Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kennedy is, you know, an ambassador

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WASHINGTON -- Fatherless since an awful day in Dallas, motherless these past 19 years and brotherless since a handsome scion of Camelot banked his little plane into the sea, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy comes to Congress to accept a cherry-blossomed sinecure, the American ambassadorship to Japan.

The murdered president's daughter is 55, a wife and mother of three grown children, a lawyer, fundraiser, editor and advocate for education, a soft-voiced, hesitant and sometimes self-damaging speaker, a woman little-known to the general public despite her eminent bloodline, a liberal Democrat by genetic predestination, and an early and wealthy supporter of Barack Obama, which, in the way that too many diplomatic appointments are decided in this town, is pretty much all that matters. So the Senate foreign relations committee goes through the requisite pantomime of grilling a woman with not much to say.

"You are the pluperfect embodiment of someone who has devoted her life to public service," says the junior member from her ancestral Massachusetts.

It has been four years since John Fitzgerald Kennedy's daughter -- remembered by my generation as a little girl riding a pony named Macaroni on the South Lawn of the White House, half a sanguinary century ago -- declared she happily would accept the Senate seat from New York that was being vacated by Obama's incoming secretary of state, Hillary R. Clinton, without the messy complication of standing (and spending) for election.

"She's nice, smart and has a golden political pedigree," said the New York Daily News at the time, "but where does Caroline Kennedy stand on the auto bailout, immigration, Wall Street regulation and other sticky issues? The answer, many New Yorkers are quickly realizing, is 'No one knows.' "

Compared to her father's "Ask not what your country can do for you" and "Ich bin ein Berliner," Ms. Kennedy made scant oratorical history during her campaign for a free pass to membership in the same chamber to which her father and her late uncles, Bobby and Ted, acceded by general suffrage, some of it purchased for cash or whiskey by their tycoon patriarch, Joe.

"So I think in many ways, you know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, you know, representing us," she said in a 2009 interview, wounding her candidacy mortally, "and I think what I bring to it is, you know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, you know... So obviously, you know, we have different strengths and weaknesses."

Now she is back in the witness chair, dubbed to take over in Tokyo from a Californian named Roos who was one of Obama's preeminent bagmen, back in 2008. If confirmed by the Senate -- there is no chance she will be rejected -- Ms. Kennedy will be the first American woman to be credentialed to the Chrysanthemum Throne since U.S. gunboats forced the 19th-century shoguns to abandon their "Edict to Expel Foreigners At All Costs" and the figurehead of U.S. interests in a country whose own destroyers nearly killed her navy-lieutenant father aboard his famous PT-109.

"I can think of no country in which I would rather serve," she tells the committee, reading from prepared remarks. With her in the chamber are her spouse of more than 25 years, a son and a daughter, Ted Kennedy's widow, a young Representative (Joseph P. Kennedy III) from the pretty towns south of Boston who is the latest of his clan to be sent to Washington by an adoring and reflexive electorate, and, no doubt, unrecognized clusters of Bouviers, Shrivers, Lawfords, Radziwills, Onassises and Schwarzeneggers.

The committee is chaired by Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the same senator who said Vladimir Putin's recent column in the New York Times made him want to vomit. Tea Party Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, who have been working as hard as they can to reject the federal budget, shut down the entire United States government, defund and/or abolish Obamacare, plus have the country default on its national debt in the hope of being nominated for president in 2016, do not show up. (Sen. Rubio is excused by a death in his family.)

John McCain is present and asks Caroline Kennedy about some disputed, oily islands in the South China Sea.

"I'd like to study that further," the nominee diplomatically replies in her unaccented murmur.

Blessed and bound by birth to her country's most starred and star-crossed family, chained forever to a childhood within its most famous public, private house, the new ambassador will be far away in Edo when, nine weeks from now, the 50th anniversary of her father's brutal destruction will captivate a country in which so many other lives have been destroyed by bullets and bullheaded politics.

Once, of course, it was a Japanese emperor's sons who fired on American boys. Soon enough, a Kennedy will bow to his pacifist descendants.

"That arc of enemy to friend doesn't happen by accident," a senator from Virginia says. The famous-named witness rises, and the gentle committee adjourns.

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2013 A9

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