She’s No Jack Kennedy

Why Caroline Kennedy shouldn’t be New York’s next senator.

Caroline Kennedy

I can’t imagine Caroline Kennedy campaigning for the job of U.S. senator through traditional methods: shaking hands outside factory gates on a cold winter morning, granting interviews to reporters other than sycophantic morning-show hosts, explaining and defending her positions on the issues of the day. Just as she’s never shown any enthusiasm for public office, so Kennedy has never shown much interest in the things candidates have to do to get elected.

Which is why Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat may be perfect for Kennedy. Under the most widely discussed scenario, New York Gov. David Paterson would name Kennedy to replace Clinton, who is resigning to become secretary of state. Kennedy would become senator simply by doing something at which she has long excelled: working the phones with powerful people who take her calls because of her last name. And though such talents aren’t irrelevant to a senator’s job—and though Kennedy has long experience fulfilling ceremonial obligations, another senatorial duty—they are far from sufficient. Sometimes a senator has to get her hands dirty.

Disclosure: My view of Kennedy is shaped by personal experience. Before my book American Son, about working with John Kennedy Jr. at George magazine, was published in 2002, surrogates of Caroline tried to prevent its publication. They failed, but it was ugly stuff. If Caroline Kennedy didn’t know the specifics of their efforts—which ranged from threatening my original publisher to planting negative stories about me in the media—she certainly knew of their existence. How do I know? Because I told her, in letters to which she never responded. (By contrast, I corresponded with Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office several times, with his aides informing him of the book’s progress, and before it was published they asked for advance copies.)

Still, my lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of Sen. Caroline Kennedy is more than personal. (In fact, the toughness I encountered would probably serve her well on Capitol Hill.) In several important ways, she’s also considerably less suited for public office than the two senators who currently represent New York, Clinton and Charles Schumer.

Unlike Clinton and Schumer, Kennedy has always seemed more interested in avoiding public issues than engaging them. As an adult, she has tended to work at jobs that didn’t require her to work all that hard and didn’t require her to mingle with ordinary people. She has a law degree but does not practice law, instead co-writing two books about important Supreme Court cases. The books were typical of Kennedy: high-minded, earnest, but distant, as if she never really wanted to take a position on something relevant to the events and debates of the day. More recently she has published books on more domestic matters, such as A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children and The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

In a recent column, Michael Wolff tells a story about Kennedy catching wind of a New York Post inquiry about the alleged misbehavior of one of her children. So, Wolff writes, Kennedy called an aide to Rupert Murdoch, and the Post’s owner had the story killed. In turn, Kennedy wrote a letter of recommendation for Murdoch’s daughter to Brearley, an exclusive private school in Manhattan. Of course, Kennedy is the caretaker of the family legacy and a mother. So in that sense her actions are understandable. But would she ever risk damaging her image on behalf of the public?

She received lavish praise when, in 2002, she joined New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in his efforts to improve the city’s public schools. Yet her work with the city’s schools was limited to part-time fundraising. No one has said anything bad about her participation—there’s not much upside to criticizing Caroline Kennedy—but then, if you work at a hedge fund and Kennedy calls you in the middle of a bull market to ask for money, are you really going to say no?

As a Kennedy, Caroline can hardly shirk public service. But her commitment to it has always seemed essentially ceremonial. When she was 9, she broke a bottle to help christen the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. As an adult, she was the honorary chair of the American Ballet Theater and founder of the Profiles in Courage Award, given out by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She balanced New York society parties with a devotion to preserving the family memory. Otherwise, she has largely hid herself from public life.

You can’t blame her for her reticence—it’s her life, after all. But the truth is that Kennedy has ventured into the public arena as little as possible, and when she has, she has endeavored to dictate the terms. Perhaps now, with her brother dead and her Uncle Ted extremely ill—and her children of college age—Kennedy is changing her mind. But can she change her patterns of behavior?

Again I should disclose a personal bias. Of the two children of John F. Kennedy, John Jr. always struck me as the one destined to run for office. He had an affinity for it. John enjoyed meeting regular people far more than he liked palling around with the rich and famous. Caroline is a Democrat, but not a democrat. John lived in Tribeca when Tribeca was still counterculture; Caroline lives on Park Avenue. John rode the subway frequently and happily. Caroline, not so much. John started a magazine whose intention was to popularize politics. Caroline was about the only one of John’s relatives who didn’t at some point appear in its pages.  I could see John having a beer with those factory workers. Caroline would look for some hand sanitizer.

She’ll probably have the same response to this column—which is one reason that, despite all the buzz, I find it hard to believe that Caroline Kennedy actually wants to become a senator. (I’m not exactly Walter Winchell.) Maybe Uncle Ted is pressuring her to continue the family place in the Senate. Maybe she’s convinced herself that she does want the job. Regardless, she wouldn’t be good at it, and she shouldn’t get it.