By Ellen Goodman
In 1962, a young Massachusetts man who had barely passed the constitutional age barrier decided to run for the Senate. At the time, one of his brothers was president of the United States; the other brother was attorney general.
The air was full of charges about nepotism and dynasties. During a debate, his opponent attacked him with fervor and bitterness, charging that if his name were Edward Moore and not Edward Moore Kennedy, his “candidacy would be a joke.”
Now that brash cub of a politician is the lion of the Senate—the lion in winter, as he is called—wrestling with brain cancer. And another Kennedy wants to be a senator.
So the question again is: Would Caroline Kennedy be considered for the seat if her name were, say, Caroline Schlossberg? What qualifications does she have? As one pol barked, she has “name recognition—but so does J-Lo.” Is this all about entitlement?
I thought of this too when Kennedy made her bid for the seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton, a senator who had herself been pilloried in 2000 for being nothing but a first lady running on name recognition. Caroline Kennedy is, as one of her friends says, “the last person I ever expected to want to go to the Senate.” The child of the White House who lost her father to an assassin, the grade-schooler hounded by paparazzi, she was protected fiercely by her mother.
As a lawyer, writer, fundraiser and mother of three who worked for many causes, she was always dutiful and gracious about her role as a Kennedy. But until this year, the closest she came to pressing the flesh was on a book tour. She was famously private, an oxymoron without irony. She can, as a friend says, “walk down the street without a hat and sunglasses. She enjoys that.”
If life were fair, as her father famously denied, the first Kennedy woman to achieve high rank would have been Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the one who wanted it most, or Maria Shriver, the true natural in this crowd of cousins. If life were fair, the jobs would go to the dutiful, not the charismatic, to the workhorse, not the high-profile.
But I find myself unable to dredge up even a modicum of outrage at the idea of this Kennedy bumping to the top of the list of Senate candidates. Her résumé shows no more chutzpah than Al Franken’s. Her celebrity is no greater than that of her cousin-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Kindergarten Cop” and governor. Is she any less entitled to this post than the business leader who decides that his acumen at widgets qualifies him to lead a country?
There is something refreshing in seeing a mother and public citizen auditioning for a second act. Beyond that, there is something tender and timely in seeing this particular woman coming home to the family business.
Caroline’s childhood photos are part of the family album of my generation. When she reappeared as a 50-year-old cover girl for the AARP magazine last year, a shock wave ran through many of us—and maybe even her. When asked why she made her first presidential endorsement—of Barack Obama—Kennedy repeatedly merged the political with the personal. “I really felt like it was a crucial moment,” she said, adding “I recently turned 50, so I figured, I’d better get going—what am I waiting for?”
Kennedy’s moment coincided with Obama’s moment. “All of my life, people have told me that my father changed their lives.” But Obama changed her life. Kennedy went from a high-profile endorsement to helping lead the vice presidential search team to weeks in unglamorous campaigning. It was less of a Kennedy farewell tour than an Obama trailblazer.
I don’t know if Kennedy is tough or politically talented enough for the back-to-back races she would face to win a full term. Appointed candidates do not have a high rate of success in elections. But I do have a sense that this woman is less focused on the Kennedy legacy—perhaps even less than the rest of us—than the Obama beginning.
She described her reasons for supporting Obama, saying: “My reasons are patriotic, political and personal, and the three are intertwined.”
So are the reasons for seeing her as a Sen. Caroline Kennedy. Pick Caroline and you are not choosing the latest scion of a dynasty. You are choosing the emblem of a generation—and maybe a country—coming back to life. Public life.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group