The Magazine

Conan the Resuscitator

Will Schwarzenegger revive the fortunes of the Kennedys and the GOP?

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Last year was another terrible one for the Kennedys, showing again that even unblemished young faces can't survive the burden of creaking ideas. RFK's son Max announced in Massachusetts for Congress, but stumbled so badly in his very first outings that he quickly pulled out to save further embarrassment. Kennedy-in-law Andrew Cuomo of New York shot himself in the foot with a feral attack on George Pataki, and then ran a campaign so abysmal that the Clintons had to put it out of its misery before he had a chance to lose in the primary. Mark Shriver (Maria's brother), an attractive young man with an unspotted record, could not make his case to primary voters in Maryland, who knocked off his bid for Congress. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose public career began with essays that showed promise of the kind of tough mind and curious spirit that made her father so interesting, ended with a disastrous run for the governor's mansion in Maryland as a conventional party-line liberal, in thrall to fringe causes and interest groups. By 2003, the sole remnants of the Kennedy dynasty were Ted Kennedy in the Senate (in his forty-first year) and in the House, his younger son, Patrick, from whom no one expects a bright future.

What can be done to revive these twin turkeys? The great charm of Schwarzenegger is that he plays against type. The Kennedys are much too conspicuously a tribe of inheritors, generations removed from their sources of energy. Arnold returns them to their entrepreneurial, and even their immigrant, roots. He is rich, but not from trust funds. A millionaire even before he went into the movies, his record of dipping into and cashing out on a number of ventures recalls the career of Joseph P. Kennedy, and in some ways repeats it, without the shady connections. In fact, much about him recalls Joseph P. Kennedy--the huge goals envisioned and held over decades, the reinventions, the fascination with money and power--minus appeasement, and with better political instincts. In his book on the Adamses, Richard Brookhiser defines the tag-ends of the dynasty--Brooks and Henry--as being descendants by nature and temperament. Schwarzenegger thinks like a founder. It shows.

The second thing Schwarzenegger can do for the dynasty he married into is to extend its political reach. Where the Bushes prospered by evolving and migrating--from New England to the burgeoning Sunbelt; from haut WASP to born-again Texan and Catholic-Hispanic--the Kennedys have remained tied to the northeast corridor (sharply declining in population and power) and to a political culture that does not translate well in other parts of the country. As Michael Knox Beran and others have noted, they have not been creative in their means of expression, trying to do what their forebears did, though rather deftly. A Californian, a film star, a magnate, and an immigrant is a great disrupter of a clan become rather too stale and too boring. The Kennedys badly need a new locus of power, away from the Northeast and Ted. The third thing that Arnold can do for this family is simply to be the not-Ted.

And everything Arnold can do for the Kennedys would be put in reverse for the Republicans. For the Kennedys, he would have to tug them rightwards, toughen them up, snap them out of their sloppy behavior. For the California Republicans, he would have to open them up to the center, and make them looser, funnier, more lively.

In recent years, the California Republicans' idea of a campaign has been to round up a stiff in a suit, have him read angry lectures on taxes and values, and then seem surprised when he doesn't get votes. If Democrats have to seem tough in big races, conservatives have to seem inclusive and open. Conservatives win when they look good in shirtsleeves, and embrace big coalitions in warm, suntanned arms. Ronald Reagan was a "cultural Democrat," who knew how to talk to the old New Deal voters. George W. Bush was (and is) a compassionate conservative, who talks about love, and now and then sheds a tear. Arnold is in this mold, and then some--a rare opportunity for the party to gain purchase with groups that had written them off.