By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008; Page C01
Barack Obama‘s decision to name the only surviving child of John F. Kennedy to his three-person vice presidential search team was not without its noisy critics, who questioned Caroline Kennedy‘s credentials for the job and suggested the presumptive Democratic nominee was merely trying to latch himself to the legacy of Camelot.
But the appointment was looking pretty smart last week with the abrupt departure from the committee of Beltway insider Jim Johnson after questions were raised about his personal loan deals. Now, the GOP is targeting the third member of the vice presidential vetting committee, former Justice Department attorney Eric Holder, for his role in the controversial pardoning of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton presidency.
Kennedy, however, appears to be squeaky clean, with no political baggage.
“The senator has a lot of respect for her character,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. “He wanted someone outside of Washington.”
Democratic consultant Donna Brazile noted, “Knowing she is in the room I think adds a sense of history and decorum to the process for people — it’s not just Washington blue suits and red ties.”
Democratic Party sources say that while Kennedy’s magical name might have brought her to the table, she is a lawyer and successful author — and wouldn’t sign on to something as window dressing. Her role in this intense search, which is only just beginning, Axelrod and others say, will be to bring a broader perspective to a process that often turns into a demeaning beauty pageant for professional politicians. The campaign will name someone to replace Johnson this week, says a source close to the campaign.
“For many Americans, the name Kennedy is synonymous with the golden age of true public service,” said Geoffrey Garin, an adviser to Hillary Clinton, herself a contender for running mate. “She’ll look beyond traditional pols to candidates who are highly regarded from a different perspective, and that will be reassuring to people.”
Those assigned the job of vetting or investigating potential candidates for vice president usually work in secrecy, and Obama has already demanded that there be no leaks. They compile a long list of possibilities, assess their interest, ask them to fill out interminably long histories, look over their financial records and tax returns, and eventually interview a select group. In addition to finding a person who balances the presidential candidate both personally and politically, the committee’s goal is to make sure that the person they recommend has no skeletons in his or her closet.
The job suits Kennedy perfectly: high-profile enough to be a public reminder that she compared Obama to her father, but discreet enough to allow the decidedly private Kennedy to operate out of public view.
Caroline Kennedy is well aware of the import that her name and voice carry, which is why she has used both sparingly over the years — and always on her own terms. It was she who decided that her unexpected endorsement of Obama in the middle of a close primary would take the form of an op-ed piece in the New York Times, and she who decided when she would do it. “While there were conversations between her and the senator, the timing was totally hers — she was not coaxed,” said Axelrod.
Democratic partisans were delighted that she was getting involved in a non-family member’s campaign more than she ever had in the past. But don’t expect to see her as a talking head on cable TV.
Since endorsing Obama, Kennedy appears to have given only one interview, and that was conducted with Sen. Edward Kennedy, her uncle, as part of the endorsement rollout in February.
What she has done, however, is significant: She has traveled the country for Obama, crisscrossing Texas, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, quietly speaking in tiny towns and community centers, and registering voters at train stations and shopping malls.
“People are somewhat surprised sometimes to see me out here, and I’m sometimes surprised myself, because I haven’t been that involved in political campaigns,” she acknowledged to a few hundred people at the 4-H Center in the tiny town of Boonville, Ind., last month. “But I do believe this is the most important election since I was a child. I just turned 50, and I figured if I’m going to get out there, now is the time.”
Indeed, someone who knows her said that her decision to come forward for Obama reflects a sincere passion she feels for his campaign, and her belief that he could be the first president since her father to inspire the young and bring a nation together.
Kennedy has said that it was her three children who brought her to Obama. She quietly took her daughter Tatiana, then 17, to hear him speak last summer in New York. Newsweek reported that when Obama heard she had been there, he phoned her afterward, which is when they spoke for the first time. She attended other events without fanfare, read his book and watched the campaign closely from afar. It wasn’t until after Iowa that she told Obama she would support him.
Axelrod said Kennedy has been “willing to do anything she’s asked to do” for the campaign. “She told the senator she wanted to be helpful and she’s taken every assignment. . . . Her commitment has been total.”
Those who know her say she has a keen understanding of her place in history and an appreciation of the expectation that she keep the memory alive. And so she is not shy about invoking the memory of her father, and her uncle Robert Kennedy, when she needs to. She told the crowd in Boonville that she remembers the night Bobby Kennedy won the Indiana primary in the spring of 1968. “It was such a happy night in the life of our family,” she said. “I’m so happy to be here again.”
Kennedy has long been seen as one of the more grounded of the army of Kennedy cousins, despite a childhood of tragedy and drama. She grew up with paparazzi chasing her down Fifth Avenue and reporters staking out her school. Although the public has tried to turn her into one of those elusive, iconic women it wants to own — like her mother or Princess Diana — she has kept her family and her private life out of public view.
Although she has not taken an active role in the family trade as an adult, she has written books on civil liberties, is considered an expert on the First Amendment, and edited a version of her father’s book “Profiles in Courage.” She has spent the past two decades raising her children and is very involved in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, where she is the foundation president. She is particularly close to cousin Maria Shriver — they were each other’s maid of honor — and uncle Ted, whom she speaks to regularly. “They have a warm and close relationship,” said Al Hunt, chairman of the Profile in Courage Award Committee and Washington executive editor of Bloomberg News. “They tease each other in a very loving way.”
Her circle of friends is tight and small and silent. She remains very close to a group of high school friends from Milton Academy and Harvard, three of whom serve on the board of the Kennedy library. A number of people contacted for this story who know Kennedy, either intimately or as acquaintances, declined to talk about her. In fact, they pleaded not to have their names in the newspaper — even as not commenting. They have seen the cost up close.
When Caroline’s brother, John, died in a plane crash, she pointedly did not invite one of his closest friends, former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, to the funeral because he had given a television interview about John. Barlow later said that he “paid dearly” for the error.
“She is the nicest, sweetest person,” said one source who has socialized with Kennedy and who has been to her Park Avenue home. “She never asks you not to talk — you just know.”
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