The French are fond of a quote by 17th Century author, Duc de La Rochefoucauld:
C'est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habilité It takes great skill to hide the fact that you have great skill.
Such words may well have been on their mind last Friday, when the recently confirmed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed his first diplomat to Washington, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, while simultaneously earning a few scowls from the French community during a news conference. After posing several questions to Kerry about the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, a reporter ended her inquiry by wittingly asking him to answer with a little bit of French.
Rather than play along—Kerry’s mother was born in Paris, he was trained to speak the language fluently at a Swiss boarding school, and he courted his Portuguese wife with the Romantic gestures of a French tongue—the U.S. secretary deferred, claiming that he needed to “refresh” himself on the popular dialect.
Perhaps Kerry failed to anticipate the possibility that a Canadian reporter would tempt him with a foreign language he was intimately familiar, but the knee-jerk hesitation he employed was uniquely rooted in the partisanship of American politics. During a failed run for president in 2004 (and ironically, the campaign that launched the national aspirations of one, Barack Obama), then Senator John Kerry was berated in the media for several reasons, one of which involved his alleged favoritism of French interests over American patriotism.
That he spoke French was only more polarizing to several members of the voting population, so it ought to come as no great surprise that he would now, regardless of his esteemed title, claim to be a little rusty at speaking the language. Maybe the French are right. Maybe Kerry is using great skill to pretend he has no skill. But more than likely, he still has a slight uneasiness about the opinions of an American public he no longer reports to.
What Kerry will need to learn, as did the 67 secretaries who preceded him, is that he was not elected to serve the state by the will of the people. He was chosen and affirmed to serve his post by the President of the United States and the U.S. Senate, respectively. This affords him a unique freedom to observe and discuss affairs of the state, both foreign and domestic, without being directly subjected to the fickle nature of the voters.
After being sworn into office on Thursday by Justice Elena Kagan, Secretary Kerry became the first white male to hold the position in 16 years, prompting satires and self-aggrandizing humor about whether he was capable of filling the heels and dresses of his two most recent predecessors, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. No doubt Kerry has already pondered the footsteps of an even greater precedent; the long line of Americans who managed the position for two centuries.
In November of 1789, as the experiment of a new nation was fresh on the lips of the American people, Thomas Jefferson, who was abroad in Paris, received a letter of correspondence from President Washington, asking him to accept an appointment as the first U.S. Secretary of State.
Both men had lofty visions of a peaceful retirement, believing that their great labors for the state were all but over. Regardless of his unanimous election to the presidency, Washington saw his journey to the head of government like a criminal being led to his execution. From one reluctant leader to another, the president’s letter to Jefferson produced similar apprehensions:
“I received with real regret. My wish had been to return to Paris, where I had left my household establishment, as if there myself, and to see the end of the [French] Revolution… I then meant to return home, to withdraw from political life…to sink into the bosom of my family and friends.”
Jefferson, like Kerry, had an understandable affection for France.
During the American Revolution, much of our financial and military support had come at the expense of the French, which seemed to Jefferson, like an indelible I.O.U. Should France request support for their own causes in the future, he believed the United States would come to their aid as a measure of affordable gratitude.
Jefferson received his appointment to U.S. Secretary of State while abroad, quietly encouraging the French with a sincere belief that President Washington was in full support of their early revolution. In reality, Washington had serious concerns about the origins of the revolution and most certainly perceived the United States as too young and unprepared to rally in any war with an overseas ally.
When Jefferson arrived in New York the following March to take up his post as secretary of state, what he witnessed were extravagancies and social courtesies that seemed to him as deplorable.
“I cannot describe the wonder and mortification with which the table conversations filled me. Politics were the chief topic, and a preference of kingly, over republican, government, was evidently the favorite sentiment.”
Among those in Washington’s administration, Alexander Hamilton had one of the loudest political voices at the table. A debate was stirring over how to protect the individual states from the financial debts they had incurred during the war. Hamilton proposed a National Bank that might, if possible, swallow up each of the state obligations and make the Federal Government responsible for all repayment to outside alliances. But as Congress took up the issue, Jefferson made an amusing observation that still rings true in the modern era:
“This great and trying question however was lost in the House of Representatives. So high were the feuds excited by this subject, that on its rejection, business was suspended. Congress met and adjourned from day to day without doing anything, the parties being too much out of temper to do business together.”
