Caroline Kennedy May Be the Latest Presidential Kid to Turn Diplomat

The daughter of former President John F. Kennedy has been rumored to be Obama's next ambassador to Japan. If she gets the job, she will join John Quincy Adams, Robert Todd Lincoln and other presidential children who had served as diplomat

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Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

Caroline Kennedy, daughter of late U.S. President John F. Kennedy, stands near a portrait of her parents at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 2011

No one ever asks Presidents’ kids if they want to represent their country at home and abroad. The children of Presidents are on the world stage whether they like it or not, and not just as passive companions: historically they have often been drafted at tender ages into quasi-diplomatic missions. Perhaps that explains why many of those kids end up doing official diplomatic service as adults.

Take Caroline Kennedy. The granddaughter of U.S. ambassador to Great Britain from 1938 to ’40, Joseph P. Kennedy; niece of U.S. ambassador to Ireland in the Clinton Administration, Jean Kennedy Smith; and the daughter of President John F. Kennedy has been floated as Obama’s next ambassador to Japan. If, as expected, she gets the job, she will be among a group of mostly distinguished diplomats who first served while traveling abroad when their parents were in power.

John Quincy Adams, the first scion of a President to become a novice diplomat, spent much of his youth living abroad in Holland, Russia and England while his father John Adams was minister plenipotentiary to the Netherlands and the U.K. By the age of 10, he was tagging along with his father on a mission to obtain loans from the governments of France and Holland for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. At 15, he served as secretary and translator for the American emissary in Russia, and by 18 he was fluent in six languages, biographer Harlow Giles Unger, tells TIME. He was minister to Holland, Portugal, Germany (the only child of a President to be appointed by his own parent), Russia and the U.K., and was Secretary of State for eight years under James Monroe. George Washington called him “the most valuable public character we have abroad … and the ablest of all our diplomatic corps.”

Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John and Abigail and son of John Quincy, continued in the family business. He was envoy extraordinary and minister to the Court of St. James during the Civil War. Appointed to the post by President Abraham Lincoln, his principle task was to keep Britain’s neutrality in the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy.

Long before George H.W. Bush was chief of mission to China, the grandson of James Monroe, Samuel L. Gouverneur Jr., became the first U.S. consul in Foo Chow (later Fuzhou), China, in 1859. Apparently, among his most pressing concerns was the preservation of the legacy of his grandfather. According to the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, one of his first duties as consul was to commission an artist to paint a copy of an engraving, which showed him standing beside his grandfather’s coffin.

President Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was the last minister to the U.K. from 1889 to 1893, before the title was changed to ambassador. The younger Lincoln’s four years in London were a relatively stable time with few significant events. Biographer Jason Emerson, author of Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, described some highlights such as organizing an international monetary conference, helping negotiate a seal-hunting controversy and some small involvement in the sensational murder trial of American Florence Maybrick.

Emerson told TIME that serving as minister “was perfectly suited to Robert Lincoln’s talents and temperament … He was sure and strong in himself and his opinions and tasks as minister, and while he was respectful to his British counterparts, he was neither intimidated nor bullied by them.” Theodore Roosevelt praised that independence concluding, “All of our envoys to London have been pro-British except Bob Lincoln.”

President Ulysses S. Grant’s son, Frederick Dent Grant, followed a military career with a posting in Austria during the same time that Lincoln was in London. “These appointments catered to the sensibilities of the 19th-century European monarchies and their emphasis on royal and aristocratic origins, presidential kinship being considered a close approximation,” wrote Henry L. Bisharat, in an article on presidential kin for the Foreign Service Journal.

Frederick Dent Grant’s daughter, Princess Julia Dent Grant Cantacuzene, wrote lively tales of the family’s stay in Austria in her memoir, My Life Here and There. She described her father’s successful use of royal shooting parties: “An Emperor in shooting garb, or a Minister of Foreign Affairs over a hunt picnic luncheon, must necessarily be in less formal and less defensive mood to handle business; and they soon learned to trust and like the unpretentious, honest, and very capable representative of America’s interests.”

Russell Benjamin Harrison, the son of President Benjamin Harrison and the great grandson of President William Henry Harrison, did not represent the U.S. before foreign governments, but he did practice diplomacy on behalf of a foreign country. He was a vice consul of Mexico in Indianapolis and was honorary consul of Mexico from 1924 until at least ’31.

President William Howard Taft traveled overseas extensively and served as the civilian governor-general of the Philippines, where he helped stabilize the islands by improving the economy and the infrastructure, and established a functional government following the Spanish-American War. Like the Adams family, the Taft political dynasty is filled with skilled diplomats starting with the President’s father, Alphonso, who was envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Austria-Hungary and later Russia. The grandson of President Taft, William Howard Taft III, was ambassador to Ireland. The great grandson of President Taft, William Howard Taft IV, was the U.S. permanent representative on the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, from 1989 to ’92. And his wife Julia Vadala Taft was Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration.

Caroline Kennedy would succeed John Eisenhower, the second child of President Dwight Eisenhower, as the most recent child of a President to serve as an ambassador. John Eisenhower had plenty of preparation, a long career in the military including serving as a combat officer at the end of World War II and during the Korean War, and work at the White House during his father’s Administration. He also spent time overseas doing research on his acclaimed book about the Battle of the Bulge, The Bitter Woods. President Nixon appointed him U.S. ambassador to Belgium, where he served briefly before suddenly resigning citing “personal reasons,” and returned to a successful career writing military histories.

Like those before her, Kennedy can boast an early start in foreign travel. As the 4½-year-old daughter of the President, she traveled with her mother to Ravello, Italy, for a three-week vacation in the summer of 1962. When they returned, she was personally greeted at the airport and debriefed by the President. She even has an early personal connection to Japan: she spent a short time in Osaka and Tokyo during her honeymoon in 1986.

A posting to Japan would be important for U.S. national security. Japan is a key ally that will continue to play a significant role in American relations with China, North Korea and other countries in the region. Over the past seven years Japan has had six Prime Ministers, been devastated by a tsunami and nuclear disaster and suffered from a faltering economy. Whoever becomes our ambassador will ideally be a capable and fully engaged diplomat in the mold of John Quincy Adams.

Caroline and Jacqueline Kennedy

Jim Pringle / AP

Caroline Kennedy with her mother Jacqueline in Malori, Italy, on August 25, 1962.