Swearing-in Ceremony for Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
April 15, 2014

MS. JONES: Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I’m Natalie Jones, acting chief of protocol, and it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the Department of State’s Benjamin Franklin Room for the swearing-in of Rick Stengel as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. (Applause.)

We are privileged to have the Secretary of State, the Honorable John Kerry, officiating today’s ceremony, and we are pleased to welcome Under Secretary Stengel’s family here today, including his wife Mary, his sons Gabriel and Anton, his sister Nina and her husband Peter, and his nieces Amanda and Claudia. Please join me in extending a warm welcome to our special guests. (Applause.)

We will begin today’s ceremony with remarks by Secretary Kerry, followed by the administration of the oath of office, the signing of appointment papers, and then conclude with remarks by Under Secretary Stengel. Now it’s my honor to present the Secretary of State. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon, everybody. On a rainy afternoon in Washington, thank you. I gather some people were a little delayed getting over here because of the weather. I was delayed because of the White House. Blame them. And I apologize for being a little bit late.

It’s really a privilege. This is my second time today that I’m swearing in somebody I admire and have gotten to know well and really am lucky to add to the family here in our endeavors. I’m delighted to welcome so many members of the family. Thanks, all, for being here with us. It’s a great pleasure to be swearing in the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, a big title and a big job.

I think you all can tell that I am an equal opportunity hirer, because we’re hiring another guy from Princeton, which is kind of – (laughter) – I’ve elicited a promise from him he is not going to institute any eating clubs in the State Department. (Laughter.) I’m just being mischievous. I can’t do that.

This is really special, because as those of you – and I see a few of you out there, Time magazine alumni – you know what a talented person Rick Stengel is. And this is a moment of transition in the world of diplomacy. And having somebody here who is ready to think out of the box, knows how to think out of the box, and knows how to communicate in this modern age is really important.

Deputy Secretary Burns was here a few minutes ago. He had to leave, unfortunately. We’re tardy enough that that happened. As many of you know, he is, without question, one of our most legendary this generation diplomats and has been an amazing performer on the diplomatic team for 10 secretaries of State. We’re going to be seeing him depart this team about six months from now, which is an enormous loss, but for the moment we’re so happy that he’s going to continue and be here to help me and to help all of us here to navigate troubled waters.

Way back when, Bill and Rick played on a very different team together. They were on the Oxford University basketball team in the late ’70s. And that was then, today is now. And I will tell you that I think their combined vertical leap today is safely in the single digits. (Laughter.) As Wesley Snipes would tell you: “Diplomatic Men Can’t Jump.” (Laughter.)

Anyway, I told Rick this is a tough job. And every day we have to deal with people who haven’t changed their ways for centuries and folks who have not broken out of outdated traditions, and sometimes people who seem very removed from the modern world. And Rick told me – and I know it’s true – he understands all that because he managed a print magazine in the 21st century. (Laughter.)

One of the things that I think about in this job a great deal, more and more as I look at the number of failed and failing states and the challenges of a cacophonous, turbulent world with an extraordinary amount of sectarianism, religious extremism, ideological radicalism, and teams of young people all in touch with the rest of the world through their smartphones, all looking for the promise of prosperity, jobs, education, and too many of them looking out at a political wasteland – so communicating in the midst of all of that is more important than it has ever been.

And one of the things that I’m looking for and really was excited about sitting down with Rick to explore was the question of: How do we tell America’s story with credibility? How do we validate our own values and reach out to the world in this difficult time? And how do we sell – and maybe “sell” is the wrong word – I think how do we promote, advocate for the values that put that great seal up there and made this the Ben Franklin Room and have created a tradition and history of diplomacy that we are so proud of? How do we explain ourselves and communicate and interact with people where change is coming at them and us faster than ever before? And while I made a joke a few minutes ago about people who resist modernity, truly who are resisting modernity, where there is a clash of culture and the future. The art is to find a way to thread that needle, and that’s why we’ve found what I hope is somebody who will qualify in this challenge as being an artist, who will meet the challenge of this moment.

Nobody knows better than the editor of the – the former editor of one of our nation’s leading magazines that the modes of communicating are changing at a lightning pace, from broadsheets to broadcasts to tweets, and that means that public diplomacy has to change with it – it hasn’t yet, enough, so that we can say we are providing really groundbreaking public diplomacy for a groundbreaking era. And there is no one, in my judgment, more equipped, more prepared, and more ready for this challenge than Rick Stengel. We all know that he is deeply idealistic, and we admire the incredibly close friendship that he developed with Nelson Mandela, the godfather to his son Gabriel, and a hero, obviously, to all of the world.