According to Jefferson, a Federalist party was deeply embedded in the Congress, bent on thwarting the new Constitution and making the United States no better than the corrupted central government from which the French rebels were striving to overthrow. So as to counter the insurgent rise of a misleading, corrupt party, Jefferson worked alongside James Madison to build what became known as the Democratic-Republican Party. More explicitly, however, he believed you were either a republican (in favor of giving more power to the people) or an anti-republican (in favor of a strong government). In today’s language, partisanship often takes a similar plunge: you’re either with me or against me.
“The inconveniences of an inefficient government, driving the people as is usual, into the opposite extreme…elections to the first Congress ran very much in favor of those who were known to favor a very strong government. Hence the anti-republicans appeared a considerable majority in both houses… at the third election a decided majority of Republicans were sent to the lower house of Congress; and as information spread still farther after the fourth election the anti-republicans have become a weak minority… once brought back to act on the true principles of the Constitution, backed by the people, [Democratic-Republicans] will be able to defeat the plan of sliding us into monarchy, and to keep the executive within Republican bounds.”
With all of the political infighting of Washington’s first term, Secretary Jefferson did very little abroad during his time in office, resigning after three years to try and live the private life he had once envisioned for himself while in Paris.
Partisanship was at an all-time high when Jefferson’s successor, Edmund Randolph, resigned within one year, facing charges of corruption for attempting to be a voice of moderation in the war between England and France. However, the leader of those charges was none other than Randolph’s inevitable replacement, Timothy Pickering, who demonstrated his mastery of presidential manipulation, rarely siding with Washington or Adams on matters of foreign policy.
By the fourth attempt at secretary of state, the brief tenure of John Marshall introduced a new precedent for the office: loyalty to the party of the president. Marshall was loyal to the Federalist Party (Adams), Madison was loyal to the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson), and so on.
Of course, this was not a guarantee that the president and his secretary of state would always be aligned on all matters of foreign and domestic policy, but their partisan allegiances would minimize the tendency toward political conflict, leaving them open to more personal conflicts.
For example, when President James Madison, who had served in the position for eight years under Jefferson, begrudgingly appointed Robert Smith to the post, Madison saw him as loyal but incompetent. The two men were often divided over matters of individual pride, but they were typically aligned on matters of political necessity.
Each of the four secretaries of state to follow Smith would eventually run for president—three of them, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren, victorious in their respective elections.
From 1831 to 1973, when Henry Kissinger was appointed by President Nixon, only a few names from the office of secretary of state have continued to resonate within our memories of American history: Daniel Webster, James Buchanan, William Henry Seward (Lincoln), and William Jennings Bryan. Others, lesser known, left a mark on the office through more subtle efforts. But year after year, partisan alignment with the president has typically been the prerequisite for admission.
Secretary Colin Powell (George W. Bush) has been the first in some time to break with his party over presidential allegiance, though he did so after faithfully serving his own president’s administration with very little public complaint (even being persuaded to make a foolish proclamation to the UN in defense of a War with Iraq). During both of Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, Powell split with his conservative colleagues when he declared that he would vote for a Democrat, earning him the racially presumptive scorn of his party.
But as we all know after four years, President Obama is a lightning rod for conservative anxieties.
In 2011, Lawrence Eagleburger (George H.W. Bush) became the most recent secretary of state to lose his life after fighting a short battle with pneumonia at the age of 80. And, although he had once called President Obama a charlatan, a swindler, and an amateur on foreign policy, Eagleburger was still honorably eulogized by the president:
"With the passing of former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, our nation has lost a distinguished diplomat and public servant. Through more than four decades of service, first in the Army and then as a dedicated foreign service officer and statesman, Lawrence Eagleburger devoted his life to the security of our nation and to strengthening our ties with allies and partners." "As deputy secretary and then secretary of state under President George H. W. Bush, he helped our nation navigate the pivotal days during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Our nation is grateful for Secretary Eagleburger’s lifetime of service, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family, especially his three sons.”
The highest ranked members of the State Department have been, are now, and will always be the honorable, diplomatic voices of a partisan nation.