“Just over there,” said the tall, dreary-looking man in the raincoat, gray hair topping his deep-set eyes and long face. He was standing just west of the Brandenburg Gate, beneath Berlin’s overcast sky, his finger pointing at something. “It was 1954,” he added, but that was all you could hear. Following in the Man’s wake was an amorphous mob that included a dozen photographers, American and German, snapping away on their $7,000 Canon 1D Xs. Others were Foreign Service Officers, or FSOs, divisible into three subspecies: the pony-tailed sci-fi nerds, who talked your ear off on the van ride from the airport; the slim-fit Thomas Pink metrosexuals, who scarcely looked at you while massaging their iPhones; and the liver-spotted lifers, who got their starts under Jimmy Carter and swore this would be their last posting. Also in tow were Diplomatic Security officers, their eyes hidden behind aviator shades as they muttered into miniaturized microphones, and their German counterparts, ripped dudes in pea-green vests with Polizei emblazoned across their backs.
Traveling press walks in the street! Herding us like cats was the State Department’s Ashley Yehl, a brown-haired Texan, 27 and already a veteran of VIP trips to 99 countries. Yehl was enjoining the American reporters from even thinking about walking on the cobblestones where the Man was leading the mob along a lordly half inch above the rest of us. Suddenly the Man—John Forbes Kerry, America’s 68th secretary of state—resumed his slow march across the Pariser Platz, and the mob slowly followed. Kerry was headed for the prime real estate just beside the gate that is home to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.
Even amid the din, reporters understood Kerry’s reference to 1954. We called it the Bicycle Story. Kerry was 10 years old, the son of an American lawyer and FSO then serving as a legal advisor to the high commissioner of Germany. Clutching his diplomatic passport, the young Kerry, four-foot-11, mischievously pedaled through the Brandenburg Gate and a checkpoint, where he got an eyeful of how the other half lived in what was then, at the height of the Cold War, called East Berlin. “[I] noticed very quickly how dark and unpopulated and sort of unhappy people looked,” Kerry told the embassy staffers. After the wayward boy had apprised his father of his travels, the elder Kerry yelled his head off—“You could have been an international incident! I could have lost my job!”—grounded the kid and yanked his passport.
We had all heard the Bicycle Story multiple times by this point. The day before, at a news conference in London with British foreign secretary William Hague—at which the five-foot-10 and balding Hague, to reach height parity with the six-foot-four Kerry, had to stand on a concealed box—the secretary unspooled a different but similar yarn, this time about his having gotten lost, as a child, in the London Zoo. “I want to thank somebody for finding me,” he joked. The bonhomie continued when Kerry told Hague, “This day, I must say, was made much easier. It was impossible for me to get lost, Mr. Secretary. Thank you.”
These anecdotes were meant to be endearing: a conjuring of bygone childhood innocence amid the jangly nerves of the Cold War and a reminder to all listeners, in every venue, that Kerry was the first child of an FSO to lead the State Department. Surely it was proper for the new secretary to bring along three dozen policy aides and FSOs, a small battalion of photographers and the CBS News pool crew, plus the traveling press and all the DS agents and stern-faced Polizei in order that this august event, this perfectly poignant moment, should be recorded for posterity, no?
Except that the secretary had already performed this exercise the night before, when he had bolted from Berlin’s Hotel Adlon—where visitors pay $19,500 a night to stay in the Royal Suite (“host to political leaders and rock stars”)—and taken a handful of aides to do the same thing: walk to the Brandenburg Gate and wistfully recall the Bicycle Story. Kerry’s staff had even tweeted a photograph of it. So the presence the following morning of the mob was necessary solely to breathe oxygen into a pseudo-event, a photo op in which John Kerry, that act we in the press have known for years, feigned nostalgia.
It was a fitting prelude to the steeper plunge into unreality that awaited us. Germany was the second leg of our 11-day trek to 10 European and Middle Eastern countries, a grueling marathon that marked Kerry’s first overseas trip as America’s top diplomat. As a White House and State Department correspondent for Fox News, I had logged hundreds of thousands of miles on similar trips, accompanying presidents and vice presidents, secretaries of state and defense, over the preceding decade. But this time was different. Never before had the world seemed so in flux and the American economy so hobbled by self-inflicted wounds. This toxic cocktail of weakness at home and upheaval abroad—the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lawlessness in Afghanistan and Pakistan—would make anxiety and frustration our constant traveling companions. As John Kerry and I were to learn together, it’s just not a fun time to be secretary of state.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the previous four years, Kerry had roamed the globe as an exofficio envoy on behalf of President Obama. He met with implacable dictators, such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and prickly allies, such as Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. The chairmanship capped Kerry’s nearly three decades in the Senate, which in turn followed his decorated service in Vietnam and celebrated conversion to leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The Man, in short, knew his way around the world. Of the 40 leaders he met with on this trip—kings, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers—all but one he had met before. “I’ve known him for so long,” the U.S. ambassador in one of the European nations could be overheard telling a senior Kerry aide. “And I like him. He’s better at this”—meaning diplomacy—“than the president, in some ways.”
Kerry had maintained a constant presence in American political life. He introduced John Lennon to antiwar crowds, led the early congressional investigations into Iran-contra, spent decades as Massachusetts’s junior senator, laboring in the everexpanding shadow of Ted Kennedy. But of all Kerry’s guises, the one most familiar to Americans in the 21st century is, let’s face it, that of loser—loser of the 2004 presidential election, the man who failed to oust George W. Bush from the White House, another in a long line of Democratic nominees painted, justly or unjustly, as soft, weak, indecisive: “I was for it before I was against it.” What few remember about 2004, however, is that if 60,000 Ohioans had gone the other way, President Kerry would have stretched out those long legs in the Oval Office.
As it happened, Kerry succeeded at State another well-known loser: Hillary Clinton, vanquished in the 2008 Democratic primaries by Barack Obama. Except no one sees Clinton that way. She left Foggy Bottom with record approval ratings, as well positioned today for the Democratic primaries of 2016 as she stood back in 2005, after Kerry’s defeat at the hands of Bush, for the 2008 contest. And while Clinton’s record as secretary is far from great—she logged the most miles and countries, yes, but no major peace accords or foreign-policy doctrines bear her name, and the threats posed by Iran, North Korea and AlQaeda’s evil stepchildren loom larger today than four years ago—her cautious, lawyerly demeanor, her focus on “safe” issues such as women’s empowerment and the veneration of the Washington intelligentsia make it common to hear the former first lady described as a “rock star” on the world stage: an exalted status that Kerry, whose rhetoric leans toward unlistenable, could never hope to match. “I have,” he quipped on his first day on the job, “big heels to fill.”
For Kerry’s aides, some imported from the Senate, others inherited from Clinton, the first order of business was to brand the new secretary’s interactions with overseas audiences. Clinton’s press wizard, the roguish Philippe Reines, had combined “town hall” and “interview” to dub Clinton’s road shows “townterviews,” a clumsy coinage that never stuck. At Base Camp, a hipster coffee bar in downtown Berlin where Kerry was to hold his first Q&A with young foreigners, a snazzy banner ginned up by embassy employees the day before our arrival signaled the path Kerry’s communications team had chosen. youth connect: berlin it read, with the Twitter logo and the inscriptions “#YouthConnect” and “#SecKerry.” The event was partially sponsored by Facebook. So that was the ticket: Sixty-nine-year-old John Kerry was to be repackaged as an avatar of the digital age.