For Caroline Kennedy, polite questions at Senate hearing – and some gushing

Caroline Kennedy, the former first daughter, appeared Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as she seeks confirmation as the next US ambassador to Japan.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Caroline Kennedy of New York speaks during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on her nomination for Ambassador to Japan, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, in Washington. Former first daughter Caroline Kennedy said she would be humbled to carry forward her father's legacy if confirmed by the Senate to be the next US ambassador to Japan.

If her appearance Thursday before a friendly Senate Foreign Relations Committee is an indication, Caroline Kennedy will probably face a smooth path to confirmation as the next US ambassador to Japan.

Ms. Kennedy, the former first daughter who was nominated by President Obama to serve in her first official government post, was greeted warmly by senators of both parties.

"I am conscious of my responsibility to uphold the ideals he represented – a deep commitment to public service, a more just America, and a more peaceful world," she said of her father, President John F. Kennedy.

"As a World War II veteran who served in the Pacific, he had hoped to be the first sitting president to make a state visit to Japan. If confirmed as ambassador, I would be humbled to carry forward his legacy in a small way and represent the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies," she said.

The Associated Press called the questioning of Kennedy “gentle.” The whole exercise lasted just an hour and 20 minutes.

If confirmed – when lawmakers will vote truly remains the only looming matter – she would be the first woman to hold the position. Other notables have served as ambassador to Japan, including former Vice President Walter Mondale and Howard Baker, the former US senator and chief of staff for President Reagan.

Kennedy would replace John Roos, a Silicon Valley attorney and Obama fundraiser.

A New Yorker, attorney, and mother of three, Kennedy has toyed with pursuing public posts before. She abandoned a bid for the US Senate seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton when the latter became secretary of State (it was ultimately filled by then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D)). In that effort, Kennedy was clumsy, showing a decided inability to navigate the media circus around her, and she was perceived more generally as lacking a passion for the job.

But ambassadorships usually go to a president’s top political donors and individuals of some social note. And Kennedy, who endorsed Mr. Obama over Ms. Clinton during the heated 2008 Democratic nomination fight, is certainly suited on both counts.

Lawmakers were polite in their querying of her. And, as is often the case when Kennedy is involved, there is always the sense of her historic star power – which is enhanced, if that’s possible, as America readies to observe the 50-year mark of her father’s death this fall.

"You have a good sense of what national interests are," said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee.

In introducing her, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York mentioned that Kennedy and one of her daughters recently swam three miles in the Hudson River for charity.

“Her passion to do right and do good burns so strongly within her,” Senator Schumer said. “Thank you for the privilege. It’s truly a privilege.”

Sen. Edward Markey (D), who represents the Kennedy family’s home state of Massachusetts, also gushed. “You are the pluperfect embodiment of someone who has dedicated her life to helping others,” he said.

One Washington Post piece recounting the hearing is headlined: “Kisses for Caroline Kennedy at Senate committee.”

“There’s nobody in either party in this country who won’t return a call from Caroline Kennedy,” former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said Thursday morning during an appearance on MSNBC.

Meanwhile, Vicki Kennedy, widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy, attended the hearing to show her support for the senator’s niece. So did Caroline Kennedy’s husband, Edwin Schlossberg. Japan's ambassador to the United States, Kenichiro Sasae, also made an appearance.

Though Kennedy, also an author of several bestselling books, would fulfill an affinity among the Japanese for a celebrity-like figure in this role, she would have to grapple with real issues in the region, and she doesn’t have any experience there or in the diplomatic realm (though there’s an argument to be made that her entire life has constituted an exercise in public diplomacy).

Trade issues are always paramount in conversations between the countries, and the ongoing friction over territorial disputes between Japan and China is likely to be another top-line item, according to published reports.

Clearly welcoming of Obama’s decision to give Kennedy the post, the Japanese government issued a statement indicating that her appointment shows the “great importance” the US places on its relationship with Japan. In turn, Kennedy told the Senate committee that Japan is an “indispensable partner” and that the relationship between the nations has “global reach.”

If there is any remaining suspense in her appointment, it’s this: It will be interesting to see if she’s unanimously confirmed.

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