Friday, December 19, 2008

More on Caroline

I've made it clear that I don't quite understand all of that uproar about appointing Caroline Kennedy to the United States Senate. It's not that I don't understand the anti-dynasty sentiment on some level, I just think people are over-reacting and flatly ignoring Kennedy's record.

Kennedy is notorious for valuing her privacy. As such she hasn't run around trying to get enormous ego-driven press coverage of her various good deeds in public education, on the board of the NAACP or even for her books on the Constitution. We're so used to modern politicians who would knock over there own grandmother if she stood between them and a camera that we just dismiss Kennedy. It's not as if she's led some frivolous and pampered life. She's worked hard and she's proven interested in issues much larger than herself or her family. But since she hasn't spent the last couple of decades telling us all about the wonderful things she's done we just treat her as if she's accomplished nothing at all.

I think people are being unfairly dismissive of her, her credentials and her commitment to public service. Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and Andrew Sullivan are on TV considerably more often than Caroline Kennedy has ever been. It's obvious what the media elite value most (whether they are conscious of this bias or not) and that's the over-whelming narcissism of today's pols and the media punditocracy. She's not clubby with the opinion makers so the opinion makers dismiss her record and treat her like she's little more than a debutante.

Today John Judis at The New Republic put his finger squarely on another dynamic that is at play. It's a dynamic that is bubbling beneath the surface of the "aristocracy" complaints,

I think it would have made most sense for Barack Obama to have appointed Caroline Kennedy a delegate to the United Nations in the manner of Shirley Temple Black or William F. Buckley. But I am not going berserk as my colleagues seem to be over the prospect that she will be appointed senator. The reason has to do, I suspect, with my understanding of political dynasties. There is a difference between the Kennedy dynasty and, say, the Biden, Clinton, or Bush dynasties. And the difference is that many Americans feel they owe the Kennedy family something for their service.

John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Whether it is merited or not, they are seen as America’s Brothers Gracchi, the two Roman tribunes who were killed successively attempting to redistribute patrician lands. Much of the hope that the Sixties might have been different is vested in the memory of the brothers--in John the hope of having been able to avoid the Vietnam War and in Robert the hope of having been able to avoid the racial polarization that divided the country after 1968 and that destroyed the Democratic coalition. I think that Vietnam might have turned out differently; I have my doubts about 1968 and its aftermath. But like many people from that generation, I still nourish illusions that life might have been different.

And Ted Kennedy – the mediocrity who was foisted on Massachusetts votes in 1962. I was still in Massachusetts during part of that election, and if that wasn’t equivalent to an appointment, I don’t know what was. And then there was Chappaquiddick in 1969 that should have destroyed his career, but somehow didn’t. Yet, Ted Kennedy turned out to be, perhaps, the most outstanding Senator of the last forty years. So it’s not just name, and it’s not celebrity--we're not talking about appointing a movie star or a zillionaire--but it is a certain feeling of gratitude toward that family for what it has done for the country and a feeling that of all the current Kennedy descendants, Caroline just might turn out OK as a senator. I’m still not in favor of Caroline Kennedy being appointed--I am not deaf to arguments about experience, I don’t like the idea of senators having on the job training--but I am not, to tell you the truth, appalled, dismayed, disgusted or angered by the prospect.

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