Caroline Kennedy: "No Drama" Before "No Drama" Was Cool

By Al Giordano

The reports that Caroline Kennedy is interested in New York Governor David Paterson's appointment to replace Senator Hillary Clinton in the US Senate have created a fascinating set of reactions that in some cases have resonated inversely with the dynamics of the Democratic presidential primaries of 2008.

Let's tug at the threads of some debates regarding the possible Kennedy appointment to demonstrate that there is an ongoing battle over the heart, soul and future of the Democratic party that did not end or disappear with Obama's November 4 victory, and that is part of what is at play with the coming appointment in New York.

On a purely political level, if it is true that Attorney Kennedy would like to serve in her uncle Bobby's old senate seat, we can probably consider her appointment - whether one loves it or hates it - a lead-pipe cinch. For Governor Paterson - thrust into the job of Governor after Elliot Spitzer crashed and burned from personal and legal scandal - his first political priority is to get himself elected to continue as Governor in 2010. By appointing Kennedy, New York Democrats would get a junior US Senator that would coast to reelection without diverting significant resources from the governor's contest. And Paterson would curry goodwill from many New Yorkers, downstate, upstate and suburban, that would be thrilled with the choice of the Irish-American daughter of President John F. Kennedy.

The truth is, no matter who Paterson picks - be it Andrew Cuomo or any number of members of Congress - there will be grumbling from the camps of those that didn't get it, with many legitimate arguments about why one deserved it or would have been better than the other. (This is why the tea leaves suggest that over in Illinois, Governor Rod Blagojevich may appoint a "caretaker" in 73-year-old Emil Jones to fill Obama's Senate seat, so as not to raise the ire of various powerful pols and factions with their eyes on it, allowing them to fight it out in the 2010 primary and him to duck the blowback from the also-rans.) Paterson won't have that problem if he chooses Kennedy. She is in a league of her own. And, at least in public, all the other clans and factions in Empire State politics will have to recognize it and live with it.

On a policy level, it would be an even more brilliant move from the perspective of liberalism and progressivism: Attorney Kennedy is underestimated by some only because she's lived by the "no drama" approach to politics long before Obama made it popular. Most people have little idea of her accomplishments because her style has been to seek results not credit for them. I know, because in the 1990s, as political reporter for the Boston Phoenix, I covered the Kennedy family and all its doings - including Ted Kennedys 1994 reelection battle against Mitt Romney - very closely. Caroline, at the helm of the Kennedy library, has served as the true executive director of the family and all its political and policy interests. She has also been the family's ambassador nationwide and around the world: the one that attended funerals and other matters of statesmanship on the family's behalf. That she generally avoided the spotlight in doing so, and always avoided personal scandal - a particularly difficult challenge for anybody named Kennedy - is testimony to her skill and finesse at the political game.

The Kennedy policy machine is nothing to shake a stick at: Senator Ted Kennedy has, during 46 years in the Senate, installed a generation of policy wonks as lead staffers on almost all the key committees in the upper house of the Capitol dome, and no small number in the lower one. When Teddy nods his head subtly in a given policy direction that network marches as an army and has steamrolled over Republican and business interests time and time again. When progressive legislation has been passed - when reactionary legislation has been killed - on civil rights and liberties, health care, jobs and wages, education, and on other issues, the fingerprints of current and former Kennedy staffers have been on each and every one, even as Teddy shined the spotlight on other legislators who took the public lead. Joe Biden and John Kerry are among the Senate veterans that have benefited from Kennedy's generosity when it comes to sharing or assigning credit.

Paterson and New York, thus, would not just be getting a Senator. They would get, with Caroline, the driver with the keys to the most finely tuned and influential progressive national political network in American politics, reaching (in many cases invisibly) into levers of power in all branches of government and in many states far from Massachusetts, including among the networks planted by the Southern Civil Rights movement and among Hispanic-American political leaders and organizations from Texas to California for whom "Tio Ted" has been mentor and unflinching ally. (The Kennedys have long been central to the push for multi-racial movements in US politics, one that just became realized with Obama's election as never before: that will also serve Attorney Kennedy and so many of her constituents well in New York.)

