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Caroline Kennedy: The Reluctant Operative

The question bounced around the Internet and tumbled from the lips of Washington insiders: Why would Barack Obama choose Caroline Kennedy, a reluctant public figure with little affection for modern politics, to vet the next Democratic vice presidential candidate?

A month into the search, as one of two remaining members of the search team, Kennedy is emerging as an active participant, slipping largely unnoticed around Capitol Hill for private meetings and exercising the kind of discretion that made her an appealing choice in the first place. Despite initial skepticism in some quarters that her appointment was window dressing, associates and at least one member of Congress who met with Kennedy describe her as an engaged and savvy operative.

Consider these scenes last month at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Shortly after Obama finished his meeting two weeks ago with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Kennedy slipped out the back door of the office and moved unseen past a knot of TV camera crews loading equipment on their trucks. Wearing sensible silver flats and clutching a folder in one hand, Kennedy escaped onto Independence Avenue to hail a cab with Eric Holder, the other half of the search team.

A week later, as dozens of reporters filtered into a first floor DNC meeting room for a briefing from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, Kennedy once again eluded most of the gathering media mob.

“One of the great assets and gifts that Caroline brings to the process is confidentiality and discretion,” said Paul G. Kirk Jr., board chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and a former Democratic National Committee chairman. “She wouldn’t be sharing what she did with anyone other than her team and her candidate.”

Indeed, when Obama clinched the nomination, he told reporters to expect to hear nothing from him or his campaign until he introduces his vice presidential pick. It didn’t quite start out that way, as Holder and James A. Johnson, who was picked to lead the team but later resigned amid questions about his business dealings, attracted a crush of media coverage when they visited the Capitol several days later to consult with members of Congress. (Kennedy did not participate in those meetings.)

Since then, the process has drawn considerably less attention.

When Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) huddled with the team at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters on June 17, even one of the senator’s top communications aides was not clued in on key details. “They were discreet meetings,” the aide said.

Kennedy tapped Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Michigan Democrat and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, for advice. She did the same with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).


Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that when he met with the search team two weeks ago, he found Kennedy doing more of the talking than Holder.

With a soft voice and an unassuming demeanor, Kennedy peppered Baca with questions, asking for opinions on specific candidates and pulling ideas from him about who Obama should choose.

“I felt connected with her,” Baca said. “You felt like you wanted to have a conversation with her.”

They asked whether there were any Republicans who Obama should consider, Baca said, suggesting that “they were open to looking at both sides.”

“She is definitely deeply involved,” Baca said. “Her assessment and evaluation and recommendations are going to be considered highly.”

Kennedy offered her phone number to Baca at the close of the meeting, he said.

The vice presidential search post rounded a months-long conversion from observer to full-bore participant in what Kennedy, 50, has described on the campaign trail as the most important election since she was a child.

“She is qute selective about what she chooses to be involved in,” said John Seigenthaler Sr., a member of the Profile in Courage award committee at the Kennedy library. “For the most part, it is fair to say those interests have focused on the work of the JFK library, but there are other areas where she has not hesitated. People who haven’t observed her in those roles might be surprised that she was willing to accept it.”

“People who have watched her participate in the Kennedy library understand that for her, it is a commitment and it was not something she would take lightly,” Seigenthaler added.

For years, her public profile was as private as the process she is now helping to administer.

While her late younger brother, John Jr., entered the media world and occasionally basked in the spotlight, Caroline Kennedy has sought to avoid publicity altogether. She has raised money for the New York public schools, written and edited several books, and earned a law degree from Columbia University.

But when Kennedy stepped to the microphone at American University in January to publicly endorse Obama, she looked slightly out of her element. “Hi, everyone,” she said shyly to the crowd of thousands. When they chanted Obama’s slogan, “yes we can,” Kennedy peered down at the podium, setting up a stark contrast with the voice-straining speech from her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, that followed.

Five months later, though, Caroline Kennedy would find herself at the center of what Obama has said would be his most important decision before Election Day.

“I wouldn’t be surprised that she is taking this on as virtually a full-time assignment, because that is just her way,” Seigenthaler said. “Once she decides that this is something that is important, her commitment will be absolute.”

Amie Parnes contributed to this story.

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