April 2022

The Nation Reviewed

All the way with CBK

By Nick Bryant
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Caroline Kennedy’s appointment as US ambassador to Australia is a sign of the rising temperature in the Pacific

Last November, on the 58th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, followers of the QAnon conspiracy movement gathered in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza expecting to witness a miracle. In the shadow of the former Texas School Book Depository and at the foot of the infamous grassy knoll, they had been promised the spectacle of seeing John F. Kennedy Jr emerge from hiding, 22 years after the light plane he was piloting nose-dived into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. Two things would happen in the wake of that messianic moment. Donald Trump would be reinstated as the United States president, and John Jr would become his vice-presidential deputy. Members of the crowd even wore T-shirts reading “Trump–Kennedy 2024”.

Nowadays the name Kennedy is often associated not with the nobility of US politics but rather its lunacy. When Trump campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he accused Rafael Cruz, the father of his main rival, Senator Ted Cruz, of consorting with “crazy Lee Harvey Oswald”. In the confederacy of conspiracy that is modern-day America, it is possible to trace a line from QAnon via the hoax of the Apollo 11 Moon landing to the day that America’s 35th president made the mistake of disregarding the advice of his Secret Service detail and drove through Dallas in an open-topped limousine.

Caroline Kennedy takes us to a different place. Back to the halcyon days of John F. Kennedy’s truncated term, when she and her younger brother crawled beneath the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, when the White House was a place of refinement and rationality. As a young girl, she was a central character in the most telegenic of American presidencies. Now in her mid sixties, she is still playing her part in the Kennedy saga. Sometime over the coming months, assuming the US Senate rubber-stamps her appointment, she will arrive in Canberra as America’s ambassador to Australia. Camelot will come to Canberra – or Canberralot, as her court in the bush capital may come to be known.

For decades now, Caroline Kennedy has been the author of the family’s steadiest storyline. The sensible big sister. The dutiful daughter. The good and faithful public servant. While her playboy brother, the world’s most eligible bachelor, became a staple of the New York tabloids, Caroline was quietly starting a family. In 1986, she married Edwin Schlossberg, an exhibition designer whom she met while working at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While her cousin, Maria Shriver, the matron of honour at her wedding, was forging a successful television career, and married an Austrian-born former body builder by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger, she worked at the New York City Department of Education on a salary of a dollar a year. While other members of the Kennedy dynasty were busy running for office, and eyeing runs for the presidency, she resisted calls to enter politics.

Finally in 2008, when Hillary Clinton agreed to serve as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Caroline Kennedy vied to replace her in the New York Senate seat. But her exploratory foray came to a disastrous end after having granted an interview to The New York Times. In the word salad that followed, she uttered the phrase “you know” 138 times. Famously, her uncle Ted’s 1980 presidential campaign had come crashing down when, during a TV interview with the CBS anchor Roger Mudd, the senator failed to give a coherent answer when asked the simple question: “Why do you want to be president?” Caroline came a similar cropper. In a written statement a few weeks afterwards, she withdrew her name from consideration.

Five years later, Obama, whom Ted and Caroline Kennedy had endorsed during his fight with Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, appointed her as the US ambassador to Japan. In Tokyo, she served for four years, resigning her post in 2017 just before Trump was sworn in as president. 

Now she returns to the diplomatic fray in the midst of the most perilous foreign policy stand-off since the Cuban missile crisis, which was the most dramatic episode not just of her father’s tenure in the Oval Office but of the Cold War as a whole.

That President Joe Biden has decided to make such a high-profile appointment speaks of the elevated importance of the United States–Australia alliance. Far from being a quiet diplomatic backwater, Canberra is on a frontline. Australia has assumed a more central role as America’s most loyal regional ally. Proof of that came last September, when the Biden administration pulled from its hat the tripartite AUKUS security pact (also including the United Kingdom), its democratic front against China.

