Caroline Kennedy is apparently following in her forefathers’ footsteps.
Just not the one most people in politics had expected.
Kennedy, the exceedingly private daughter of President John F. Kennedy, niece of senator/attorney general/presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and senator/presidential candidate/Democratic lion Ted Kennedy is reportedly pursuing the public service path blazed by her grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who served as a U.S. ambassador. On Monday, The Washington Post, along with other news outlets, reported the impending appointment of the 55-year-old Kennedy as envoy to Japan. The White House declined to comment.
“She has always been a great ambassador for the United States,” Kevin Sheekey, a chief political adviser to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and longtime advocate of Kennedy, wrote in an e-mail, operating under the premise that her appointment would soon be official. “And it will be a good reminder to Americans how important an ally Japan is in Asia.”
“I think her whole life she has been an ambassador for American values, the importance of education, the importance of literacy, the importance of community service,” said Josh Isay, a top political strategist and booster of Kennedy. “To be a good ambassador, you don’t need to seek headlines but you need to be a good bridge.”
For a while, though, Kennedy’s fear of headlines seemed to be a bridge to political nowhere.
In 2009, she left her private, low-profile life in an attempt to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as the senator from New York when the former first lady was named secretary of state. The early and vocal support of Sheekey and her hiring of Isay, an alumnus of the office of Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York’s top political power broker, all but telegraphed her preferred status among the state’s political establishment. President Obama, who had benefited from the enthusiastic and symbolically important support of Kennedy and her Uncle Teddy over Clinton in the 2008 campaign, wanted her to have the job. All she had to do was prove herself credible enough for then-Gov. David A. Paterson (D) to appoint her.
That’s when things stopped being simple. The short-lived Kennedy candidacy was a surreal train wreck in which she proved an unimpressive candidate (she uttered the verbal tic “you know” 138 times in one New York Times interview). She came under attack by ambitious and more accomplished political street fighters, who slammed her lack of public credentials; her endorsement of Obama generated no love from the powerful Clinton camp; a lieutenant to New York’s then-attorney general (now governor), Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who had his own designs on the seat, was caught undercutting her in public; and a virtual delegation of veteran New York representatives, feeling overshadowed by the high-wattage name, griped about her in private. Making matters much worse, Paterson seemed to extract a certain delight from toying with her political future, which was entirely in his hands.
Kennedy withdrew her bid at the last minute, catching her advisers by surprise. People close to her described her decision as “a different personal situation that came about at 1 o’clock” that day. The Paterson camp instead characterized Kennedy as being “overwhelmed” and suggested her withdrawal was evidence of not being ready for prime time. Paterson, who was himself politically damaged by the process, ultimately gave the seat to former Clinton organizer Kirsten Gillibrand. (Gillibrand’s office declined to comment.)
And so seemingly ended the public-service career of Caroline Kennedy.
For the past few years she served as president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and concentrated on her life’s work of literacy for underprivileged children. (On Tuesday, she will be in Kansas City, Mo., to discuss her new book, “Poems to Learn by Heart.”) The family torch seemed to be in the hands of the next generation of Kennedys, such as Joseph P. Kennedy II, 31, a freshly elected representative from Massachusetts.
But there was another, less-traveled, path to national service obscured by the accomplishments of her father and uncles: the diplomatic corps. Kennedy’s grandfather, and the dynasty’s patriarch, served as ambassador to Great Britain from 1938 to 1940. Her aunt Jean Ann Kennedy Smith served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Ireland.
Diplomatic sources said that the Japanese tend to be flattered when the American ambassador is a person of great renown, because it confirms their importance to the United States. Past ambassadors to Japan have included former Senate majority leaders Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker, former vice president Walter F. Mondale, and former House speaker Tom Foley. In a precarious time for a region threatened by the increased bluster of North Korea, fallout from the nuclear accident in Japan and the country’s seemingly unyielding economic malaise, a Kennedy ambassadorship sends a strong message of commitment to the Japanese.
Kennedy did not respond to a request for comment. But speaking recently to the Kansas City Star about the payoffs of young people overcoming a fear of reciting poetry in public, she said: “I have seen the shyest kids get up and perform, and this entire new person comes into being. It gives them confidence over time to voice their ideas.”