The Magazine

Caroline, We Hardly Knew Ye

Is this the end of the line for the Kennedy dynasty?

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Political dynasties die in different ways, and the ends are not pretty. The Adamses eased themselves out by degrees, becoming more self-absorbed and less consequential over four generations. Theodore Roosevelt's oldest son Ted made an effort to follow his father, but was displaced early on by his fifth cousin Franklin and sank into a bitterness that was relieved only when he returned to his first love, the Army, and died a great hero in the Second World War. His oldest son, as unsuited as he was for politics, was wooed in his turn by his state's Republican party but bowed out when he discovered campaigns made him sick. Would this had happened to three of the sons of Franklin and Eleanor, who used public life to disparage their parents, becoming in the end such colossal embarrassments that no Roosevelt has since held high public office. But nothing can match what the Kennedys did over eight weeks this winter, when they torpedoed what may be their last hope for a comeback in a mishandled effort to regain their lost power.

Before it occurred, the family seemed poised on the brink of a moderate comeback, after several decades of scandals and loss. The diagnosis in May of Ted Kennedy's cancer brought him the world's sympathy. He and niece Caroline made timely endorsements of Barack Obama, which helped his campaign at a critical moment and brought them close to the inner circle of a popular White House for the first time in years. Caroline, who had been slowly edging her way into public involvement, seemed in line for a role of her own that would extend her and her family's presence. But then Obama picked Hillary Clinton to serve in his cabinet, opening up her seat in the Senate, the seat held years ago by Robert F. Kennedy.

The open seat came at a critical moment, when the rising prominence of Caroline Kennedy--the family's most respected and popular member--her uncle's mortality, and the failure of the third generation to produce his successor, converged. Kennedys had been in the Senate since 1953, when Caroline's father arrived in that body; his two younger brothers had also been senators; between Bobby's election in 1964 and 1968 when he was murdered there had been two Senators Kennedy; Ted had been in the Senate since he was 30, a span of 46 years. At the same time, the failure to launch of the third generation, at least in electoral politics, took on a new importance: Where there once seemed an embarrassing richness of possible candidates, no heir apparent ever emerged. Caroline's brother John Kennedy Jr. was of two minds when it came to the family business and died in a plane crash. Caroline's cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend failed in her bid to become Maryland's governor. Caroline's cousin Joe dropped his bid to be governor of Massachusetts and then dropped out of politics, following scandals around his first marriage, and worse ones surrounding a brother who died in an accident. Other cousins lost primaries, or failed to get to them. Cousin Maria was a governor's wife, but the governor was a Republican. Her cousin Kerry married Andrew Cuomo, another young dynast, but the marriage blew up in a nasty divorce. Ted's son Patrick had a seat in the House, but he was not someone to make the public's heart flutter. Other young Kennedys, who had lives of their own, showed no interest in leaving them for the meat-grinder of political service, of which they had already seen rather too much.

No one had thought much before of a candidate Caroline, but her sudden emergence at just the right moment appeared to have been the perfect solution to the family shortage of heirs. She was not a carpetbagger, she had lived in New York since she was seven. She came from the president's family--the Royal Line of the Kennedys--and was the sole survivor of the JFK nuclear family. She was the daughter of the country's most stunning and tragic First Lady. She was scandal-free and living a life of public good works and of private discretion. She was a friend of the president, a friend of the city's billionaire mayor, and a friend of most of the city's richest and most powerful people.

She had never campaigned for herself, and nobody knew if she could, but the appointment itself would be made by the governor, and the mayor, the president, and her uncle the senator would surely prevail upon him. She was the one non-controversial family member, beloved by the public since she was a small child; the one who faithfully tended the family legacy. How just that she should ascend to the body her father had served in, in the seat once held by her uncle, there to sit alongside her surviving uncle in his final political battle and carry on for him when he passed from the scene. The torch would be passed to the new generation, in a most unforeseen but most logical manner. Nothing could go wrong with this inspired scenario. But then everything did.

