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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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.