The Washington Post

How Obama is like Nixon


With the pick of Caroline Kennedy as his ambassador to Japan, President Obama seems to be channeling an unlikely muse: Richard Nixon.

Obama and Tricky Dick are generally thought to have little in common.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

But on ambassadorships, the two presidents 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 Franklin Roosevelt’s sons into the diplomatic corps.

In a telephone call in September 1972, Nixon offered plum jobs abroad to two of FDR’s sons, James and John, apparently for reasons very similar to Obama’s — they had cachet.

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.”

LBJ did show up at a White House Easter event, in 1964, Marilynn Eaton tells us. Her kids are in the lower right corner of this photo. (Photo by Cecil W. Stoughton/Courtesy of Pauline Daniels)

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 U.S. ambassadors, such as legendary Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, former vice president Walter Mondale, former House speaker Tom Foley and former Senate majority leader Howard Baker.

“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.

Neither James Roosevelt 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.

An LBJ sighting

A March 29 Loop post said it appeared that President Lyndon B. Johnson had not attended any White House Easter Egg Roll gatherings.

But appearances can be deceiving. Marilynn Eaton, whose husband, William Eaton, covered the White House during the Johnson years for United Press International, sent us a signed March 30, 1964, photo of Johnson and some kids, including her daughters Susan and Sally — seen sitting at the far right of the stage.

Johnson’s famous beagles — famous because he once picked one up by the ears — are shown wandering in front of the stage.

Subcontinental luxury

Seems an excellent congressional trip to the Indian state of Gujarat, the first high-level U.S. visit there in more than eight years, has sparked a bit of controversy there.

The delegation, led by Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and including GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), met with the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, and invited him to visit the United States.

One small problem: Modi has been barred from entering this country since 2005, our colleague Rama Lakshmi reported, because of allegations by international human rights groups that he looked the other way while Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 Muslims in 2002.

Modi’s economic policies, however, have attracted substantial foreign investment in Gujarat, Lakshmi reported, including General Motors and Ford. And Britain and other European nations in the past year have begun to reengage with him.

“We were impressed with what we have seen,” Schock told reporters March 28, “and we extended an invitation to [him] to come to the United States and share with our colleagues some of what he has done here.”

If the group was not impressed then, the overall itinerary, as reported in our copy of the Oman Daily Observer, surely would have sealed the deal. The 10-day jaunt — though McMorris Rodgers’s office e-mailed that she was there only 48 hours — included: “A stay at the Lake Palace in Udaipur . . . a visit to the Taj Mahal, the tiger reserve at Ranthambore, a night at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, [and] a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar.”

Modi had our support for a visa at the spectacular Lake Palace. But then the Observer said that a “Bollywood Extravaganza” was also on tap. It was a business-class commercial round trip, with private charter air travel within India.

Okay. Stay calm. Taxpayers did not pay for the trip. It was sponsored by the Chicago-based National Indian American Public Policy Institute and included several Indian American businessmen, according to a report by Hi India, a Chicago weekly that obtained a copy of the institute’s invitation.

Schock told reporters that he had “checked the appropriate boxes necessary to make this trip legitimate and well within all the rules and accordances of the U.S. Congress,” he said, and the “trip was signed off by the appropriate authorities in our government.”

With Emily Heil

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