Caroline Kennedy is one of the few Americans who has been famous almost from infancy. The most important events of her life took place before she was six. Born in 1957, as her father was gearing up his campaign for the presidency, she was absorbed at once into the publicity machine that surrounded it. When she was two, he was elected, and she became a worldwide celebrity. Days before her sixth birthday her father was murdered, and she became a symbol of mourning, forever connected to one of the most traumatic events of the age. There she is, riding her pony on the lawn of the White House. There she is, in the Oval Office, dancing with her young brother. There she is, in a boat with her father, their heads close together. There she is, with her hand on his shoulder, watching the Black Watch regiment perform on the lawn of the White House, days before he flies off to Dallas. There she is, on the lap of her uncle, looking forlorn and unhappy.

Before she was grown, she had led a rich and full life as a repository of emotions too heavy and varied for anyone's comfort, and that soon outdistanced in significance anything that she would do later in her life. She married an artist, but her mother married a president (and a billionaire, but that is a whole other story). She had the public life of an educated and engaged private citizen; her father and uncles were figures in history. Her life had an even line on one level; her mother's huge sweep from first lady to tragic widow, to trophy wife, to editor, of which only the last ever approximated a normal existence.

Sitting on boards of institutions named for her family, giving awards in the name of her family, editing books based on her parents' writing and interests, she had the identity of an inheritor, and as an inheritor, the gap between her accomplishments and her position is large. On her own, she might have attended conventions, not spoken at them; gone to readings by authors, not given them; thrown a fundraiser or two for Barack Obama, not campaigned with him, or become one of his friends. On her own, she would not have been considered by anyone as an appointee to the Senate, but it was her identity as a Kennedy heir that made her valuable to family members most interested in extending their line: They wanted her back story and her standing as the rare Kennedy who was both scandal free and (more or less) above politics to stir public sentiment, quell opposition, and make it difficult for a Democratic governor in a Democratic state in which her uncle had served at the time of his murder to reject her appointment.

The evidence seems to suggest that this was not her idea, and that she was ambivalent, but that she finally succumbed to the burden of family duty. On December 3, she called Governor David Paterson expressing her interest in becoming the senator, and the game was on.

For those who remembered the girl with the pony, the extremely high concept had its intended effect. "For Americans of a certain age, who've mostly seen Kennedy in mourning, she's a reminder of a golden time in politics," wrote Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus called her "our tragic national princess" and said of her candidacy, "My head says no, on balance. My heart says yes! Yes!" But others of a more populist frame of mind thought less of the little girl on the pony than of the Park Avenue heiress who had never known struggle trying to muscle her way to the top. "Caroline Kennedy would like to be a Senator. I don't blame her. So would I!" Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation. "Especially if Governor Paterson could just waft me into office, and I didn't have to, um, you know, campaign." If Marcus saw this as a fairy tale come true for America's princess, others saw a toxic combination of very high powered money and muscle, masked by an effort to play on the family tragedies for all their political worth. "The forces behind Caroline .  .  . are too powerful and too well-heeled to be resisted," said Joel Kotkin. In the New York Post, Fred Dicker warned Paterson, "Let's just say there'll be hell to pay from Uncle Teddy, Cousin Robert Jr., and a dozen other Kennedy family members .  .  . if you end up picking someone other than their current favorite to carry on the Camelot dream."

Caroline's candidacy enraged the dozen or more New York politicians who saw themselves as more than well-qualified for the job that she wanted, and mocked her as a know-nothing dilettante trying to trade on the family name; it became a nightmare in the life of the governor, who had been tempted to pick state attorney general Andrew Cuomo, son of the former governor, to get him out of the way as a possible rival for reelection. Now he had to choose between enraging the Kennedys (and Mayor Bloomberg) and enraging the Cuomos. As Dicker warned Paterson, "If you don't offer [Cuomo] the Senate job, you'll have delivered a major public humiliation to New York's only statewide elected state official. .  .  . Not a good thing to do for a hard-driving guy who rides a Harley, hunts with a shotgun .  .  . and would like to follow in the footsteps of a father named Mario."

As if to rub in all the more what it was she was doing, Caroline used as a principal spokesman her cousin Kerry, ex-wife of Andrew Cuomo, who had blown up the marriage five years earlier when she had an affair with one of his friends.

