The Case For Caroline?

More

After allowing that her head tells her to "recoil from political dynasties," Ruth Marcus lets her heart make the case for Senator Kennedy of New York:

At the same time ... it would be silly to imagine that every senator or other person in high office has paid his -- or her -- political dues. A big bundle of cash -- see, for example, Jon Corzine, former Goldman Sachs chairman, former senator from New Jersey, now New Jersey governor -- is helpful for vaulting your way over the drudgery of doing time on the state Senate subcommittee on pensions. Ditto other forms of celebrity -- see, as an example, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before getting all huffy about Caroline Kennedy's qualifications for the job, let's take a breath and remember Jesse Ventura and Sonny Bono.

Indeed, it's not a bad idea to have some senators who bring different experience to the chamber. Corzine's financial acumen, for instance, helped make him an impressive senator; it's too bad he's not there now as Congress wrestles with the financial crisis. Kennedy would bring to the table a serious understanding of the Constitution -- she's written a book on the subject -- and an expertise on education reform. She hasn't exactly been, to use the dangerous phrase of the woman she might replace, having teas and baking cookies.

I don't know about Jesse Ventura, but I find Schwarzenegger and Sonny Bono's pre-political careers as self-made showbiz entrepreneurs - to say nothing of Jon Corzine's career in finance - much more impressive than anything Caroline Kennedy has ever done. Her life has been dedicated to worthy pursuits, by and large, but most of her accomplishments (fundraising for New York public schools, editing essay collections in honor of her father, etc.) are classic "born on third base" endeavors - laudable enough without being terribly impressive. And all of the names on Marcus's list actually submitted themselves to the democratic process on their way to the Senate, the House, and the California's Governor's Mansion; for an appointment to fill a vacant seat (especially a safe vacant seat), the bar ought to be set a bit higher than "she's more qualified than Sonny Bono."

Here's a more provocative way of thinking about it. Caroline Kennedy is no doubt more prepared - in terms of her base of knowledge about national politics, her comfort with the ways of Washington, etc. - to be a United States Senator than Sarah Palin was to be Vice President. But if you consider where the two women started and stack their subsequent accomplishments against one another, Palin's Alaskan career is roughly six times more impressive than Kennedy's years as a high-minded Manhattan socialite and custodian of her family's good name. That doesn't mean that McCain was wise to pick Palin as his running mate. But if you think he wasn't, then you should definitely hope that the Democratic Party of New York hunts a little longer through its ranks before handing a Senate seat to the editor of The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

As for the rest of Marcus's argument ...

There are any number of intriguing subplots at work here. Her uncle's illness, and the "dream will never die" emotion of having Caroline in place to carry on his work. The don't-mess-with-my-family payback dynamic of putting in for the job to shove aside Andrew Cuomo, her cousin Kerry's former husband.

Imagine, by the way, how Hillary Clinton must be feeling. After all that work, after all those years, she not only lost the presidential nomination to Barack Obama, she now may be yielding her Senate seat to a woman who emerged from the political shadows to give Obama the benediction of the Kennedy legacy.

What really draws me to the notion of Caroline as senator, though, is the modern-fairy-tale quality of it all. Like many women my age -- I'm a few months younger than she -- Caroline has always been part of my consciousness: The lucky little girl with a pony and an impossibly handsome father. The stoic little girl holding her mother's hand at her father's funeral. The sheltered girl, whisked away from a still-grieving country by a mother trying to shield her from prying eyes.

In this fairy tale, Caroline is our tragic national princess. She is not locked away in a tower but chooses, for the most part, to closet herself there. Her mother dies, too young. Her impossibly handsome brother crashes his plane, killing himself, his wife and his sister-in-law. She is the last survivor of her immediate family; she reveals herself only in the measured doses of a person who has always been, will always be, in the public eye.

Then, deciding that Obama is the first candidate with the inspirational appeal of her father, she chooses to abandon her previous, above-it-all detachment from the hurly-burly of politics.

I know it's an emotional -- dare I say "girly"? -- reaction. But what a fitting coda to this modern fairy tale to have the little princess grow up to be a senator.

This is, of course, a pretty good distillation of the case against dynastic politics: Namely, that it transforms the business of republican self-government into a soap opera, in which the public/audience thrills to the "intriguing subplots" involving a President's daughter, a President's wife, and a Governor's son who happens to be the President's daughter's sister's ex-husband ... and sighs, enraptured, at the "fairy tale ending" when the President's daughter grows up to have a Senate seat handed to her as a reward for having endorsed the President-elect. This sort of politics is entertaining to write about, which is one reason why fantasy sagas and Shakespeare are generally more interesting than Washington novels. But after twenty years with the same two families in the White House - which nearly became twenty-four (or twenty-eight) - for a political columnist to endorse a pointless escalation of dynastic politics because it fulfills the fairy-tale mythos her generation spun around a mediocre, tragically-murdered President and his good-looking family isn't "girly"; it's an embarrassment.

Jump to comments

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down