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Is Caroline Kennedy Qualified To Be U.S. Ambassador To Japan?


When a U.S. president fills an ambassadorship, there is a choice to make. Is it a place where a political supporter or a celebrity could do the job? Or is the U.S. relationship with the country so important that you need an ambassador with real policy or diplomatic chops?

This serves as the backdrop as President Obama's expected to name Caroline Kennedy - the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy - as the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Japan has the world's third-largest economy, and this is a job that's long been critical to American trade and business interests. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Caroline Kennedy - the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, the niece of Sen. Ted Kennedy, and the granddaughter of Ambassador Joe Kennedy - has been one of President Obama's most prominent and consequential supporters.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Caroline Kennedy has become one of my dearest friends and is just a wonderful American, a wonderful person.

LIASSON: Her endorsement of then-candidate Obama, early in 2008, came at a crucial moment when he was locked in a battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Four years later, at the 2012 Democratic Convention, she conferred the mantle of the Kennedy legacy to the current president.


CAROLINE KENNEDY: Barack Obama is the kind of leader my father wrote about in "Profiles in Courage." He doesn't just do what's easy. He does what's hard. He does what's right.


LIASSON: It's a longstanding tradition for presidents to appoint high-profile political figures to represent the U.S. in Japan. Former Vice President Walter Mondale served in the post. So did former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. Caroline Kennedy is the best-known living member of America's most famous political family, but she isn't the kind of power player those other ambassadors were; and she has no prior experience in government or business. In that sense, her appointment would be a break with tradition, says Clyde Prestowitz, a Japan expert and president of the Economic Strategy Institute.

CLYDE PRESTOWITZ: You know, when we say that the Japanese like celebrities, there are different kinds of celebrities. And the people that we've sent to Japan, over the years, have been people like Mondale or Tom Foley or Mike Mansfield. And these are celebrities. But they're heavyweight policy people who are knowledgeable about issues and knowledgeable about Japan, and had a broad web of acquaintanceships. You know, in the case of somebody like Ms. Kennedy, she just doesn't have that kind of a background.

LIASSON: Prestowitz acknowledges that prominent campaign contributors and supporters are often made ambassadors, but usually not to countries in the midst of critical geopolitical struggles.

PRESTOWITZ: While Japan has been a bit on the back burner diplomatically, for the last 10 or 15 years, it's coming back onto the front burner. The president has made conclusion of the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement a centerpiece of his second-term policy. And Japan and China are now at dagger points over the Senkaku Islands. Our security treaty with Japan, in principle, puts us in a position of possibly being drawn into a shooting war with China over these islands. So I would say Japan's pretty important.

LIASSON: White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the appointment, or about Caroline Kennedy's qualifications. If she does become the ambassador to Japan, she'd be the first woman ever to serve in the post. She would replace Ambassador John Roos, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who was a major fundraiser for the Obama campaign.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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