More thoughts about Caroline Kennedy

She may well make a fine senator, but why she is making her celebrity her main credential for the job?

By Joan Walsh
December 30, 2008 7:19AM (UTC)
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I had mixed feelings about the New York Times interview with Caroline Kennedy Sunday, but I was mostly disappointed.  I thought her widely rumored but little-seen sense of humor showed through once, when she needled David Halbfinger and Nick Confessore about their repeated attempts to get sappy moments of family drama out of her decision to pursue the appointment to New York's soon to be open Senate seat. "Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?" she asked. "Nothing [against women's magazines] but I thought you were the crack political team here."

I've written for women's magazines, and I can anticipate people who might object to that remark as condescending, but I thought it was smart and funny: it captured the traditional media's growing infatuation with the telling sappy anecdote over important discussions of policy – even, sadly, at the New York Times. Of course, I think she might have been unfair to women's magazines even on that point, since I'm sure a reporter for Glamour or Vogue would have zeroed in on her political stand on, say, abortion at least as directly as on what her husband thought about her candidacy. Yes, Kennedy has expressed support for choice in written answers to journalists' questions, but the way flesh and blood individuals talk about their personal and political thinking about abortion is revealing, and I was shocked Halbfinger and Confessore didn't probe that issue a little more.


The issues they did probe were interesting, and I don't think Kennedy answered them well. There's no single, easy answer to the question of merit pay vs. tenure for teachers – even that's a simplistic way to boil down this complex web of issues – but Kennedy dodged and weaved alarmingly. She never even attempted to grab the question and use it to spell out what she thinks are the core components of education reform, or how she'd update and improve her uncle Ted Kennedy's ambitious, well-intended but flawed No Child Left Behind act. Given that education is supposed to be her signature issue, I thought she was strangely vague on it.

Overall, she was slippery, and regrettably, because I admire her, I came away with the feeling that she views her single best credential for the Senate seat as her celebrity, and, secondarily, her wealth. That's really what she boasted about to the Times – the fact that she could immediately step up and replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate by dint of her family's clout; that she could bring home the bacon for New York, whether via TARP or Barack Obama's stimulus package or the normal Congressional pork provisions, because she's a Kennedy. I've also been alarmed, in Salon letters threads about this issue and elsewhere on the blogosphere, at the extent to which even some left-liberals think that's a fine rationale for a candidacy. Do we really care so little about politics as a calling right now? Are we honestly happy to say it's the province of rich folks with celebrity names, and hopefully some noblesse oblige?

I'm not a New Yorker anymore, and I have no candidate in this race. I don't envy Gov. David Paterson's decision here. But I've frequently found myself thinking: Why doesn't Kennedy throw her considerable prestige behind Rep. Carolyn Maloney's Senate appointment bid, and then run for Maloney's House of Representatives seat, since she's lived almost her whole life in Maloney's district? I don't know the intricacies of New York politics well enough to know the answers to that – maybe there's an obvious better choice for that seat, and my point is not to endorse Maloney by throwing the possibility out there, although I respect her enormously. But it's hard to avoid wondering whether the reason Kennedy isn't backing her congresswoman's bid, and then running for her seat, is that Kennedy's not keen on running for office, and/or doesn't want to start as one of 435 lowly House members.


Jonathan Capehart laid it all out here: Things weren't looking good for Kennedy's celebrity candidacy on Saturday, and they look worse today. Paterson is one politician strong enough to stand up to a celebrity juggernaut if he thinks it's just about celebrity. If she really wants this senate seat, Kennedy needs to get around the state and convince him, and New York voters, otherwise.





Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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