President Obama nominated Caroline Kennedy Wednesday to be his next ambassador to Japan, a high-profile diplomatic post that would serve as just reward for her loyalty to his presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
Ms. Kennedy, a lawyer, author, and mother of three, endorsed Mr. Obama during his contentious 2008 Democratic primary battle against Hillary Rodham Clinton. She and her uncle, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, threw the weight of Camelot’s dynasty behind the young first-term US senator from Illinois. Their approval gave Obama critical establishment validation, and effectively underscored that Obama’s vision for his time stirred similar passions in the electorate as President Kennedy’s candidacy did in 1960.
“Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things,” she wrote. “In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible. We have that kind of opportunity with Senator Obama.”
Kennedy has held many private posts – she is president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and chair of the senior advisory committee of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, among other positions – but she has been a reluctant participant, at times, in the political sphere.
In 2009, her interest in the open US Senate seat from New York – made vacant by Ms. Clinton’s decision to accept Obama’s offer to be his secretary of State – was fleeting. Kennedy seemed awkward and dispassionate, unsure of why or if even she wanted the job and unable to artfully articulate the commitment to public life that runs through her family lineage. She eventually asked the governor to pull her name from consideration.
Kennedy’s appointment has been rumored in Washington for some time, and it is not surprising given her history with Obama. But despite the famous name, she has no diplomatic experience and has never held elected office. The New York Times notes that the Japan ambassadorship has typically “gone to political heavyweights.” The selection of Kennedy, however, is in keeping with Obama’s move of big campaign supporters, usually donors, to high-profile posts in London, Berlin, Copenhagen and Madrid.
None of this will likely matter.
Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, told The New York Times that Kennedy has one indisputable credential.
“What you really want in an ambassador is someone who can get the president of the United States on the phone,” Mr. Campbell said. “I can’t think of anybody in the United States who could do that more quickly than Caroline Kennedy.”
Meanwhile, Kennedy, a Harvard and Columbia Law School graduate, is a political celebrity of international note, and the Japanese are fame-oriented, much as we are in the US, according to The Washington Post’s Max Fisher.
"We believe that the proximity and direct contact with the president is an extremely important part of the job, and we welcome her," said Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Thursday.
Kennedy would succeed John Roos, an Obama fundraiser and Silicon Valley attorney. Other notables to hold the job include: former Vice President Walter Mondale (appointed by President Clinton); Howard Baker, the former US senator and chief of staff to President Reagan; and Michael Mansfield, a Montana Democrat who also served in the US Senate.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kennedy would be the first female envoy to Japan. Her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, was the ambassador to Britain before World War II.
The relationship with Japan is always crucial, especially in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear status. But the engagement between the nations faces an interesting challenge of late, as officials here work to assure counterparts there that our economic ties to China do not prompt increased loyalty to Beijing. This delicate dance is happening with tensions already high between Japan and China as the two nations tussle over territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Kennedy is the editor of several New York Times best-selling books on topics including constitutional law, American history, politics, and poetry, the White House notes in the bio the administration circulated Wednesday. She is married to Edwin Schlossberg, a New York artist and interactive media specialist.