WASHINGTON — Caroline Kennedy, whose endorsement of President Obama in 2008 helped propel him to the Democratic nomination, is in line for the post of ambassador to Japan, according to published reports.
The potential appointment, rumored for weeks, would catapult the 55-year-old New York lawyer, author, and only surviving child of slain President John F. Kennedy into one of the world’s most dynamic diplomatic roles at a time when the rise of China and threats of renewed conflict on the Korean peninsula will require keen negotiating skills.
It would also make her the first female ambassador in Tokyo, a stalwart US ally with a tradition of hosting big-name US envoys, including a former vice president, former House speaker, and former Senate majority leader.
“I think the Japanese will be very pleased about it,” said former vice president Walter Mondale, who was ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996, calling such a pick “an inspired choice.”
“It tells the world we look at Japan and send our most famous family there. I think she’ll be a very good ambassador.”
Bloomberg News reported several weeks ago that she was expected to be named to the post, and the Washington Post reported it again Monday, triggering a flurry of fresh reports.
White House officials would not confirm the news Monday but did not issue any denials, which was telling.
Her potential selection came as a bit of a surprise to some close observers of the Kennedy clan.
“She’s been reluctant to be in public life in a full-throated way,” said historian Robert Dallek, a JFK biographer. “She’s never run for anything. It is a little surprising. What is her connection to Japan?”
Kennedy unsuccessfully sought an appointment to a vacant New York Senate seat in 2009 but declined to run in a special election.
Dallek noted that serving as a diplomat would carry on a different sort of Kennedy family tradition.
Kennedy’s grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, was President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain from 1938 to 1940, and her aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith, was US envoy to Ireland for President Bill Clinton.
“There is a kind of dynastic tradition here,” said Dallek.
Others, meanwhile, saw her possible elevation to the post as marking the beginning of a more active role in public life — perhaps even leading in the future to elected office.
“It’s a great start for her,” said former senator Harris Wofford, who served as an adviser to President Kennedy and remains close with the family.
If she accepts and is confirmed for the post, Caroline Kennedy, who sits on the boards of several nonprofits and has raised private funding for New York City’s public school system, would replace John Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer who is expected to leave the post after 3½ years.
Another factor in the timing of Kennedy’s potential nomination may be the departure of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stepped down as secretary of state in January.
Kennedy disappointed Clinton’s supporters when she endorsed Obama during the bitter presidential primary battle in 2008.
The endorsement, along with that of her uncle, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, lent a much-needed boost to the then-Illinois senator’s quest to capture the Democratic nomination.
“I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them,” she said of Obama in January 2008. “But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president.”
Kennedy also cochaired Obama’s 2008 search for a running mate and cochaired his 2012 reelection effort.
If she is confirmed to the post, her boss would be Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the former Massachusetts senator.
While seen as a plum post, the job of US ambassador to Japan is not considered easy.
At the top of the list of concerns, said Mondale, are security issues with North Korea, the unpopular US military presence in Okinawa, and the sluggish Japanese economy.
“She can use, I think, her enormous stature that she will bring to that job to really step up the relationship between the US and Japan,” Mondale said. “Once you get the word ‘Caroline Kennedy’ out of your mouth there’s not much more explaining that’s needed. She sweeps the table when she arrives.”
He said he has not spoken with Kennedy about the post, and had not received any independent confirmation that she had been chosen.
Others said that despite her lack of foreign policy experience, Kennedy’s stewardship of her parents’ legacy has shown a knack for diplomacy.
“She has certainly demonstrated that she has a diplomatic disposition in her management of the family legacy,” said Charles Stith, former ambassador to Tanzania and now a professor at Boston University.
Close Kennedy confidants said Monday that it was difficult to know what to make of the reports.
One said that a White House aide dealing with ambassadorships said that 200 people wanted a posting but there were only about 40 such openings.
White House press secretary Jay Carney would not comment Monday on whether Kennedy was Obama’s choice for the ambassadorship — or what her qualifications are.
But Carney also did not bat down reports that she had been offered the job, which close observers said was significant.