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.