The Kennedy mystique dominated a Senate hearing on Caroline Kennedy’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Japan, as lawmakers spent about as much time praising her family’s legacy as they did asking questions.
The daughter of slain President John F. Kennedy would represent the U.S. at a time when the “rise of the Asia-Pacific region may well prove to be the single most transformative geopolitical shift of the 21st century,” said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
Much of yesterday’s session was devoted to observations such as that of Senator Tim Kaine, who cited the historical arc that the Kennedy’s family story represents in U.S.-Japan relations. Her father was decorated for his courage and service fighting Japan in World War II, while Kennedy will represent the U.S. as one of Japan’s closest allies, said Kaine, a Virginia Democrat.
“I am conscious of the evolution of our relationship,” Kennedy said of the U.S.-Japan alliance, “and am aware that it’s something my family is emblematic of, and I’m honored by that.”
“The Asia-Pacific region is the future in many ways,” accounting for 40 percent of the world’s trade, Kennedy said.
Kennedy, 55, said her father, who was assassinated in 1963, had hoped to be the first sitting president to make a state visit to Japan. “If confirmed as ambassador, I would be humbled to carry forward his legacy in a small way and represent the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies,” she said.
The ambassadorship to Japan has in the past usually been reserved for political figures such as former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and former House Speaker Tom Foley. Kennedy is set to replace John Roos, a former Silicon Valley lawyer and fundraiser for President Barack Obama.
Kennedy and her uncle, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, were prominent backers of Obama’s presidential campaigns. The elder Kennedy took Obama under his wing when they both served in the Senate and gave Obama’s family a Portuguese water dog, Bo, when they moved into the White House.
Despite the political nature of Kennedy’s nomination, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the committee’s top Republican, told her as the hearing began, “I doubt you’re going to get much of a hard time for lots of reasons.” He was right.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the close ties between the Kennedy and Obama families will serve Kennedy - - and Japan -- well when she represents the U.S. there.
“Caroline Kennedy has precisely the kind of close relationship with President Barack Obama that will ensure U.S.- Japan relations remain a focus at the very highest levels,” Schumer said.
The Japanese government has welcomed the nomination, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga telling reporters in Tokyo today that Kennedy “seemed to speak with great feeling about Japan” during her Senate hearing.
“We look forward to her taking up her post shortly and playing an active role in various fields,” Suga said. “In her testimony, she said that Japan and the United States have deep ties in terms of politics, economics, culture and strategy and that the partnership has global influence.”
Kennedy has a background as an author and editor, like her mother, the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Her career has focused on education, literacy, and cultural outreach. She has served as president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, chairman of the Senior Advisory Committee of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, a trustee of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and as a vice chairman of the Fund for Public Schools in New York City, among other positions.
In her opening remarks, Kennedy recalled her first visit to Japan in 1978 with her uncle Ted and how deeply affected she was by a visit to Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb in the last stages of World War II.
Kennedy said her personal priorities will be working on education issues and student exchanges. She also expressed hope that, as the first female U.S. ambassador to Japan, she would set an example.
The White House has tried to make Asia a foreign policy priority, even as much of Secretary of State John Kerry’s time has been consumed by the Middle East. The administration is working toward a new alliance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, meant to anchor the U.S. within the world’s fastest-growing economic region and help achieve the White House goal of doubling U.S. exports over the five years ending in 2015.
In 2011, U.S. exports to the Asia-Pacific region were $895 billion, accounting for 60 percent of America’s global exports, and will hit $1 trillion “in the not-too-distant future,” Menendez said.
Kennedy was asked about Japanese trade restrictions on soda ash and beef. She said there had been a 43 percent increase in beef sales to Japan this year. “I look forward to working on that because it’s of benefit to all of us,” she said.
Kennedy also would contend with heightened tensions between China and Japan, which prompted questions from several lawmakers. A territorial dispute between the two historical rivals has prompted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to order a defense review and propose the most far-reaching changes to Japan’s military posture since World War II.
Abe, elected in December, aims to expand the military’s strictly self-defense role to include helping allies under attack.
Tension over disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, “is a matter of grave concern,” Kennedy told the panel. She reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Japanese defense and its recognition that the islands are under Japanese administrative control.
“Obviously we would wish to see those issues resolved through peaceful dialogue,” Kennedy said. “We don’t take a position on ultimate sovereignty.”
Members of the extended Kennedy family, including Representative Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Ted Kennedy’s widow, Vicki Kennedy, were in the audience. Ted Kennedy’s name was often invoked by lawmakers on the panel who cited his influence and legacy.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, told the nominee that “Ted is very proud to have you here continuing your long family tradition of service.”