While Rick was waiting to be confirmed in his transition purgatory – which is embarrassing to all of us, and should be embarrassing to everybody in the country – Nelson Mandela passed away. And it was a powerful witnessing. Even as a nominee, I watched with pride as Rick was out there performing public diplomacy on television, telling the story of Nelson Mandela. The autobiography that he worked on with Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, is legendary for a reason. It captures what that man’s struggle was all about, yes. And it’s a book I read even before I knew Rick, and it’s one of the books that I had on my personal bookshelf in the Senate, I brought with me here, and it’s on my bookshelf downstairs in my office. It has long been mandatory reading for folks who work in this kind of endeavor because it tells us all what real courage is. And it’s part of the reason why the President and I were both very eager to have Rick join this team.

Now, it may have sounded a little improbable in the summer of 2013, when we had to engage literally in some subterfuge to smuggle the Time magazine editor down to Washington and up to Mahogany Row for a meeting so we could discuss this proposition without violating any ethical rules or having somebody wonder what he was going here. Our cover story was he was just visiting Bill Burns to talk about jump shots. (Laughter.)

And – but during our meeting, we talked about his Princeton days, we talked about his time playing the equivalent of varsity basketball at Oxford. I mean, don’t get carried away by that folks; there’s a reason why nobody picked Oxford on their NCAA brackets. (Laughter.) So.

But then we got down to the chase, and I told Rick that as somebody who’d been such an exceptional writer for so many decades, there was no bigger challenge, no better story to be told than the story of America and what we are trying to achieve, and in fact have achieved, if you look particularly at the 20th century, what we have been able to do in the world and what we try to do.

I asked him about being the principal person in the State Department to help share what America is trying to do and share it with millions of young people in the Middle East and North Africa and South Central Asia, in East Asia, people who are struggling over which side they’re going to choose to be on: whether they’ll take the long walk to freedom and to modernity or choose the temptations of a path that leads to extremism and violence and nihilism. I was thrilled when he literally signed up to take the pen right then and there and committed to travel this journey with all of us here in the State Department.

Most of you know that he took a long road to Washington. He started his career at Time on the storied 24th floor. And that was back when Walter Isaacson and so many others were there – I’m pleased he could be here today – Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Graydon Carter, Kurt Anderson – they were all pounding away on Selectric typewriters, spending their weekends in a bungalow in the Hamptons, in Sag Harbor.

But Rick quickly became a legend among the magazine’s staff. In a career that was spanning two decades at Time, he served as national editor, culture editor, political writer, and essayist. And as Managing Editor for seven years, it was his job to help explain America to the world, and the world to America. So the truth is that the job Rick’s been doing since he was 25 years old really was public diplomacy, just as it will be now as under secretary.

When he put public service on Time magazine’s cover and wrote that we must harness the spirit of volunteerism that already exists and make it a permanent part of American culture, he was calling on all of us to serve a cause that is greater than each and every one of us individually.

I know some people don’t think that that cause always leads to Washington these days, regrettably, and Rick may have wondered himself after more than three decades in journalism whether he could navigate this town as a principal, as a participant. But as all of you know, he has a brilliant mind, and many overlook the real secret, which is he has a fundamental moral core and sense of responsibility. And if some of Rick’s family members here may think that I’m being a little over the top, far be it from me to B.S. the man who wrote the book on flattery, folks. (Laughter.)

Rick, throughout your career you have really filled many different roles – reporter, editor, head of the National Constitution Center. But today, I want you to know that the President and I are absolutely confident we could not have found a better person to help the United States tell its story to the world in a way that people can understand and believe in. And it’s my pleasure to now, after too many months of waiting, give you the Oath of Office so we can put you back to work. Thank you, sir. (Applause.)

(The Oath of Office was administered.)


MS. JONES: Under Secretary Stengel will now sign his appointment papers.

(The appointment papers were signed.)


SECRETARY KERRY: Ladies and gentlemen, Under Secretary Rick Stengel. (Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: I can keep the pen, right? (Laughter.) Okay.

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s about all they give away, actually. (Laughter.)

UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Well, Mr. Secretary, you’ve given me a lot of material to work with and I will get back to it, but I want to have a few quick thanks. The Office of Presidential Appointments, who’ve been with me all the way, Legislative Affairs who helped me get through my confirmation, including the whole R team. In fact, Legislative Affairs gave me my speech today because when I wrote a draft for the confirmation hearing they kept saying to me. “Just use that on your swearing-in.” So I have it all done. (Laughter.)