Caroline might have pulled all this off if she had charmed the press and the public, or wowed them with a dazzling display of depth on the issues. Instead, she bombed. She ventured upstate where she greeted the locals with no warmth and no interest, released stale written statements of liberal boilerplate, and gave disastrous interviews so vapid that her ums and you knows were replayed and mocked on the Internet. Her poll numbers tanked, and surveys showed her sinking behind her ex-cousin-in-law as the popular choice to replace Hillary Clinton. It was at this point that the governor seems to have panicked, to have backtracked on his previous semi-endorsement, and to have been alienated by the ham-handed pressure coming from Caroline's friends. Refusing to say if she was or was not the front-runner, the governor put off his decision until after Clinton resigned from the Senate, perhaps hoping Caroline would drop out under the blitz of derision. It was still up in the air when the Kennedys and the governor went to the inauguration in Washington. It was the following day that all hell would break loose.

The precise details of what went on in what sequence may never be known in this lifetime, but the outlines of what happened were these: On Wednesday afternoon, January 21, Caroline Kennedy called Paterson saying she was "overwhelmed" by the process, leading to rumors she was thinking of quitting. At eleven that night, she called him again, saying that she was still in contention. At 12:07 A.M., without calling the governor, she issued an email to the press saying that she was out. She cited unspecified "personal reasons" that were rumored to be (l) objections from one of her children; (2) objections from her husband, who was said to be unwilling to move with her to Washington; and (3) concerns over the health of her uncle, who collapsed with a seizure at the lunch at the Capitol following the inauguration and had been hospitalized overnight. For his part, her uncle was said to have been "enraged" at having his illness used as a reason. "It looks horrible," Time quoted a former aide to the senator. "It makes him look like he is at death's door."

Immediately, the Kennedy and Paterson forces began trashing each other, and by Thursday, when Paterson announced the appointment of Representative Kirsten Gillibrand, a moderate Democrat from upstate New York without any ties to the factions or dynasties, everyone in the state was at odds. The Clintons, who resented Caroline's embrace of Obama and didn't want her taking Hillary's place in the Senate, were enraged at the Kennedys; the Kennedys and Cuomos were still more enraged at each other, and all were enraged at the governor, who had been wounded by the appointment debacle and feared a primary challenge (perhaps from Andrew Cuomo) in 2010. Everyone was damaged (except Gillibrand), but the most wounded were the Kennedys, who had lost everything they had tried to preserve or acquire: the Senate seat and a new lease on power, their age-old reputation for ruthlessness and competence, their place in the state vis-à-vis the -Cuomos and Clintons, and, most of all, the reputation of Caroline, their last pristine asset, the untouched and untouchable princess of Camelot, who had been brought crashing down to earth.

In retrospect, the episode looks like an accident waiting to happen, based on a fatal misreading of people and things. They tried to run a woman whose mystique lay in her above-the-fray distance from politics, without realizing that being in politics would quickly destroy her appeal and her image. They tried to hide the real reason they wanted the seat--to extend the family's power and presence when Ted left the Senate--without seeing that no other reason seemed logical. They misunderstood the resistance they would face from the dozen or so other candidates, who refused to go quietly and were the first to open up the line of questions about her experience and competence that punched through the aura. In her prior appearances, Caroline had always been helpful to people by raising money or lending prestige to their causes, while threatening no one. Now, she threatened the careers of rabidly ambitious people, who weren't about to be shouldered aside by an icon, no matter how tragic. There was a reason her mother had kept herself out of campaigns.

They misunderstood, too, the way that their family was viewed by the public, even by Democrats, and how much its image had changed. Locked in a cocoon with their friends and retainers, the Kennedys failed to see how events had eaten away at the mystique of the family, how much PT‑109 had been neutralized by Chappaquiddick; Jackie in black by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and the boyfriend who played polo; and Jack and Bobby by Michael Kennedy and William Kennedy Smith. Underlying the Kennedys' sense of entitlement, always much deeper than that of most other dynasties, was the unspoken belief that reparations were due them, that the tragically truncated lives and careers of Jack and of Bobby ought to be paid back to them in preferential treatment to other family members. This was what lay behind the restoration fantasies that rose up around Ted Kennedy and then around John F. Kennedy Jr. (though the latter, to his credit, did not encourage them), and this--that she would serve in the Senate, like her father and uncles--was the reason for Caroline's "run." Ruth Marcus admitted quite freely that she was pulling not for the Park Avenue matron but for the little girl on the pony, who would then have a job just like Dad's.

