In keeping with the pop culture trend of mash-ups, this week’s topic revealed itself to me as two song titles. The former, of course, is the Neil Diamond hit that has become symbolic of Boston through its playing at Fenway Park during Red Sox games. Since the Boston Marathon bombings, it has also become a theme song for the “Boston Strong” sentiment.
The latter is the much more obscure 1980 new wave single by The Vapors who explained that “Japanese” was selected because it represented teen angst about turning into something you didn’t understand and, incidentally, that it rhymed well. It has no other hidden meaning (no matter what you may have heard).
It was the announcement that President Obama was nominating Caroline Kennedy to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Japan that made those two songs bounce off of each other in the racquetball court of my mind. Neil Diamond was inspired to write “Sweet Caroline” after seeing a picture of her in a magazine but didn’t reveal that until 2007.
President Obama doesn’t need to reveal what inspired him to send Kennedy to Tokyo. I already know.
As was the case during the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, the best way to understand any political story is to follow the money. Kennedy was an important fundraiser in the Obama campaigns and the seal of approval of the Kennedy clan that she and her uncle Ted bestowed had an inestimable value, especially in the primary struggle against Hillary Clinton.
That name recognition might have been sufficient to put Kennedy into the same U.S. Senate seat occupied by her late uncle Robert, which was being vacated by Clinton to accept Obama’s nomination to become Secretary of State. It never ceases to amaze me what a small circumference encloses the circles of power at the highest levels. Had Kennedy performed better in her news media interviews and private meetings, then-Governor David Patterson might well have appointed her. Instead, she withdrew her name from consideration, after realizing that it wasn’t going to get any further consideration in any case.
What, then, could be the purpose of sending an underwhelming communicator to fill the top diplomatic post with a key U.S. ally? As we unravel the duties of a modern ambassador, it will become clear.
First, ambassadors come in two flavors: political appointees and career foreign service. I had the pleasure early in my career to spend some time with Amb. (ret.) Herman J. Cohen, at that time in State’s top billet for intelligence and research. It was his interest in me that led to my continuing interest in foreign affairs. He was a true model of the second type, a career man who knew his trade and the people and cultures in his area of expertise, Africa, where he served as ambassador to several nations. Technical and area experts get appointments to difficult, complex, and sometimes dangerous posts, as was the case with the late Amb. Christopher Stevens in Libya.
The political appointees, usually drawn from the ranks of campaign activists and fund-raisers, get some of the nicer and more glamorous posts. Grandfather Joe Kennedy even served as Ambassador to the Court of St. James until some of his pre-war comments led to him being recalled from London.
In this age of global telecommunications, the job of a diplomat is not what it was in the 19th Century. When it might take weeks to send and receive diplomatic instructions between Washington and wherever, the U.S. representative abroad needed to be able to assess situations on his own and speak on behalf of the United States until further instructions could arrive. Now, when Obama can probably text Putin directly, what purpose does an ambassador serve?
It’s all about access. As the President’s representative in Tokyo, Kennedy will be able to convey information and impressions back and forth with a level of personal resonance not ordinarily available to a career foreign service officer.
If Caroline Kennedy does harbor any future political ambitions, being only 55, serving in Japan can be a great opportunity to add high-level government service to her well-born name.