Kerry joked that he had “big heels” to fill as he reached out to Hillary Clinton's former team in public remarks at State Department headquarters in Washington. The department has come under withering criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill following the September attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, whom Kerry honoured by name.
“I pledge to you this: I will not let their patriotism and their bravery be obscured by politics,” Kerry said to sustained applause. “And I guarantee you that beginning this morning when I report to duty upstairs, everything I do will be focused on the security and safety of our people. We have tough decisions to make, but I guarantee you that I will do everything I can to live up to the high standards that Clinton and her team put in place.”
He went on to reassure his new employees that he was one of them. Kerry said he had the diplomatic service “in my genes” and recalled that he got his first diplomatic passport when he was 11 years old, as the son of a Foreign Service officer.
Kerry recalled riding his bicycle into East Berlin in the 1950s — he got grounded as a result — and learning a lifelong lesson about the US values that the State Department seeks to spread around the world.
He said: “Here we can do the best of things that you can do in government. That's what excites me. We get to try to make our nation safer. We get to try to make peace in the world ... We get to lift people out of poverty. We get to try to cure disease. We get to try to empower people with human rights. We get to speak [for] those who have no voice.
“We get to talk about empowering people through our ideals, and through those ideals hopefully they can change their lives.”
Kerry was sworn in Friday afternoon as the 68th secretary of state by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in a private ceremony.
The former Massachusetts senator is the first white male to hold the job as top US diplomat in 16 years. He takes on the post as the US is working toward withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, facing a civil war in Syria and rising threats in North Africa, and dealing with tensions over disputed claims in the oil-rich South China Sea. Most pressing may be the looming spectre of a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.
None of that made it into Kerry’s remarks, which he kept light and -- for a famously loquacious speaker -- relatively short. He alluded to his two immediate predecessors, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.
“Here’s the big question after the last 8 years,” Kerry told the hundreds of employees who crowded the lobby of the Harry S Truman Building. “Can a man actually run the state department? As the saying goes, I have big heels to fill.”
Kerry thanked Clinton and President Barack Obama “for his trust in me to take on this awesome task.”
Obama’s “vision and what he has implemented” over the last few years, “without any question, has restored America’s place and reputation in the world,” Kerry said.
Kerry, a 28-year veteran of the Senate and the former chairman of its Foreign Relations Committee, told the crowd he had the Senate in his blood. His sister worked at the United Nations and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, speaks five languages, he said.
At the weekend, he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry also contacted the foreign ministers of Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Canada and Mexico. He succeeds Hillary Clinton as the top US diplomat.
Clinton, who stepped down on Friday, left the post after four years, visits to 112 countries and nearly a million air miles.
The former first lady is tipped as a possible candidate for the 2016 presidential election.