Then there was the princess herself. The argument was made that Caroline understood politics, having come from such a political family, but this was not really the case. Through no choice of her own she had been an icon from childhood, after the death of her father a tragic one, and the lives of politicians and icons of tragedy can frequently be poles apart. Politicians seek, icons are sought after. Politicians covet approval, icons confer it. Politicians explain themselves, icons are beyond such indignity. Politicians do things to justify their existence, icons just are. What Caroline does has always been secondary to her simple existence, which, for most people, is more than sufficient. "She has no trouble attracting crowds. They're all adoring," as Margaret Carlson put it. "She doesn't have to say much. Just being there is enough."

"No one is ever going to be the one to get off the phone with Caroline," a friend of hers told a New Yorker reporter. If she needs something from people, they line up to help. "While she was campaigning for Obama, she was in control of her time," ran the New Yorker account. "She wasn't required to show up anywhere or do anything in particular: Any amount of time she gave him was a gift for which he was grateful." That people have always been grateful--even the president--is part of the problem. The term often used by her friends is that she "offered herself" for the Senate seat. But it is volunteers who "offer" themselves to a cause or a movement, while politicians wage war for their turf. Caroline's life and experience taught her to see herself as a resource to be doled out in small doses to worthy institutions and people, and she offered to lend herself to the United States Senate in much the same spirit that her mother had lent herself to the battle to keep Grand Central Station from being destroyed. Her problem was that the Senate is not the Municipal Art Society, politics is more of a zero-sum game than landmark preservation, and a host of ambitious politicians were not about to let her upend their own plans.

The Kennedys seem to have thought that her status as "our tragic national princess" would allow her to avoid the clamor that would have ensued if they put forth one of the less revered and more controversial cousins. Instead, she was dragged down to their level, and the wall of protection around her collapsed. "In less than two months, Kennedy .  .  . was transformed from a beloved, if elusive, national icon into a laughingstock in the New York media," as the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut tells us. "A series of tense media appearances and an unusually aggressive behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by New York power brokers on her behalf have helped damage Kennedy's once unimpeachable, above-the-fray image," wrote Time's Karen Tumulty, adding that those close to her were appalled at the campaign and its outcome. As one of them put it, "Everything that was special about her got stripped away."

The irony is that if the Kennedys had just been a little less greedy, they would have found themselves riding a boomlet of sorts. In 2004, the Boston Globe ran a story about how Ted had embraced John Kerry in hopes of ending his career with a friend in the White House, of seeing the view from the Truman balcony, as he had when his brother was president. He failed in that effort, but with Obama he now has his wish. As for Caroline, she might have been named to a board or commission that dealt with the arts or with children or even the Peace Corps, once run by a non-Kennedy uncle. That would have been seen as wholly appropriate; a link with her father would have been forged and a glow of good will would have settled on both Caroline and Uncle Ted.

Instead, both have been diminished and battered, and they are caught in a quagmire that will still be ongoing after the victorious troops have returned from Iraq. They are in a war-to-end-wars with the governor, their relations with the Clintons and Cuomos are worse than ever, and the tong wars of New York Democrats may give the governorship and/or the Senate seat in 2010 to the Republicans, in which case they will be blamed. The various feuds will keep the story alive and memories fresh up to and beyond the midterm elections. Even if the Kennedys bring the governor down, which may not be difficult, they will still be losers, as the fight will only remind people of their dire mismanagement, their arrogance, and Caroline's you knows and ums. Already, a Quinnipiac University poll released January 26 says that New Yorkers believe that "Caroline Kennedy and her aides are more to blame than Governor David Patterson and his team for the controversy surrounding New York's Senate seat" by a ratio of 49 to 15. Seldom has a single political mistake done so much harm to the people who made it. Sic transit gloria Kennedy. And maybe this time for good.

Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is the author of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.