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John Kerry's Quiet Campaign Pays Off

Just like Susan Rice, Senator John Kerry was one of candidate Barack Obama’s earliest supporters, back when it was risky. The conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton was going to win and the people who had failed to join her would be left with tombstones for careers. (“A Clinton never forgets,” the terrified saying went.) Just like Rice, Kerry hoped for a certain, specific prize. For Rice it was national security advisor; for Kerry, secretary of state. And, just like Susan Rice, Kerry saw his dreams dashed when, four Decembers ago, president-elect Barack Obama nominated Clinton to be his secretary of state. Kerry was left in the Senate, where he consoled himself as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rice, too saw her dreams dashed, and the ineffectual James L. Jones got to take a very short stab at national security advisor, while she began serving as U.N. ambassador.

But unlike Rice, who saw her dream job plucked from her yet again this month, Kerry was nominated on Friday by Obama to serve him as secretary of state. What Obama said about him – that Kerry’s “entire life has prepared him for this role” – is also presumably what Obama would have said about Susan Rice, had he ever gotten around to nominating her.

But unlike Kerry and Clinton, Rice is not, and never has been a politician. It is something she has never really been interested in. Though she once harbored the ambition of becoming a senator, by the time college was over the dream was too. Being an elected official – being in politics, rather than policy – was not her thing. She didn’t want to glad hand and beg for money when she could be doing real, concrete things, she recently told me. “I did not have the patience to be a politician,” she said.

The secretary of state’s office, it turns out, is now just another elected office. And Kerry, though he ran the Democratic version of the limp and fumbling Romney campaign in 2004 (when Rice was a policy surrogate for him) is a better politician. He is friends with Senator John McCain, the man who sank Rice. Unlike Rice, who, as Obama’s foreign policy surrogate, slammed McCain in the 2008 race, Kerry has avoided pissing him off. Though McCain campaigned against Kerry, the two became pals through the bond of a shared war. In 1991, when Kerry was asked to chair a committee to investigate the possibility of American servicemen still languishing in Vietnam, the panel faced resistance from nutters. “I'd see the way some of these guys were exploiting the families of those missing in action, and I'd begin to get angry," McCain told The New Yorker a decade ago, "and John would sense it and put his hand on my arm to calm me down before I'd lose my effectiveness."

And if, unlike Kerry, Rice is known to her friends as a warm and loyal, genuine to the point of bluntness – a person who, as her high school basketball teammate told me, doesn’t hog the ball or crave the limelight – Kerry has been, almost since birth, a political animal, however clumsily. In that same New Yorker profile of Kerry, he is described as “risible” in his attempts to emulate the man who shared his initials, JFK:

Serious as all this was – he was, for a moment…the most compelling leader of the antiwar movement – there was something uneasy, and perhaps even faintly risible, about it, too, particularly the ill-disguised Kennedy playacting. Even as Kerry delivered his Senate testimony [about his opposition to the Vietnam War], he distorted his natural speech to sound more like that earlier J.F.K.; for example, he occasionally "ahsked" questions. (Kerry had befriended Robert F. Kennedy's speechwriter Adam Walinsky and consulted him about the speech, bouncing phrases and ideas off the old master.) This sort of thing had been a source of merriment for his classmates ever since prep school, where the joke was that his initials really stood for "Just For Kerry." He had volunteered to work on Edward Kennedy's 1962 Senate campaign, had dated Janet Auchincloss, who was Jacqueline Kennedy's half sister, had hung out at Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss family's estate in Newport, and had gone sailing with the President. A practical joke-one of many, apparently-was played on him in the 1966 Yale yearbook: he was listed as a member of the Young Republicans.

Kerry’s selection is a reminder that the country’s top diplomat is, first and foremost, a politician. He may not be the best politician, but to get the post, it seems, you have to play the game.