Ambassador Kennedy: A star is born
By: Alexander Burns
December 15, 2013 07:00 AM EST
Caroline Kennedy is a long way from Syracuse.
The soft-spoken presidential scion, who four years ago this month toured upstate New York in a short and ill-fated bid for the U.S. Senate, has swept with force into her newest public role as President Barack Obama’s ambassador in Japan. And if the iconic daughter of American political royalty showed herself to be deeply uncomfortable as a glad-handing pol, she’s on her way to becoming something of a rock star in the more dignified world of diplomacy.
She has been swarmed by well-wishers in her public appearances, including Japanese men and women who offered their sympathies during the November anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death. The Japanese TV network NHK delivered a live broadcast of her first appearance at Japan’s Imperial Palace, according to the AP, as throngs of onlookers crowded the streets. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed Japan’s first female prime ministerial aide, his office mentioned Kennedy’s role in Japan as an inspiration.
Kennedy has been awed by the reception, according to her friends and political associates. Yet far from being overwhelmed, Kennedy has eased into the role of ambassador far more smoothly and naturally than she did in her last high-profile adventure, as a contender for Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat.
She is no longer a halting vote-seeker competing for the endorsement of then-Gov. David Paterson and enduring the barbs of the Empire State media. A onetime student of Japanese art who visited Japan on her honeymoon, Kennedy appears far more at ease navigating the corridors of global power than the rope lines of Western New York; she has sought out the advice of multiple predecessors in the ambassador’s job, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, and hosted Vice President Joe Biden during his recent trip to the region.
“She’s going to be enormously well received not only by the Japanese government, but by the Japanese people. She’s a serious person,” said Mondale, who was struck by the outpouring of public enthusiasm around Kennedy’s visit with the imperial family: “When she took her short buggy ride to meet the imperial family, there were thousands of people outside on the route cheering her on. Every new ambassador takes that route, but no one’s gotten the reception that she received.”
The former Minnesota senator said the role of ambassador was a public job, but was “more dignified and less beseeching” than an electoral campaign.
“It’s important for the ambassador to get out, but when you get around the country, it’s not quite like a political campaign,” Mondale said. “You’re talking about an issue, you’re showing interest in what the Japanese are doing and you’re trying to talk about our country and what we want. I would say it’s substantially different.”
A question hovering over Kennedy since her October nomination has been exactly what kind of ambassador she’d be – whether the Japan posting was a trinket offered by the administration to a wealthy and powerful campaign supporter, or a genuine sign of the high esteem in which Obama holds both Kennedy and the nation.
Historically, the embassy in Japan has been a home for elder statesmen, such as Mondale, the late former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and former House Speaker Tom Foley. Obama broke that pattern in his first term when he appointed a Silicon Valley fundraiser, John Roos, to the job.
So far, Japanese media and government officials have classed Kennedy emphatically in the more distinguished of those categories. When she presented her credentials last month, Japanese and Chinese media quoted the prime minister’s spokesman declaring that there has “never been another U.S. ambassador welcomed with such high expectations.”
Kennedy, often described as a deeply private person, has embraced the very public aspects of the ambassador’s job. Unlike the Senate bid that plainly showed Kennedy to be ill at ease in the role of a retail candidate, observers say her public tasks in Japan – probably closer to the activities of a visiting head of state than to those of a political aspirant – have been exhilarating.
Within days of taking up her post, she gave an interview to the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s highest-circulation newspaper, and visited areas stricken by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In her first public speech, on Nov. 27, Kennedy emphasized the gravity of her position and her connections to the highest-level members of the Obama administration.
She alluded to her political lineage, recalling her father’s efforts at promoting the U.S.-Japan relationship and recalling a visit to Japan with her late uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy. And Kennedy thanked the nation for their support on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death.
“It was especially meaningful to me to be embraced by the people of Japan during this week of remembrance when I was far from home and family,” Kennedy said. “The Emperor himself offered sympathy and spoke of President Kennedy with admiration.”
But the speech also wasn’t just a tribute to Kennedy’s family and her personal appeal to the Japanese public: she also issued a stern rebuke to China, in the wake of a move by Japan’s neighbor to expand its air defense zone into disputed territory. “Unilateral actions like those taken by China … undermine security and constitute an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Kennedy said.
If Kennedy has been “humbled” by Japan’s response to her arrival – as several of her friends put it – she has not been entirely surprised. Japanese media outlets based in the United States followed her confirmation process with rapt attention. (Underscoring her unusual status as an ambassadorial selection, most members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee actually showed up at her confirmation hearing, with even Republicans showing deference to the nominee.)
“I think it’s fair to say that she’s been genuinely humbled and energized by the response that she’s gotten from the Japanese people,” said Gary Ginsberg, a friend of the ambassador’s. “She got a little taste of it just throughout the confirmation process from the interest the Japanese press had … To be there personally, it’s on a completely different scale.”
Save the Children vice president Mark Shriver, the former Maryland politician, said his cousin was “having a wonderful time” in Japan so far, and relishing the public diplomacy of the job. “She moves around, she goes out, she’s not a recluse,” Shriver said. “She’s fun.”
Even Kennedy’s admirers acknowledge that the early days of her tenure in Japan might well represent the easiest part of the job. It’s no small thing to make a triumphantly positive first impression; it’s another challenge entirely to hold down the fort in Tokyo at moments of genuine crisis – like the 2011 natural disasters – or diplomatic tension of the kind currently unfolding between Japan and its neighbors.
Expectations for her performance in such a situation will be sky-high, particularly given the perception, as the prime minister’s office put it last summer, “that she is extremely close to the president.”
Tom Schieffer, the Texas businessman who served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Japan, said that among his contacts on the other side of the Pacific, “everybody, both privately and publicly, is saying that she’s really made a good impression, both on Japanese officials and the Japanese public.” A former gubernatorial candidate himself, Schieffer said he emphasized to Kennedy that her only real constituent in the job is the president, unlike a campaign with all the attendant popular scrutiny.
“Having run for public office, it’s hard to step out there, particularly if you step out there at the Senate level. It really doesn’t matter how well-known your name is, it’s just different when you’re a candidate,” Schieffer said. “I’m not surprised that she’s off to a great start in Japan, and the fact that she had some difficulties in the Senate [race] has probably made her a better ambassador as a result.”