At noon today EST, New York Governor Dennis Paterson will announce that Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand will succeed Hillary Clinton’s recently vacated U.S. Senate seat. But until forty-eight hours ago, most still had their money on Caroline Kennedy, daughter of America’s most iconic modern president, getting the nod.
Kennedy withdrew her name from consideration for “personal reasons.” Now that she has removed herself from the race, one can hope that the media and other gawkers will leave her personal matters alone and move on. If she was in the game to get the Senate seat, her entire life was fair game — but now that she has stepped back, I believe she has rights of privacy that should endure.
But the question that is legitimate and remains is what machinations drove Kennedy to reach for this Senate seat. What was she thinking — and how did this fit into the game plans of two of America’s biggest political kingpins, Barack Obama and the ailing Ted Kennedy? And did she end up getting derailed by the Clinton machine?
Caroline Kennedy’s flirtation with this appointment animated deep tensions in American politics over the question of political aristocracy and dynasties. Names like Gore, Dole, Clinton, Bush, Salazar, Udall, Cuomo, Kennedy frequently appear in American politics because of brothers, fathers and sons, nephews and spouses building out the family political machine. It’s useful to remember many decades ago, that actress and feminist provocateur Tallulah Bankhead’s father, for instance, was Speaker of the House of Representatives and her nephew and grandfather both U.S. Senators. And thus while family dynasties have always been a part of the American political scene, throwing aristocracy in the face of voters reeks of the kind of nobility that Americans ‘thought’ they threw off in the American Revolution.
Kennedy, loved by so many because of her own good deeds for schools and social causes but also because of just being the daughter of JFK and Jackie, came close to ruining her own personal brand by appearing hungry for political appointment. Of course, she is a Kennedy — and the Kennedy’s are known for their pursuit of power — but Caroline was supposed to be different. Her own brand seemed more pure than her family brand. So this raises the question of why she threw her hat in the ring.
Most writers limited their attention to the surface explanation she provided when she announced her interest in the Senate appointment. Kennedy said that her work for the Obama campaign stirred in her a desire to do more — and doing more for the public was what the Kennedy family operation had always, in her words, committed itself to. She said that she was ready in this phase of her life to move to a new career and that she was comfortable moving out of the shadows and into the public spotlight — though this was difficult to tell in her tightly scripted early press events in New York that couldn’t help but remind of the over-handled, over-scripted roll out of Sarah Palin.
But other machinations may have been at play as well.
Barack Obama, who admits to a close personal friendship with Caroline Kennedy after their work together on his campaign, is probably the best political ‘mergers and acquisitions’ guy in the business. The story of Obama is not just that his unique brand, background and DNA charmed the nation achieving a landmark political victory. Obama has the preternatural ability to acquire political franchises and morph them together, changing their character and leadership and making them his own. Obama started with the Daley franchise in Chicago and then built into that the Daschle franchise, followed by the Kennedy franchise, and is now working very hard to absorb the Clinton political machine which is larger and more potentially dangerous to Obama than any of the others.
Obama has Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod managing the Chicago wing for him — and then hired many of Tom Daschle’s key people including Pete Rouse and Denis McDonough. Daschle himself is in the picture though his office is in the basement of the White House and while close to Oval office power may prefer to be closer. There is a saying that “those who supported Obama got a President and those who supported Hillary got a job” — as many of her loyal followers are popping up with key positions throughout the government while many of those who helped Obama from the beginning of his candidacy are still in the cold. And then there is Kennedy — and that big family brand that connects with so many in the country, particularly in labor union America. Ted Kennedy will soon die — and Obama (and many other of the Kennedys) want to see Caroline in the political game in a high profile way to provide leadership for the tens of thousands of capable political hands that Kennedy’s machine has produced to be loyal both to her stewardship of the family operation and then loyal to Obama.
Some of Ted Kennedy’s loyal retainers have conveyed to me privately that the Senator — who became the responsible flag-bearer for the Kennedy clan after both John F. and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations — believed that Caroline needed to stand up and play the role he had given his deteriorating health. But the plan Ted “may have had”, they say, had little to do with the New York Senate seat. It had to do with succeeding Obama in 2016.
The game plan — whether real or fantasy — is intriguing. It goes something like this. Caroline Kennedy would be appointed now to the Senate. She would perform well above the very low expectations many had for her and win handily the seat in the 2010 mid-term race in which that Senate seat needs to be contested again. She would then be in place until 2016. Ted Kennedy’s view “may be” that Caroline would instantly out-shine Hillary Clinton in the eyes of New York voters and in the American political scene and that in 2016, Caroline Kennedy would be 59 while Hillary Clinton would be 69.
I have no idea whether Ted Kennedy owned this narrative. All I know is that his friends and many key pillars of Kennedy Land believed that something along these lines is what animated Ted’s highly strategic approach to Caroline’s political future.
Now, Caroline Kennedy is out of the running for this particularly political contest — but she may be back.
I have advocated that the Obama team offer her a high profile and distinguished Ambassadorship. Perhaps to London where her grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, once served — or perhaps to France, which her mother loved so much. In such a spot, she’d have an opportunity to show she was more than a brand name and could contribute to the substantive interests and welfare of the United States. And then perhaps run in an election for something big — and perhaps even win. We will always have political aristocrats in America, but the barrier that should always be imposed for those who are inheritors of political fortune is that they actually be elected — not appointed — to the nation’s highest offices.
Caroline Kennedy may yet be a factor in American politics. Obama would love it for his own reasons — and so would the powerful political franchise that Ted Kennedy helped build.
And while Hillary Clinton, the woman Caroline tried to succeed in the Senate, is now Secretary of State — it is clear that Obama still has some work to do to get the keys to the Bill/Hillary political franchise — and that this derailment of Caroline Kennedy removes for the time being a threat to Hillary’s longer term political interests.
— Steve Clemons