The president regards Caroline Kennedy as not only a valuable diplomat but also an instrument of American soft power. At a time when Biden has framed the struggle of our age as a Manichean battle between democracy and tyranny – “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” he said at his first press conference – there is an obvious attraction in appointing the daughter of a past president who revelled in his Cold War role as the “leader of the free world”. 

Her presence in the forefront of US diplomacy also recalls an era when American exceptionalism was genuinely inspirational: something associated with iconic moments, such as JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in June 1963, or the challenge he issued to put a man on the Moon, and safely return him to Earth, by the end of the ’60s. Now US exceptionalism has become a negative construct, linked in foreign minds to mass shootings, gun-toting militias, QAnon and the insanities of its Trumpian politics. At a time when Biden has been trying to persuade the rest of the world that “America is back” – a hard sell after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan – it helps to enlist some Kennedy cachet.

For America’s 46th president, the romanticism of the Kennedy era has always cast a personal spell. The presidential Kennedy brothers inspired their fellow Irish-Americans to pursue careers in public service. When Biden entered the Senate in the early 1970s, he even saw himself as something of a proxy flame-carrier for the family. By then, Robert Kennedy had also been assassinated and Ted Kennedy looked like he would never recover from the incident at Chappaquiddick, the car crash on Martha’s Vineyard that killed a young campaign staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, which happened, in a strange historical twist, on the very weekend in July 1969 that Neil Armstrong made his first steps on the Moon. 

The problem now is that the Kennedy brand has lost much of its lustre. The death of Ted Kennedy in 2009 deprived the family of a seat in the US Senate for the first time since the early ’60s. In 2020, Joe Kennedy III, the grandson of Robert, became the first ever scion of the family to lose a statewide race in Massachusetts, its long-time political fiefdom. The congressman had sought to dislodge the sitting Democratic senator, Ed Markey, but lost the primacy race partly because Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed his opponent. JFK had seemingly been blitzed by AOC. 

For decades previous, the Kennedy alchemy had enabled politicians in the family to bring together a disparate Democratic coalition of youthful idealists, left-leaning Harvard intellectuals and socially conservative working-class Bostonian Catholics. Evidently, it had lost its magic. 

Moreover, the current pessimism on the American left militates against the kind of US exceptionalism that JFK once personified. Whereas Republicans still believe that the United States is the greatest nation on the planet, progressives tend to focus on the country’s historic failings, such as the baleful legacy of slavery and the systemic racism that replaced it. The sense of liberal idealism – again, an idea affiliated with the Kennedys – relied on the belief that America could become the ideal. That has become a devalued creed. 

Besides, the JFK years have come to be re-evaluated. In the MeToo age, John F. Kennedy’s incessant womanising, which not only included Marilyn Monroe but a teenage White House intern, reminds us of the dark side of Camelot. In the Black Lives Matter era, his backsliding on civil rights – for much of his presidency, he remained a bystander to the great social revolution of the age – incurs further reputational damage. Kennedy, rather than being the crusading liberal of popular lore, was truly a calculating and often cynical pragmatist. 

What Gore Vidal once described as “the Kennedy godhead” is no more. In as much as the two can be separated, Caroline Kennedy’s personal prestige is now arguably on a higher plain than that of the dynasty overall.

Diplomacy, like politics, courses through the Kennedy’s ancestral bloodline. Caroline Kennedy’s grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr, the overbearing patriarch of the clan, served as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in London in the lead-up to World War Two, before being fired by Franklin D. Roosevelt for urging appeasement with Adolf Hitler. Her uncle Robert, the attorney general in the Kennedy administration, acted at times as a shadow secretary of state, working back channels with the Kremlin and serving as his brother’s most trusted foreign policy adviser during the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis. Family members have a habit of finding themselves in the grip of history.

Let us hope that Caroline Kennedy has a less eventful posting. But with the war in Ukraine raging, and tensions with China over Taiwan likely to escalate further, she will take up residence in the midst of another global storm.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a broadcaster and writer, who has just returned to Australia after covering the Trump years for the BBC. His latest book is When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.

@NickBryantNY

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