Here's what I find so interesting about some of the early reactions: Some Clinton loyalists and others are not happy at all with this development. The arguments they deploy, in the Daily Kos comment threads and elsewhere, to disparage the possible appointment are identical in many cases to those they defended against during the presidential primaries (and even more so in 2000 during Clinton's first campaign for Senate): They say: Why should a member of a political dynasty get the job? She's never held elected office (some of us, on the other hand, see that as a plus, just as we saw Obama's lack of "beltway boiling and seasoning" as positive). Attorney Kennedy, some say, hasn't enough "experience."

And you can also feel the bile rise up their throats as they cut to the real thing they're upset about: That such an appointment would supposedly constitute a political payback for her (and the Kennedy family's) support for Obama, or a matter of "patronage" or nepotism, or "aristocracy," or that she represents, to some, the same politics of "celebrity" that some (wishfully) want to believe explains Obama's primary victories. (And, yes, it is very funny to listen to complaints from some of the same mouths about Attorney Kennedy not being "charismatic" enough. They're really scraping the barrel to come up with a legitimate reason for what is evidently more of an emotional revulsion.)

The possible Kennedy appointment also opens up some wounds from some (including some former Edwards enthusiasts) that see all things Obama through the lens of "Dear Leader-ism," one writer's never-ending suggestion that Obama's base is somehow made up of dupes more into cult of personality than policy (an attempted insult that is so obviously born of sour grapes that its not worthy of response other than perhaps by quoting Alex Haley: "History is written by the winners.")

I'm not saying that these superficial contradictions make for anything hypocritical: to the contrary, the critics of a possible appointment of Attorney Kennedy to the US Senate are essentially correct in perceiving that something much bigger than symbolism would occur through it. The Kennedy and Clinton tendencies in the Democratic Party have embodied two distinct magnetic poles each trying to pull the party in different directions for the past 16 years, and before that between Kennedy and Carter tendencies.

This was very much at play with Senator and Attorney Kennedy's endorsement of Obama early in the primaries, and intentionally signaled as such. The Kennedy organization was not happy - many of us were not - with the change in direction that the Clinton administration brought to the party, toward a blatant acquiescence to corporate interests, away from the New Deal and the Great Society. And while both families have had their share of public personal scandal, for the Kennedys that hasn't bled much at all into the political or policy realms: we just have never seen Ted Kennedy, for example, go to Malaysia and collect $200,000 for a speech from a corporate power broker, lavishing his benefactor's company with praise, as occurred yesterday with Bill Clinton, now getting a few last international paydays in before his ethics agreement with the Obama administration kicks in to prevent future such embarrassments.

The problem isn't really - on either side of the debate - one of "dynasty" per se but, rather, of which one. There are dramatic policy and ideological differences between the Kennedy organization's vision of the Democratic Party and the Clinton organization's. In the end, one side or another's pleasure or distaste is more for what a particular dynasty has done, than merely that it happens to be one. So it's natural that people that prefer the Clinton over the Kennedy formula for doing politics would object to an appointment to a member the latter organization whereas those more ideologically in harmony with the Kennedys (and particularly Ted Kennedy, giving his final months or years his all for the same causes for which he has lived) tend to be excited by the suggestion of Caroline as Senator.

An appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the US Senate from New York is qualitatively different than it would be, say, for Robert Kennedy Jr. or another member of the family: She, more than any other of her generation, brings the reins and detailed knowledge of the family organization for which she has been (I'll use a phrase that's provocative but not to be scoffed at once you've given it a minute's thought) the "community organizer" among the Kennedys, the administrator and attaché that has been most responsible, among them, for complying with the details once Ted Kennedy has exercised the broad stroke leadership.

Finally: Anybody who underestimates Attorney Caroline Kennedy, who wants to view her as somehow lightweight or just a celebrity name inside a business suit, does so at the risk to his and her sense of reality. Her skill sets are not merely adequate, but, rather exceptional and extraordinary. She was "no drama" before "no drama" was cool. And her appointment, if it comes, will be a gift that keeps on giving before and after Ted Kennedy moves on to the great battleground beyond.

Update: Here's another reason I'm fond of this idea. Attorney Kennedy, at 51, would be younger than 90 out of 100 US senators. That the upper house is stale and stodgy is an understatement.

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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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