Caroline Kennedy: The senator who wasn’t

When word leaked out that Caroline Kennedy was interested in Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, the media and the public instantly saw her as the front-runner. What happened?

As fiascoes go, said Sam Tanenhaus in The New York Times, there was something “fitting—or at least symmetrical”—about this one. Last week, a young and charismatic president moved into the White House with his beautiful young family, and two days later Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving member of another glamorous “First” household, failed spectacularly in her bid to keep the family legacy—and mystique—alive. This tortured tale began in early December, said Chris Smith in New York, when Kennedy, 51, “upended a life of privacy” and placed a “single, out-of-the-blue phone call” to New York Gov. David Paterson, saying she was interested in the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. Seven weeks later, amid a swirl of rumors and accusations, Kennedy withdrew her name “for personal reasons,” and Paterson gave the seat to Kirsten Gillibrand, a little-known one-term congresswoman from a rural district upstate. Did the painfully shy Kennedy get cold feet, after trying to transform herself into an extroverted New York politician? Did some hidden scandal come to light? Nothing is clear, except that during Kennedy’s brief, disastrous flirtation with the family business, New York politics “devolved from dysfunctional to chaotic, tarnishing every major player involved.”

It had started so auspiciously, said Corky Siemaszko in the New York Daily News. In addition to her magical last name, “JFK’s daughter had another huge ace in her pocket”—her early support of Barack Obama. When Caroline declared last January that Obama was the first candidate to inspire her “the way people tell me that my father inspired them,” it gave Obama’s campaign a major boost and earned Kennedy considerable political capital. When word leaked out of her interest in the Senate seat, the media and the public instantly saw her as the front-runner. But then Kennedy started giving interviews, said Tucker Carlson in, in a weary monotone punctuated by endless ums and you knows. She seemed to shrivel in the public spotlight, and after a lifetime of assiduously avoiding attention and controversy, it appeared she’d gotten into the race only because someone in her family had urged her to. Her name aside, “she was the worst candidate ever.”

To be fair, said Joan Vennochi in The Boston Globe, Kennedy’s “personal awkwardness and verbal stumbles hurt her more than they would have hurt another candidate with less name recognition.” Kennedy’s opponents seized on her lackluster delivery to paint her as a bored, inexperienced socialite who felt she was entitled to be senator purely on the strength of her famous last name.

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Maybe Kennedy didn’t deserve to be a senator, said the New York Post in an editorial. But she certainly didn’t deserve what happened next. Recognizing a golden opportunity to establish himself as a player on the national stage, New York’s “accidental governor”—Paterson inherited the job when his boss, Eliot Spitzer, resigned last year in a prostitution scandal—dragged the circus out for weeks. Then, just before Paterson had promised to reveal his choice, a source close to the governor leaked word to the press that Caroline was withdrawing her name. Caroline at first publicly denied it, and then an hour later, announced that she was, in fact, pulling out “for personal reasons.” An angered Paterson—or “sources close” to him—proceeded to rub salt into the wound by spreading the rumor that Kennedy had withdrawn because she had unpaid taxes, and/or “a nanny problem,” and/or problems in her 22-year marriage to Edwin Schlossberg. In fact, say the Kennedys, it was one of Caroline’s three children—ages 20, 18, and 15—whose reluctance finally persuaded her to drop out.

With Kennedy gone, said the New York Daily News, Paterson passed over several well-qualified candidates, and handed the Senate seat to Gillibrand. Fellow Democrats were underwhelmed, because Gillibrand, 42, has a fairly conservative voting record, is unknown outside her district, and will be vulnerable when she has to run for re-election in 2010. The Gillibrand appointment was the “particularly inept conclusion” to Paterson’s search for a new senator, said The New York Times. But what will be remembered more is Paterson’s nasty, graceless treatment of Caroline Kennedy, whose only sin was being “a prominent citizen who stepped forward to do public service, an increasingly rare event.”

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