By Mai Niimi
The Yomiuri Shimbun
TOKYO — If she did not bear the name Kennedy, articles reporting her appointment would have been headlined “first female U.S. ambassador to Japan.”
But Caroline Kennedy is the only living child of former President John Kennedy, and few talk about her without mentioning she is a member of the Kennedy family. She was the adorable little girl who captivated the United States decades ago as she rode her pony, a gift from Lyndon Johnson, on the White House grounds. Singer Neil Diamond revealed that she was the inspiration for his hit “Sweet Caroline.”
Though it has been 50 years since her father was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, the Kennedy family legend remains very much alive.
In her confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 19, Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said, “The Kennedy name has been synonymous with public service for over a century — a family that has sacrificed so much in service to this nation.”
Although some critics have pointed to her lack of political and diplomatic experience, Caroline Kennedy seems to have been greeted by senators as a representation of the family legacy. The atmosphere there was “particularly friendly,” and it was the “equivalent of a big, wet kiss,” The Washington Post said.
Nevertheless, her grandfather Joseph Kennedy was an ambassador to Britain, and her aunt Jean was an ambassador to Ireland. Some experts say that because she grew up in the family so involved in and surrounded by politics, it would be little surprise if she has special political instincts.
Despite those public expectations, Kennedy steered away from the political world and spotlight, until recently.
She is a lawyer and writer, a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School. In 1980, she began working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as a researcher and associate film producer, where she met her future husband, Edwin Schlossberg. She married the museum exhibit designer in 1986, and they have three children.
Kennedy, 55, is the editor of several New York Times bestselling books on topics from constitutional law to politics to poetry. Among them is “The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” which introduces poems her late mother read to her own children and some written by the former first lady.
She is also known for her commitment to educational and cultural issues. She has held posts including member of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Committee; chair of Harvard’s Institute of Politics; honorary chair of the American Ballet Theater; and vice chair of the Fund for Public Schools.
During an exclusive interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Friday, Kennedy talked about her work as an educator in New York City to teach poetry to children. “One of the greatest gifts I received from my parents is the belief that words have the power to change the world, and the arts can bring us together,” she said.
The Profile in Courage Award is a private award created by the Kennedy family to honor public servants who demonstrate politically courageous leadership. In past years, the award ceremony was attended by her mother, he brother John Jr., who died in a 1999 plane crash, and her late uncle Edward, a senator known as “Ted.”
Caroline Kennedy has come to represent the family on more occasions, and seems to have taken on the role as the guardian of its legacy. Her appointment as ambassador to Japan seems to underline this pattern.
In the interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Kennedy described the thousands of well-wishers who lined the streets to watch her travel in a horse-driven carriage to meet the Emperor on Tuesday as “a tribute to the United States and to my family.” It is a “meaningful gift that I can represent my country and family,” she added.
In the campaign for the 2008 U.S. presidential election, she endorsed then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., from the early stage, and successfully persuaded Ted Kennedy to back Obama, too. In January that year, she contributed an article to The New York Times in which she wrote: “I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.” In the 2012 election, she was a co-leader of Obama’s campaign office.
Kennedy appears to be getting passing marks so far. At her confirmation hearing, she talked about major issues that she would face while stationed in Japan — the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade framework, tensions with China over the Senkaku Islands, and the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa — in a manner that many media outlets praised as studious and knowledgeable.
In her statement, Kennedy said she would be “humbled” to follow in the footsteps of her forerunners, and added she would “be humbled to carry forward” her father’s legacy “in a small way.”
Her husband and two of her children also came to the confirmation hearing, creating a picture of the ideal American family, just as her parents had done.
But Menendez, the committee chairman, also said Kennedy brings “your own experience, your own abilities, your own perspective — that uniquely qualify you for this position,” after praising the legacy of her family.
Kennedy is keen to stress her individuality, while acknowledging the importance of her family. In a video message released Nov. 13, shortly before her departure to Japan, she introduces herself as an “author, educator, attorney and a mother.”
While some observers have suggested that she lacks relevant links to Japan, Kennedy has proactively shown her interest in and ties to the nation. She closed her video message with the Japanese words, “Nihon de oaishimasyo” (I will see you in Japan), and used quotes from Japanese classics in some of her recent speeches.
On Tuesday, she began tweeting messages on her official account in English with a Japanese translation. During Friday’s interview, she said she loves sukiyaki, tempura and sashimi. “I love being hungry in Japan,” she quipped.
These are the new steps Caroline Kennedy is taking. They are unlike those of her father or other members of the family, but she has become a new representative of the Kennedy family.
Carefully, but steadily, she is becoming the latest Kennedy to stand in the limelight.