Now that Caroline Kennedy has thrown her coronet into the ring and declared her interest in ascending swiftly to the U.S. Senate, we can at least be thankful that the media won’t swoon on cue merely because of her surname. If she really wants this job – in the brutish political climate of New York, no less – she’ll have to take her knocks like anybody else.
There was a time – her father’s time, actually – when journalists bowed and scraped when ushered into the presence of a Kennedy, and the results were often quite nauseating. For instance, here’s author William Manchester at his most rapturous during the early days of Camelot, trying to show us that Jack and Jackie are so much cooler than JFK’s immediate predecessors:
“Dwight Eisenhower, the painter, declared that he wasn't too certain what was art, but he knew what he liked, and Harry Truman, the pianist, said of something he didn't like that if it was art, he was a Hottentot. Jacqueline Kennedy, the connoisseur, makes both look like Hottentots, if not outright clods….Cultivated families admire elegance, and John Kennedy sets great store by good form. His circle doesn't include men who wear clocks on their socks, or call Shakespeare 'the Bard,' or say 'budgetwise.'”
Manchester goes on to compare JFK to the fourth-century philosopher Saint Augustine, and, along the way, he even praises a four-year-old girl for demonstrating her “membership in the Quality." That child, of course, was Caroline.
Well, times have changed. Presumably, Caroline at age 51 is savvy enough to recognize that she can’t lay claim to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat just because she has enjoyed lifelong membership in the Quality; and that she will need to demonstrate that she can win over the kinds of people who might wear clocks on their socks. After all, aside from her charity work, her fund-raising for New York City schools and the ballet, and her co-authorship of two books on the U.S. Constitution, there is virtually no record of her beliefs on just about anything, much less any sense of her depth of knowledge. There is no way to know whether she understands the legislative process, whether she has the inner fortitude to grill hostile witnesses during committee hearings, and whether she can galvanize skeptical voters in upstate rural hamlets far from Park Avenue.
In other words, her candidacy seems a tad presumptuous, particularly considering all the Senate prospects who have spent years in the trenches, working the voters and taking stands. Caroline's bid also seems out of step with the historic moment; after all, we've just elected a president who rose to the top without any family connections or magical family name.
And even on the topic of “Kennedy magic,” it has been decades since the Kennedy name automatically conferred fairy dust on its bearers. This devaluation has occurred in part because the third generation of Kennedys – Caroline’s generation – has not exactly distinguished itself in elective politics. The record of achievement is glaringly thin. Whereas Caroline, if appointed to the Senate seat, would need to win a special election in 2010, it’s worth noting that no third-generation Kennedy has ever won a statewide race anywhere.
One of Caroline’s cousins, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, came the closest. She served as lieutenant governor of Maryland, but she couldn’t even win her subsequent gubernatorial race in that deep-blue state, garnering just 48 percent of the vote in 2002. Another of Caroline’s cousins, Joe Kennedy II, served as a Massachusetts congressman, but he was not regarded as particularly eloquent or intelligent (the New Republic magazine once put him on the cover, along with the title “The Dumbest Kennedy”). His gubernatorial hopes were dashed in 1997 when his ex-wife wrote a nasty tell-all book and his brother Michael was outed for conducting a years-long affair with a teenage baby sitter.
And two years ago, of course, there was pill-addicted Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, another Caroline cousin, who crashed his Mustang into a Capitol Hill security barrier at 3 a.m., and wound up pleading guilty to DUI and other charges.
Other third-generation Kennedys, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have toyed with the notion of picking up the family torch, and Caroline’s late brother was reportedly interested in pursuing a New York Senate seat. As Uncle Teddy intoned at the 1980 Democratic convention, “the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”
Which is not to assume that, in this era, the dream can be so easily obtained. Caroline’s dad had to contend with right-wing nutjobs, but he never had to face the likes of the insinuation agents at Fox News. Consider, for example, the verbal exchange that occurred yesterday. On Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy mentioned in passing that Caroline had earned a Columbia law degree and that “she is a constitutional lawyer”…whereupon co-host Brian Kilmeade chimed in, “Is that American constitution?” To which Doolcy said, “I’m hoping.” To which Kilmeade said, “Oh, O.K.”
(Yes, Fox, her loyalties are in order. On the other hand, she hasn't been lauded as a major American constitutional talent; back in 1995, a New York Times book reviewer, while assessing one of her books, concluded that "reading 'The Right to Privacy' is like shuffling a clipping file.")
Still, it would not be a surprise if Caroline ultimately gets the nod from Gov. David Paterson, simply because her name confers celebrity and her celebrity could help raise the $100 million that might be needed to wage the special election in 2010 and the regular election in 2012. Indeed, she has already taken concrete steps to drive all would-be rivals from the field. But voters may well desire that she submit herself to punishing scrutiny, if only to demonstrate the presumed range of her convictions (what’s her view of government bailouts? The application of U.S. military force?)...and thus show that the spirit of meritocracy is alive within the American aristocracy.
Only then, perhaps, will we know whether the torch has truly been passed to a new generation.