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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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.