As John Kerry travels from country to country on various diplomatic missions as secretary of state (almost half a million miles so far), he often addresses the staff and their families at the US embassies in the countries he visits. Remarks at these informal gatherings are often more casual than the usual speeches or press appearances, and Kerry often jokes with the staff and recognizes employees of long standing with the state department. Monday, Kerry had one such opportunity in Vienna, Austria, the last stop on his most recent trip, and towards the end of his talk he recalled his two Yale commencement speeches, forty-eight years apart, where he discussed "sort of the world we’re in" and America's place in it:
...I was privileged to speak to the graduating class of Yale this year, and it was particularly a pleasure because it happened to turn out to be, literally, I hate to say it, 48 years to the day that I was privileged to speak as a graduating senior to my own class. And I talked to them about sort of the world we’re in right now, but at the end I tried to remind them all, which I remind you of, we are – I get always a little uptight when I hear politicians say how exceptional we are – not because we’re not exceptional, but because it’s kind of in-your-face and a lot of other people are exceptional, a lot of other places do exceptional things.Despite his profession of uptightness on the topic of America's exceptionalism, Kerry went on to close out his remarks explaining what he believes makes America uniquely exceptional:
But we are exceptional in a certain way that no other nation is. We are not defined by thousands of years (inaudible) of history. We are not defined by ethnicity. We are not defined by bloodline or by anything except an idea. And that idea was expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution, the idea that people are created equal and that all people have a chance to aspire for greatness, for anything they want. Pretty amazing, right? So think about that. It’s the only country that is literally united and formed around and whose rule of law is based on that idea, one idea, and it’s pretty special. So thank you for representing it. Thank you. (Applause.)Kerry used similar language in his 2014 Yale commencement address, noting that the American idea is what makes America different: that all are "created equal and all endowed with unalienable rights" and that "America is an idea and we – all of us, you – get to fill it out over time."
Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.