Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Family Jewels

Not to pick a fight with Jane Hamsher, for whom my respect knows no limit, but I don’t think she’s giving Caroline Kennedy a fair shake on her possible appointment to fill out Hillary Clinton’s Senate term.

The woman has never run for office in her life. We have no idea how she’d fare on the campaign trail, or how well she could stand up to the electoral process. She simply picks up the phone and lets it be known that she just might be up for having one of the highest offices in the land handed to her because — well, because why? Because her uncle once held the seat? Because she’s a Kennedy? Because she took part as a child in the public’s romantic dreams of Camelot? I’m not quite sure.

I recall that the same arguments were made in 2000 when Hillary Clinton decided to run for the Senate. True, Ms. Clinton is an attorney and she had worked in the Senate before becoming First Lady, but she had never run for office before, either, and she was basically anointed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to take his seat. And if her name had been simply Hillary Rodham and she hadn’t been married to the President of the United States, and had just bought a nice place in Westchester County and decided to pick up the phone and call people, what would her chances have been?

Caroline Kennedy does have one thing going for her that Hillary Clinton didn’t have, and it’s not just her name or her family connections. She has spent most of her life in New York and she has been involved in, among other things, education reform. As Steve Bates notes in the comments, she is also an attorney, and her resume is as impressive as anyone out there being seriously considered for the position. I think it’s unfair to gloss over her accomplishments and disqualify her just because she is the daughter of a president and the niece of two senators. That may have opened some doors for her, but she’s been the one who proved herself, and it’s not her that is carrying the baggage of memories of Camelot. I also don’t think she’s naive enough to think that she will be above it all and not be able to take on the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics in New York or in the United States Senate.

As for the entitlement issue raised by having a slew of family connections in positions of power, I think that it sounds a lot worse than it actually is. After all, we’ve seen it throughout the history of the country and it pretty much balances out good versus bad (the Roosevelts vs. the Adamses; not to mention rafts of Tafts), and denigrating a potential candidate purely because of pedigree is, I think, a shallow argument. In some ways it can be a curse to be a member of a political family; for example, Jeb Bush’s chances for winning the White House are pretty much shot to hell, even if he does become the next senator from Florida. On the whole we have found that family connections don’t necessarily mean a lockstep continuation of policy or even political alignments; Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican and FDR was a Democrat.

I don’t know if Caroline Kennedy is up to the job of Senator from New York. Then again, no one knows if anyone is, and certainly the names being bandied about (including — are you ready — Fran Drescher) are enough to make you wonder what the qualifications are. But she shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because of a pedigree she had no control over.