secretary of state, Kerry has come into his own. His rhetoric might not be as inspiring as that of his boss, but he’s proven to be a man of substance, an accomplished negotiator able to make a real difference. Indeed, he may well go down in history as the man who averted an all-out Middle East war by convincing the Russians to lean on Al Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons arsenal.
On Syria, his voice has been injected with passion whereas Obama appears unconvincing, his message lacklustre. Kerry’s ‘gaffe’ daring Al Assad to place his chemicals under international control within a week, which the State Department was quick to write off as “rhetorical”, he now says was a deliberate throw-out in the hope that Putin would grab the line, which he did with alacrity.
In one fell swoop, Kerry has not only dragged the US a step away from a conflict that few Americans desired and Congress was poised to oppose, he succeeded in developing strong personal ties with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, evidenced by the easy-going mutual banter the two decision-makers clearly enjoy.
Thus, the seeds of future cooperation between these two world powers have been planted at a time when the US-Russian relationship was chilly, close to freezing over Syria as well as Moscow’s embrace of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Three days of togetherness in Geneva have achieved the impossible, a detailed plan to decommission the Syrian’s regime’s poisons by the middle of next year. More importantly, there is real hope for Geneva II, planned but as yet unscheduled, because if Moscow and Washington can get on the same page, Al Assad will be under serious pressure to agree to a political solution to the two-and-a-half year civil war that has claimed so many lives.
These days, Kerry looks more presidential than America’s commander-in-chief who is currently behaving like an infantile spoiler, banging on about strikes on Syria being still on the table. And he is certainly more grown-up than warmongering John McCain and his glued-on sidekick Lindsey Graham who have slammed the agreement as permitting Al Assad “to delay and deceive”.
McCain seems intent on destroying his country’s influence in the Middle East beginning with his strut around Cairo insulting the interim government and labelling the transition as “a coup” that should be punished by the cutting of US aid to Egypt and now he is undermining State Department efforts on Syria.
His plans to write a scathing op-ed to be published in Pravda as a tit-for-tat repost to Putin’s in the New York Times decrying Obama’s touting of American exceptionalism will only pollute a warming atmosphere.
Kerry is firmly at the helm of the latest US-brokered Israel-Palestinian peace initiative. On Sunday, he travelled to occupied Jerusalem to meet with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss progress on peace and the Syrian deal.
Obama’s attempt to put Israelis and Palestinians together during his first time was half-hearted to put it kindly and, as usual, as soon as he faced obstacles, he dropped the case.
In the, admittedly, unlikely event, Kerry can succeed where others have failed, his credentials as a statesman will be assured along with any future presidential bid he cares to make. The lesson here is, never judge a book by its cover. Obama may have talked the talk, but Kerry’s the one walking the walk. More power to his elbow!
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org