Is Caroline Kennedy That Bad?

The Caroline Kennedy boomlet has been pretty interesting to watch. Some people are outraged that a person with no prior record in public office considers ...
by | December 29, 2008

The Caroline Kennedy boomlet has been pretty interesting to watch. Some people are outraged that a person with no prior record in public office considers herself worthy of appointment to the U.S. Senate. On the other hand, I've read columns favoring her due to memories of childhood fondness for her and a piece suggesting that she stands for all middle-aged women seeking to return to the workforce (although most don't come equipped with a $400 million fortune).

My own first thought was to wonder what it is about this seat that attracts carpetbaggers and celebrities. Caroline's uncle Bobby held the seat in the 1960s. I remember puzzling as a kid over Tom Lehrer's joke about being proud of living in Massachusetts because "we're the only state that has three senators," but my parents explained it to me.

Now the seat's about to be vacated by Hillary Clinton, who pursued it in 2000 seemingly on a whim. She had been received well there campaigning for others in 1998, and Congressman Charlie Rangel suggested she'd do well as a candidate there. She and Bill started shopping for a post-White House home in the state, to which they'd previously had no ties.

I wondered why a state as big as New York would find itself regularly giving over one of its Senate seats to these auslanders and first-time politicians. And then it dawned on me that New York really isn't that different from other states.

Because of its size and its importance as a media capital, New York politicians receive far more attention than pols from elsewhere. You have to be a Caroline Kennedy-sized celebrity to get the kind of coverage her bid is getting. Senate candidates in other states don't generate the same interest. But they're no less likely to be dilettantes, or simply well-connected.

Just think about the other U.S. Senate seats that are currently vacant or will be soon. In Delaware, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner put in a former Biden aide to keep the seat warm for Joe Biden's son until Beau Biden is done with his tour of duty in Iraq. You can't get any more Kennedyesque than that. (After Caroline's dad was elected president, his Senate seat was held by a family retainer for a couple of years until Teddy met the constitutional age requirement.)

In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter is having to give serious consideration to Rep. John Salazar -- the outgoing senator's brother -- even though the state is filled with arguably better potential senators.

And in Illinois, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. looked like a serious contender to fill the Obama seat until he was outed as Candidate 5 in the Blagojevich scandal. He's a capable person, but his standing certainly owes something to his dad. He's not the only one to get a family boost. Someone Blagojevich considered for the seat to keep her from running against him in 2010 was state AG Lisa Madigan, the daughter of the state House Speaker.

Blagojevich himself owes much of his former success to his since estranged father-in-law, a Chicago alderman. Even David Paterson, the person who will ultimately give the thumbs up or down to Caroline Kennedy, is himself a legacy. His father Basil served as deputy NYC mayor and secretary of state and helped guide the governor's career.

No, Caroline Kennedy isn't that special. Other states have had people enter high office due to cronyism, favoritism and nepotism. It's just that if it happens in New York, the players command attention beyond the state's boundaries.


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