A jovial Kerry peppered his remarks with jokes, eliciting laughter from the crowd in a ten minute talk. He used the same spot that outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did to give her emotional farewell on Friday.
"Here's the big question before the country and the world and the State Department after the last eight years: Can a man actually run the State Department?" joked Kerry as his audience cheered. His most recent predecessors include Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. "As the saying goes, I have big heels to fill."
Kerry turned very serious when talking about last September's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the first death of an American ambassador in over 30 years. Kerry spoke by name of all four of the Americans killed in Libya.
"I know everybody here still mourns that loss, and we will," he said. "So I pledge to you this: I will not let their patriotism and their bravery be obscured by politics."
He promised that the safety and security of foreign service officers will be his highest priority. The former senator comes to the job as America's top diplomat after a long history in foreign affairs. Kerry sat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee for nearly three decades, and was the son of a career diplomat.
He told the crowd that while the Senate may be in his blood, foreign service and diplomacy are in his genes. He pulled out his first diplomatic passport, issued to him as an 11-year-old in 1954. His family traveled with his father, who was on assignment in Berlin, only a decade after World War II.
"I used this very passport to pass through into the East Sector, the Russian sector, and I bicycled around, and I'll tell you, as a 12-year-old kid, I really did notice the starkness, the desolation," he said. "If the tabloids today knew I had done that, I can see the headlines that say, 'Kerry's early communist connections,' something like that," he joked.
But he spoke earnestly about how that first up-close encounter with communism in Berlin as a child helped shape his ideals today.
"I really noticed the difference between the East and West. There were very few people. They were dressed in dark clothing. They kind of held their heads down…. There was no joy in those streets," he said. "And when I came back, I felt this remarkable sense of relief and a great lesson about the virtue of freedom and the virtue of the principles and ideals that we live by and that drive us."
It's those American ideals, Kerry told the crowd, that he plans to continue to promote in his new position.
"We get to do great things here. This is a remarkable place," said Kerry. "I'm here today to ask you, on behalf of the country. I need your help. President Obama needs your help; to help us to do everything we can to strengthen our nation and to carry those ideals out into the world."