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Getting Beyond Camelot

December 19, 2008

NYTIMES     more posts in EDITORIAL     jump to top
Caroline Kennedy is, by all accounts, a smart, decent and very capable woman. There is no reason why she shouldn’t enter politics and why she couldn’t have a good shot at winning an election.

That doesn’t mean she should be handed Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacated United States Senate seat. Running for office and getting a high-class government handout are two very different things.

I suppose Caroline can’t be blamed entirely for having a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the fine line between deserving accomplishment and political entitlement. In 1960, when her father was elected president, vacating his seat in the Senate, he wanted his brother, Ted, to take his place. But Ted was too young to serve. So the Kennedy camp convinced Foster Furcolo, the Massachusetts governor, to appoint Benjamin Smith, an old college friend of Jack’s, “to keep the seat warm” until Ted turned 30 and could run in 1962.

“I’m putting someone in. I want to save that seat for my brother,” Jack openly said, according to Adam Clymer’s “Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.”

But J.F.K. did sometimes worry, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told me this week, that the public might sour on the idea of a Kennedy family dynasty.

The early 1960s were more indulgent times. In 2008, however, I’m not sure we can afford to extend excessive amounts of public generosity to the wealthy and well-connected. It doesn’t strike me as desirable or — for New York Democrats in particular, and even for Caroline herself — very wise.

We are living in a moment when all the machinations, the corner-cutting, the inside deals, mutual back-scratching and indifference to the larger world of our nation’s wealthiest and most interconnected have led us straight into the ground. We’ve just elected a president who’s sworn to clean things up. We’re in the middle of a political-appointment fiasco in Illinois.

With lawmakers and taxpayers eyeing bonuses and corporate jets with angry incredulity, we’ve arrived, after years of worshipping the very wealthy, at what could be a very positive time of reckoning. This change could go a long way toward restoring people’s faith in the fairness and decency of our leaders and institutions.

In keeping with the times, it would be an appealing act of humility if Caroline Kennedy aimed her first shot at politics a bit lower — say, at the House of Representatives. Perhaps she could run for Representative Carolyn Maloney’s seat if Maloney were, as she and her supporters would like her to be, named to Clinton’s Senate seat.

A number of major national women’s groups have endorsed Maloney for that position. Their leadership has been uncharacteristically quiet since Caroline entered the fray. But Marcia Pappas, president of the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women told me, politely: “We can have a number of people who are qualified and we have to be very respectful of people and their talents, but when it comes down to it, we have to be grown-ups. We think this position should go to someone who’s paid her dues, who’s done the work.”

That’s the operative word: “work.” I do think that the next United States senator from New York ought to be someone who has worked for the honor. Clearly, Caroline can’t, for the sake of her political viability — or her likability with people like me — suddenly remake herself into someone who has worked for a living. But at this point, with so many people struggling so arduously just to get by, any effort at all would be appreciated. True campaigning — at the appropriate time — would prove her mettle pretty fast.

It might even be liberating. It can’t be fun to live your life defined — in the pubic eye at least — by your tragic past. At age 51, having still to be the “lucky little girl with a pony and an impossibly handsome father,” our “tragic national princess,” as The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus put it last week, can’t be too great, no matter how many strangers say they like you. (“I like her … There’s magic in the Kennedy name that attracts power and support and love,” wrote radio host Rob Kall on The Huffington Post.)

Such love is a bit unseemly. Even embarrassing. “Confusing Politics With the Lifetime Channel,” Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog headlined the subject this week.

Caroline doesn’t have to be a fairy-tale princess anymore. She can be her own white knight, vaulting the Kennedys proudly into the 21st century, if only she plays by the rules and waits her turn.

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