John F. Kerry's father was a diplomat, and he spent part of his childhood abroad. Like most Americans who grew up overseas, he developed an appreciation for how important the United States is in the world, and the importance of how it is seen in foreign capitals.
Now he's the nation's top diplomat, representing the United States in the capitals of the world. Full circle.
Kerry's family wasn't wealthy, but a great-aunt helped finance a topflight education for him. Through a prep school friend, he was invited for a ride on a sailboat skippered by his hero, John F. Kennedy.
Fifty years later, he was assigned to the same desk the earlier JFK spoke from on the floor of the United States Senate. Full circle.
When the Vietnam War escalated and students began questioning it, Kerry was at Yale, president of a student political organization. Among the VIPs he entertained on campus was William Bundy, one of Lyndon Johnson's top foreign policy advisers, who he kept up late debating the war.
After graduation, Kerry went off to fight that war, joining the Navy and volunteering for two tours of Vietnam, the second skippering a swiftboat on the dangerous rivers of the Mekong Delta.
Kerry left for Vietnam ambivalent about the war. He returned convinced it was a mistake. He became a leader of a new organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In April 1971, they camped in the shadow of the Capitol, demanding the nation hear the testimony of those who had served on the front lines. President Nixon wanted to roust the veterans with their long hair and grim stories, but some senators came to their bivouac and listened, including Sen. Ted Kennedy — the man Kerry later served beside for 24 years.
If you were looking for a moment that tipped public opinion against the Vietnam War, you could do worse than the moment when Kerry, dressed in fatigues, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee what he and his brothers-in-arms had learned about the futility of their war and asked the question that hung over the nation for years to come: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Kerry grew up to be a senator himself, serving on that same committee. The Vietnam War was over but America still carried the scars of the divide it caused, symbolized in the Senate by Kerry, the Vietnam War protester, and John McCain, the ex-POW who remained a hawk.
McCain and Kerry spent a long overnight plane ride on an official trip building a personal bridge across that divide. Then they worked together to heal the scars by undertaking a diplomatic mission to Vietnam to settle the question of whether all the American POWs and MIAs had been accounted for.
Page 2 of 2 - That mission led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. Full circle.
Kerry served for decades on the Foreign Relations Committee, giving him a front-seat view of every international crisis and a chance to work with leaders around the world. In 2009 he became chairman of that committee, and last week he testified before it again, for the first time since 1971, as Barack Obama's secretary of state.
That act "completed a circle which I never could have imagined drawing," Kerry said this week in an emotional farewell speech in the Senate.
In an era where you can't get two-thirds majorities in Congress to endorse apple pie, it says something that Kerry was confirmed by the Senate on a 94 to 3 vote. It says that even in partisan Washington, foreign policy is still relatively bipartisan, and that the center far outweighs the extremes.
And it says a lot about Kerry. He has never shied from controversy. His leadership of the Democrats cemented by the campaign of 2004, when he came close -- "within a whisker," he said Wednesday -- of winning the presidency.
His opinions are well known, and plenty of those who voted to confirm him have disagreed with him often. But those who know him best have come to respect his intelligence, his knowledge, his experience and his temperament.
As Kerry told his colleagues, in the Senate he grew from outside activist to an insider who understood that relationships — especially with those of differing political bents — are what makes the difference between debating and deciding, between self-expression and collective achievement.
There are politics in Kerry's nomination and confirmation -- in Washington, there always are. But his Senate colleagues also understand that the circles of John Kerry's fascinating life have prepared him well for his next chapter, as secretary of state.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.