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Presidential Recruitment of Former First Families for Diplomatic Posts

Last week, the media reported that President Barack Obama is likely to nominate Caroline Kennedy as the Ambassador to Japan. Kennedy was an early supporter of the Obama’s 2008 presidential bid and she served as a co-chairwoman of his 2012 re-election campaign. The appointment would continue a tradition since the 1970s of appointing well-known American political figures to the post, including former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and former Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley. If confirmed by the Senate, Kennedy would also leave her own mark as the first woman to represent the United States in Japan.

Recruiting members of former first families to serve in diplomatic posts is nothing new. As a telephone conversation from the Miller Center’s presidential recording archives reveals, President Richard Nixon attempted to recruit two of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons for ambassadorships in 1972. Although he didn’t recommend it because it was “probably a pain in the neck,” Nixon asked James and John Roosevelt whether they would like to undertake an ambassadorship:

But there are areas of the world where having somebody who has, frankly, prestige, so forth, could mean a great deal to us. And I have found in my own travels around that, while we have some good State Department bureaucrats who are ambassadors, that there are many places, and I think John agrees after his travels abroad, where having somebody who's directly responsible to the President and holds his allegiance to the President, as well as to the State Department, is very important. Now, I just throw that out as something to think about. What do you think?

Nixon also told the Roosevelt brothers that wanted to open up his administration in the second term. He said he felt strongly about sending high-profile ambassadors to “important allies,” specifically mentioning Australia. Furthermore, he said that the country didn’t adequately use the celebrity value of first families:

Ambassadorships these days are something that I am just--one of the things we want with our--we want to open up this administration, should we survive the election, on the broadest possible basis. Another thing that I feel strongly about, and I've talked to President [Lyndon] Johnson about that, that I think this country does not adequately use the celebrity value of first families. I don't think we do. [Unknown people enter the room, greetings heard in the background.] I mean, now Johnson was very good. Of course, [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower [unclear]. But usually a fellow that's been a president or his family and so forth, off they go. Now, at the present time, believe me, and I don't say this before you're here, if you or John are to go to a country abroad, it would mean a lot to that country. Right?...

We've got to send people that are important. There are countries like Australia, is one of them. They want somebody that they like. They want somebody that's important.

Listen to the full clip here.

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