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Opinion | Swanee Hunt

Is Caroline Kennedy qualified?

Yes. Celebrity aside, she stands on her own merit

Caroline Kennedy is seen in a March 26 photo.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Caroline Kennedy is seen in a March 26 photo.

First, there was the New York Times article “Money, Politics, and Its Suckers.” The author declared, “Swanee Hunt got Vienna from Bill Clinton.” Twenty years later, browsing similar headlines about Caroline Kennedy upon her nomination as US ambassador to Japan, I offer her the advice given me: Pay them no mind.

At the time of my nomination as ambassador, “got Vienna” and its insinuation pained me. My husband, Charles Ansbacher, was an ensconced leader in Colorado’s arts, our foundation was serving the state’s most vulnerable, and we had three children (one with a debilitating illness). I didn’t want to disrupt our lives, but I was drawn to serving my country and an inspiring president. Given her family’s tradition of service and her long-expressed admiration for President Obama, I imagine that Kennedy feels similarly.

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The ambassador-designate might also share my weariness of jaded coverage when it comes to political appointments. Her critics have pounced, claiming this is nothing more than a political payoff. Yet in the last 50 years, nine of the 13 US ambassadors to Tokyo have been political appointees. So, too, have many of our nation’s great diplomats, such as Benjamin Franklin (sent to France as America’s first ambassador), Henry Morgenthau Sr., and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Without assuming Senate confirmation, we can let ourselves imagine: Kennedy’s White House ties and political astuteness will serve her splendidly in Japan. In a country captivated by the Kennedy aura, her fame will signal the importance of America’s ties to Japan and quell concern that our attention is disproportionately relegated to China. Celebrity aside, Kennedy stands on her own merit. A graduate of Harvard College and Columbia Law School, author and editor of nine bestselling books, she is also president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and chair of the advisory committee for Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

Add a future feat: As the first female ambassador to the country, Caroline Kennedy will have a powerful platform in one of the world’s most dangerous regions as she advances issues critical to America. She’ll take the diplomatic helm as tensions with China are being played out over the disputed Senkaku Islands. But the most frightening danger is North Korea’s increasing threats of a nuclear holocaust. As the United States is long on military hard power, this diplomatic plenipotentiary will use her “soft power” of intuitive and respectful finesse to disarm belligerents.

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Born and bred in the political world, Caroline Kennedy has a superb understanding of Washington. Her parents were masterful at identifying with other cultures, and she exudes these familial hallmarks — particularly the consummate skill of listening. Decisions of war and peace are rightly made in Washington, while an American ambassador has a seat at the table having developed trusting relationships with political leaders and citizens alike. That’s an ideal role for a person with her on-the-ground sensibility.

Like Kennedy will, I ended up in a region with geopolitical implications. Yugoslavia was suffering unending travail, with concentration camps, systematic rape, and horrific massacres. There was fear that the Orthodox/Muslim split could extend south to Greece and Turkey, cracking apart NATO. Europe was divided about whether to intervene. Russia and the United States were in a standoff.

Looking back to that NYT critique, it’s true that I “got” a great deal from my appointment — but I gave a lot, too. In addition to hosting peace negotiations for the Yugoslavian wars, I developed a strategy to empower women, given their “vital voices” in creating economic and political stability. Of course, Kennedy will determine her own platform, but I hope she’ll include the status of women in the region: According to the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks 101 of 135 countries in gender equality. Combining roles of mother, lawyer, writer, and advocate, she’ll be a model for Japanese women, famously struggling with cultural assumptions that they must choose between family and work.

And now, may I address you directly, Caroline? Put aside the daily papers as you prepare for your historic moment. Your father described a New Frontier of “unknown opportunities and perils . . . unsolved problems of peace and war.” But he also believed that “the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision.” What an extraordinary match for Japanese culture, as you offer innovation built upon and beyond solid legacy: The ninth public servant in four generations of Kennedys, you’ll be extending a commitment of the most politically influential family in our country’s history. Now that’s a theme worth the attention of the chatterati.

Former US Ambassador Swanee Hunt is the Eleanor Roosevelt lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where she founded the Women and Public Policy Program.
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