The gifted and personable incoming US Ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, is the living link to a period in American public life that is now the lost legend of Camelot: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” The myth of Camelot endures and still has power in both American and Australian politics to move people.
Sir Robert Menzies was the only Australian prime minister to meet the ambassador’s father, President John F. Kennedy. It was Sir Robert who told President Lyndon Johnson that there was only one qualification for a US ambassador to Australia to meet. This was simply having the capacity to pick up the phone and call Washington and speak directly to the president. Caroline Kennedy has this capacity and is recognised for it. As US ambassadors represent the president of the republic, this is of critical significance in being able to achieve goals of both a bilateral and multilateral nature.
Ambassador Kennedy has already served in Tokyo, where she distinguished herself in the difficult and sometimes Byzantine world of Japanese politics, while reinforcing the strength of the US-Japan relationship. The Japanese government recognised the value of her service, and she was decorated with the historic Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.
But equally, ambassador Kennedy has the judgment which was evident in both her father and her uncle, senator Robert F. Kennedy. She distils politics into an essence and then makes decisive interventions. She did this in both 2008 and 2020 during the Democratic primaries for the presidency. On both occasions, she endorsed the eventual winner in senator Barack Obama and vice-president Joe Biden. Both endorsements were contrary to the conventional wisdom as to who the nominee ought to be. The ambassador demonstrated that she has the hard-headed realism of Boston Democrats in her bloodstream.
The Australia-US relationship is evolving and deepening. ANZUS remains the touchstone of reference, but the relationship between the two countries, especially our militaries, grows closer all the time in the wake of the instability in the Indo-Pacific being engendered by dictatorial adversaries.
AUKUS is at the threshold of co-operation across the board in technology and capability. Much needs to be done to bring certainty to its potential and meaningful accretion to its capabilities.
Ambassador Kennedy is extraordinarily well-positioned to influence the discussions in both Canberra and Washington and will be a trusted advocate for the US and a trusted adviser to Australia.
The South Pacific looms large in the challenges for both Australia and the US, where ambassador Kennedy’s father, JFK, has a spectral presence.
In 1994, I was leading an Australian parliamentary delegation to Bougainville to assist with finding ways out of the impasse between the government of Papua New Guinea and the secessionist movement styled as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. We were on a small island named Buka in the Solomons, just off the island of Bougainville.
It was a mission that was met with success in that at least the fighting gave way to negotiation. But there was an intriguing feature about the guesthouse in which the Australian MPs and their advisers were staying.
In the common room there were wartime photographs around the wall. One of these featured a very youthful, smiling Lieutenant (J.G.) Jack Kennedy on the PT-109. Kennedy gave yeoman service in the South Pacific during World War II, serving with Australian allies. In August 1943, famously, his Patrol Torpedo boat, while on night-time picket duty, was cut in half by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri during the Battle for New Georgia. The young commander displayed great bravery in making certain that all members of his crew who survived the collision were saved.
A member of the Harvard swim team, Kennedy struck out into the islands near where his boat had gone down. Eventually reaching Naru, the young Kennedy sought assistance and rescue finally arrived. The coconut upon which JFK carved an SOS message came to rest on the “Resolute” Desk in the Oval Office during his presidency.
It is reasonable to assume that the Kennedy link to Australia begins with the Pacific war. And JFK’s service was mirrored by the presence of other future US presidents in the same; Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson; Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and finally the truly heroic George H.W. Bush. The 41st president was rescued from hostile waters off the island of Chi Chi Jima in 1944 by the US submarine USS Finback, having been shot down on a mission. Bush Snr’s ambassador to Australia, Melvin F. Sembler, was fond of showing Australian visitors to the Embassy the wartime film of the future President Bush Snr being brought aboard the rescuing submarine.
This Pacific wartime link to the White House served Australia well and continues to do so.
For Australians in the 1960s and beyond to the present day, Jack Kennedy represented the promise of what the US could be at its very best. He made it clear on his inauguration on January 20, 1961, that he represented a new generation, “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace”. This generation, argued the new president – the first Catholic and youngest ever – was selfless to the point that the burdens of the Cold War and the challenge of Soviet adversaries would be born without complaint. It was truly inspiring. Ambassador Kennedy inherits this legacy.
JFK changed Australian perspectives on America and politics in the broadest possible sense. It is why Anthony Albanese, our new PM, could assertively quote the 35th president during our recent election campaign: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”
No one should minimise the impact of JFK’s soaring rhetoric or the compelling narrative which he embraced about the American and international future. In so doing, he joined a class of presidents that includes Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and later Ronald Reagan. In his book Profiles in Courage, Kennedy maintained Winston Churchill had “mobilised the English language and sent it off to war”. For the duration of the Cold War, this is exactly what Kennedy achieved, often with the guidance of his brilliant speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. Australian Labor leaders sometime likened the great wordsmith Graham Freudenberg to Sorensen.
But it was the mother of our new ambassador, Jackie Kennedy, who created the myth of Camelot. Theodore White was a senior journalist from LIFE magazine. Sometime after the slain president had been laid to rest, he interviewed his widow in the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. She told him that each evening Jack had liked to play the soundtrack from Camelot by Alan J. Lerner. American culture shifted.
It was Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor as president, who gave form to JFK’s civil rights program, stalled in Congress. But there was no doubt about JFK’s sentiments about civil rights. At the Kennedy Library, you can listen to a recording of the President and his brother, the Attorney-General Robert Francis Kennedy, talking to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett during the crisis in that state involving confrontations between police, segregationists and civil rights demonstrators.
It was at LBJ’s urging that Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) that fundamentally transformed American politics. It was the realisation of JFK’s legacy.
One of the interesting linkages between the Kennedys and Australian Labor is to be found in the Harvard Trade Union Training Program. Australian unionists, particularly from the NSW Right, flourished in a Boston environment still characterised by the smarts and welcoming bonhomie of Irish Catholic Democrats.
For Boston, the Kennedys were always the First Family. Indeed, from the time they arrived in London accompanying ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy Senior, they became exceptional. The tragedies of assassinations made them American royalty, which not even Chappaquiddick could extinguish.
At the JFK Presidential Library, Jack’s beloved sailboat, Victura (Latin for “about to conquer”), purchased in 1932, and survivor of hurricanes and lightning strikes, stands proudly on display on the lawn each summer. It suggests that JFK is still young and vigorous and will return to take Victura out again. At heart, Jack was always a sailor.
The notion that the boat can still set sail symbolises the continuing promise of an American future that Kennedy painted on to a canvas of shining optimism. This sense of optimism will soon reside in the US Embassy in Canberra.