New US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy had them at her first media conference interjection: when the white, stale male journalist (the self-outing Hugh Riminton) cut across a female journalist she asked incredulously to the whirring cameras with Kennedy-esque pause,:‘Did you just talk over a woman?’
The whole room of cynical journalists swooned and the twitterverse went into a collective cuddle as they celebrated the arrival of one of their pro-nouned own and America was almost forgiven for electing Trump. Almost.
This is what you get when you’re the daughter of an American political icon and your family name; sorry brand – symbolises everything good and wholesome about American politics, never mind the Bay of Pigs.
No previous US ambassador to Australia has had their arrival so freighted with nostalgia and its magical power to dredge up an idealised past of a thousand aspirational speeches and promises to ‘ask not what your country can do for you,’ other than giving you a highly prized ambassadorship. For those old enough, the JFK legend is embedded in our psyche with its melodrama and high tragedy (cut down too soon by an assassin’s bullets) and on high rotation – in books, documentaries and movies like Oliver Stone’s nut job conspiracy-fuelled 1992 JFK where apparently it was either the Russians or the Cubans, the CIA or the second shooter on the grassy knoll.
Reality is never so neat, as 100 and counting tawdry ex-mistress and mob boss exposés, and a book by my favorite drunk American author Norman Mailer reveal. If you’re under 30 you may wonder why all the fuss about the daughter of a long-dead president.
The most recent JFK reference is that Kim Kardashian lost seven kilograms as part of a publicity stunt wearing the dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she embarrassingly sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President,’ at his 45th birthday celebration. Social media users avoided the realpolitik of that pop culture moment, preferring to create their own conspiracy theories – did Kim really lose that much weight so quickly (like, no waaay) and is it true the trademarked Kardishian backside that once broke the internet managed to break the buttons at the back of the historic five million dollar dress (like, no waaay)?
Much of this, like the stretched bathing suit an overweight, 60-ish Ted Kennedy wore tanning on his speedboat’s timber deck with a woman half his age, is Kennedy kitsch (or legend). Rather than avoid it, Caroline Kennedy’s arrival remarks went heavy on the nostalgia with dollops of the Kennedy’s presidency as fabled Camelot (Jackie’s favourite Broadway musical, composers Lerner and Loewe). Noting her father’s ties to Australia – during the second world war Australians helped save his life, he wanted to visit here while president – she even said she came to Australia on her honeymoon.
The welcome video was ‘full Kennedy’ with references to the influential family matriarch grandmother, her celebrity mother Jackie, and Uncle Ted. As with most things Kennedy it is best to avoid the small print – so more Senator Ted, the liberal lion of the US Senate than Chappaquiddick, and Ted leaving the scene of a watery and deadly drink-drive.
It’s a curated approach to your past at which most political leaders, other than Boris Johnson, can only marvel. It reminds you how much it’s all changed since President Jack. These days, you couldn’t get away with the cosy media arrangement of not commenting on JFK’s numerous infidelities or personal illhealth. Not that this is just an American thing. The recent Bob Hawke biography by Troy Bramston, exposes Hawke’s cheating and heavy drinking at awe-inspiring, never before realised levels and shows that the same rules of engagement were followed here at the time.
And while the politicians’ protection racket may have ended (and maybe never existed for straying Australian conservative politicians – compare the treatment of Bill Clinton with say, Alan Tudge or Barnaby Joyce), other things haven’t. JFK had to overcome anti-Catholic bias including claims he answered directly to the pope before being elected as the first Catholic president. Here, the mockery continues of openly Christian politicians like Scott Morrison or the media-framed Mad Monk Tony Abbott.
Despite the Pollyanna hagiography, easy name identification and strong jawline out of central casting, Kennedy is a woman of substance of a particular political kind. A former ambassador to Japan, she will be an articulate representative for an increasingly disconnected president who struggles to speak clearly, especially on foreign policy. She will have her hands full bedding down the new AUKUS agreement and dealing with China in the region and no doubt has the experience and skills to match. With a career made in American liberal politics, when that meant something other than pronoun identification and the ability to trash department stores in the name of civil rights, one wonders what she makes of highly coiffed, megaphoned lightweights like AOC and The Squad.
No doubt the Kennedy name/brand will open doors and this is always key to a job largely about relationships. Especially, if you’re a political appointee. Don’t underestimate this cut-through, especially with starry eyed journalists and local politicians who fawn over the Kennedy legend the same way they dream about Gough, the Light on the Hill and the Dismissal. Don’t expect a compliant media to ask hard questions of Ambassador Kennedy anytime soon – unless Biden has another brain fade as he did over the Afghanistan withdrawal.
One note – nuance matters in diplomacy and for all the dazzling Brand Kennedy glamour, calling out Riminton for speaking too soon (something, he disputes) was jarring. For some it had the feel of a cheap virtue-signal. Others may speculate not so much, ‘oh wow, a Kennedy’, but ‘oh, she’s like that, is she?’
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Michael Scammell was a media officer for the US Consulate in Melbourne
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