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[Letter from Washington]

Secretary of Nothing

John Kerry and the myth of foreign policy

When former president Bill Clinton nominated Barack Obama for a second term at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, the hall was packed to the rafters with party dignitaries. One was conspicuous by her absence: Hillary Clinton, away on diplomatic business in East Timor. “For decades,” she said by way of explanation, “secretaries of state have not attended political conventions because of the nonpartisan nature of our foreign policy.”

Politicians love being thought of as nonpartisan and above the murky fray. That must explain why so many of them want to be secretary of state, even though the office confers little power of patronage (its choicest appointments — ambassadorships — being sold off by the president to the highest bidder), a puny budget, and none of the authority that comes from the ability to kill people or make them rich.

Nevertheless, two people very definitely wanted to be secretary of state in the first Obama Administration: Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Both deny it, of course. But Democratic Party sources insist that Obama, locked in a bitter nomination battle with Hillary Clinton, offered both men the coveted post in hopes of gaining their support when he needed it.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He writes frequently on defense and national affairs, and is the author, most recently, of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.

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