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Caroline Kennedy as a Possible U.S. Senator

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By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

On the question of Caroline Kennedy for Senate, my head says no, on balance. My heart says yes! Yes! Right now, as you might guess from the hedging on the former and the exclamation points on the latter, my heart is winning.

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As to the head: I always find it a bit creepy when children follow the career paths of their parents. It bespeaks a certain undue eagerness to please, not to mention a decided lack of imagination. In particular, even though politics as family business has a lengthy pedigree in American history, I recoil from political dynasties.

For one, dynasties tend to illustrate the phenomenon of reversion to the mean: It's rare that the second generation outperforms the first. The Kennedy family itself offers a good illustration of this trend -- although Caroline Kennedy, to judge from her impressive résumé, could prove the exception.

More unsettling, political dynasties are fundamentally un-American. This is not -- or is not supposed to be -- a country in which political power is an inherited commodity. The notion that Caroline Kennedy could simply ring up the governor and announce, or even politely suggest, her availability grates against the meritocratic ideal. After all, even the children of politicians generally take the time to climb the usual rungs rather than parachute into top jobs.

At the same time, and here's the on-balance part, 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.

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.

marcusr@washpost.com


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