And I want to thank Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell because without them I would have only spent one or two nights at the Isaacsons and instead I spent six months there. (Laughter.) And I don’t see Cathy here, so thank you for not telling her about me losing the key the second time. (Laughter.)

So the Secretary mentioned Bill Burns, who, unfortunately, is not here. And this is really for the folks in the building – and yes, we played basketball together many, many, many years ago. But no one here at the State Department will be surprised to hear that Bill was a consummately unselfish player and that he was the master of the assist, which is the act of unselfishness that actually makes the whole team better. That’s what he’s done here for so many years, and I’m glad that he’s giving me an assist on the way out.

Now, by the way, we had that team was made up all of Yanks. We allowed one skinny English graduate student on the team. And now I realize now that I’m here, that’s called sports diplomacy. (Laughter.)

The Secretary was right. When I did come down here and he launched into why I should do this job, I did tell him, you had me at hello. (Laughter.) And what he didn’t tell you is that he was kind of disappointed because he had this whole card of talking points to persuade me to take the job. The man likes to negotiate. He went through all of the talking points and I had already said yes, and – (laughter) – but the reason I said yes, too, is that – and I’ve been a boss and I’ve worked for people, including Nelson Mandela – but I wanted to work for a man in the arena, and I know it’s a line that you used recently. “The Man in the Arena” is that famous phrase from Teddy Roosevelt and – “man who dares greatly” – and that’s the Secretary. He has a lovely saying, which is, “Let’s get caught trying. Let’s get caught trying.” So I thought I want to work with you and I want to, together, get caught trying. Now, by the way, in my household, I say to my boys, if you try anything, I will catch you. (Laughter.)

So you also added me as an idealist, and I did my best through many years in journalism to hide the fact that I was an idealist. And many journalists – journalists who some people think are cynical, it’s really because they’re disappointed idealists, but I never was disappointed. And as the Secretary said, I did launch this campaign for national service, as we did seven times during my time as managing editor. And I thought, finally, I ought to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, and that’s another reason I said yes right away. Also, that issue got very little advertising, so – (laughter) – but there’s a deeper reason that I really wanted to do this, which is – I’m going to mention somebody that you’d never think I would mention in this context: Vladimir Putin.

Last summer, Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he said that it was dangerous – in fact, he said it was extremely dangerous for any people to think of themselves as exceptional. I think it’s dangerous when Americans don’t think of themselves as exceptional, and here’s why: Because unlike every other nation on earth, we’re not formed by a common religion, a common blood, even a common culture. We’re formed through an uncommon set of ideas that all people are created equal, that we’re endowed by – with certain unalienable rights.

So we’re a country not based on blood, not based on religion, but based on ideas. And a country based on ideas has to tell its story. It has to tell its story over and over again, it has to tell its story to ourselves, to the folks abroad, and we have to test that story. We have to debate that story. That is part of the story that we are telling people all around the world – that we’re not infallible. In fact, that gentleman, Benjamin Franklin, as Walter knows, on his speech, when – the day that the Constitution was ratified and signed, he said, “Let’s all doubt a little bit of our own infallibility.” It’s, in fact, democracies that question themselves. Autocracies never question themselves. And that’s part of the story that we need to tell.

But the other point that Franklin made is that to remain a republic, you have to teach the ideas of freedom over and over to every generation. That’s also part of public diplomacy. And we’re living in a very, very complex world, as the Secretary reminds us. We’re engaged in that world in all kinds of ways – not just through the peripatetic Secretary, but all parts of the State Department. But – and I know public diplomacy has always been kind of a conundrum, but I actually think it’s pretty simple, ultimately, which is that the goal of public diplomacy is the same as the core American objective of allowing people to choose their own destiny and of protecting and defending the free flow of ideas, people, and goods. That’s our story. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Like my own father, who died a little bit before I found out about this job, I forgot to mention my wife. (Laughter.) So, Mary has been an unfailing supporter of this from the beginning, and I want to thank my boys who have learned what it is to be diplomatic once Dad has taken this job, so thank you, guys. Okay. (Laughter and applause.)

MS. JONES: This concludes our ceremony. Thank you so much for joining us today. At this time, I’d like to invite guests to form a receiving line starting to my left to congratulate Under Secretary Stengel. Thank you.