A free United States Senate seat is a very fine thing, especially since Gov. David Paterson does not seem to be expecting a holiday envelope from the lucky winner, unlike some governors we could mention. However, Paterson does want someone who could come up with around $50 million for a statewide campaign in 2010, and Kennedy has been supersuccessful at raising money for New York City’s public schools and other good causes. Although it’s important to note that asking for money to buy books for poor children is not quite the same thing as asking for money to buy 60-second TV commercials about how great you are.
It is a tribute to the raging mediocrity of New York politics that while many people have expressed reservations about giving the Senate job to an untested, hitherto publicity-shy political novice, their protests often wind up with: “Why pick Caroline Kennedy when we could have — um ...”
In New York, two kinds of homegrown politicians tend to rise to the top of the heap. The smart, hard-working ones have sharp elbows and impossible egos. (I’m remembering Ed Koch on a long-ago visit to Berlin, waving at the East German guards at the checkpoint and yelling: “I’m here! It’s me! It’s me!”) The charming, easy-going ones tend to have the I.Q. of a cucumber.
As Adam Nagourney and Nicholas Confessore wrote in The Times, Kennedy has a reputation for “quiet competence and dignity.” If nothing else, that would be a novelty.
My biggest concern about the Kennedy-for-senate boom is that the whole idea sounds as if it had been inspired by telephone conversations between Caroline and her Uncle Ted, followed by encouraging calls from her cousin Robert. We should always be leery of plans that develop during excited phone calls among family members. I remember a time when my sisters and I got extremely enthusiastic about renting a stretch limo at Christmastime and taking everybody on a tour of the holiday lights of Cincinnati. It turned out that unlike fireworks, Christmas lights work best in small doses, unless you have an unlimited appetite for viewing blowup replicas of the Nativity.
People keep asking if Kennedy has the stomach for long campaigns in upstate New York — if she is, in the words of Representative Gary Ackerman of Queens, prepared to “do Utica.” Really, that’s the least of it. The people of Utica are lovely, as long as you don’t have to come up with any specific ideas for resurrecting their city from its century-long swoon. And it’s easy to imagine Kennedy doing a Hillary-like “listening tour,” having round-table discussions about the dairy compact or broadband access while the press corps gently naps in the rear row.
But how much of her life does she really want to spend at fund-raisers for people she suspects will be indicted before they have a chance to cash the checks? How does she feel about admiring butter sculptures at state fairs? I remember watching Hillary tour the fair in Syracuse with her family in tow, stopping at a booth that featured a teeny table with teeny teacups and a sign: “Reserved for the Clintons.” Bill and Hillary, instantly perceiving their duty, pulled up two teeny chairs and plopped right down. Chelsea, who was normally an absolute rock during these events, looked as if she wanted the earth to swallow her up.
It is admittedly not fair that a person with a famous name could get this Senate opportunity instead of some worthy if irritating member of Congress who’s put in the time and paid the dues. But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that waiting for life to be fair is a losing proposition. (By the way, we’re approaching the one-month-to-go mark on the George W. Bush Out of Office Countdown calendar. The presidential quote of the week is: “Natural gas is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods.”)
Hillary Clinton came out of First Ladyhood and Arkansas and scooped her job away from other more deserving New Yorkers. But she turned out to be terrific at it and a useful reminder that in America there are not only second chances, but thirds and fourths as well. Maybe this will become known as New York’s Midlife Career Change Senate Seat.
If Kennedy wants to succeed Clinton, she’s got every right to give it a shot. If she makes her case successfully, maybe she’ll turn out to like spending her weekends at many variations on the theme of testimonial dinner and sitting at teeny-tiny tables at the state fair. Or she might discover that she has signed up for one long limo tour of the Christmas lights. In which case, it’s only a two-year ride.