With the pick of Caroline Kennedy as his ambassador to Japan, President Obama seems to be channeling an unlikely muse: former President Richard Nixon.
Obama and Tricky Dick are generally thought to have little in common.
But on ambassadorships, they seem quite sympatico. Our pals over at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, whose scholars are transcribing and annotating all the secret White House tapes, noted a parallel between Obama’s selection of Kennedy, a well-known former first daughter, and Nixon’s attempted recruitment of President Franklin Roosevelt’s sons into the diplomatic corps.
In a telephone call in September of 1972, Nixon offered plum jobs abroad to two of FDR’s sons, James and John, apparently for very similar reasons that Obama used in selecting Kennedy — they had cache.
Listen to the call here:
Nixon apparently wasn’t such a great salesman. “I don’t recommend it,” Nixon told the men. “Being an ambassador is probably a pain in the neck.” But he also appealed to their sense of duty and acknowledged the esteem in which foreign governments hold first families. “There are areas of the world where having somebody who has, frankly, prestige, so forth, could mean a great deal to us.”
Nixon thought he needed to send high-profile ambassadors to “important” allies, who he thought would be impressed with such gestures — much like the Japanese, who are accustomed to illustrious American ambassadors, like legendary Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, former vice president Walter Mondale, former House speaker Tom Foley, former Senate majority leader Howard Baker — and soon, Kennedy.
“They want somebody that’s important,” Nixon noted.
(Of course, in Kennedy’s case, it also didn’t hurt that she had been a crucial supporter of Obama’s 2008 campaign.)
And here’s a part of the Nixon-Roosevelt conversation that sounds quite modern, where Nixon makes clear that the families of presidents — even former ones — have serious star power: “I think this country does not adequately use the celebrity value of first families,” he said.
Ultimately, neither James nor John Roosevelt took Nixon up on the offer, but clearly, there’s strategy behind the hiring of former first kids.
Which should mean that someday, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see a future president anointing Ambassadors Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton.