We're about to discover the true tensile strength of celebrity in politics. Barack Obama discovered that celebrity was enough to get him to the White House. Now we'll see whether a woman can make it by being famous for being a famous daughter.
Fame is fleeting, and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (she has dropped her legal name for the duration of the campaign) posing against a photograph of her late father will be a test of how fleeting fame can be. Two generations have come to maturity - and to voting age -- for whom that assassination in Dallas is merely something from the History Channel, like the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. The voters who remember the delightful little girl famously photographed playing under her father's desk in the Oval Office are moving swiftly into the graveyards. Camelot, like the Holy Roman Empire, is only a fading memory, nurtured by memoirists.
Nevertheless, Miss Kennedy (nee Mrs. Schlossberg), wants to follow Uncle Bobby to the U.S. Senate from New York. If mere celebrity can work electoral magic anywhere it would be in New York, at least in Manhattan, and Southern California. This is the stuff on which the tabloids and cable-TV feed. Qualifications count, but not so much. Mr. Obama, after all, has a thinner administrative resume than Sarah Palin, and he's done all right.
"She told me she was interested in the position," said New York Gov. David A. Paterson, who will appoint someone to serve until 2010, when voters choose someone to serve until Hillary Rodham Clinton's full term expires with the election of 2012. "She would like at some point to sit down and tell me what she thinks her qualifications are." That would be nice nod to old-fogey tradition, but not necessary.
The governor is said to have been skeptical of Caroline's proposed excellent adventure, thinking that with so many Democrats in New York there might be someone with genuine qualifications, but has now, in the words of one associate, "grown increasingly fond of her."
Miss Kennedy is indeed charming, easy to be fond of, a woman of bearing, intelligence and dignity neither expected nor prized in our celebrity age. She's perhaps the best of the Kennedys, in no small part because her mother insisted on raising her (and her late brother) apart from the rest of the family. But "fondness" is a yardstick governors have not openly employed before to measure qualifications for the Senate. Miss Kennedy is an accomplished author and her name will make it easy to raise the $70 million or so necessary to win the two statewide election campaigns ahead of whoever gets the governor's door prize.
Qualifications aren't what they used to be, anyway.
California elected a governor famous for pumping iron and blowing up movie sets. Minnesota may have elected a senator whose only qualification is that he is more or less famous for telling (badly) dirty jokes. Children of famous fathers get a leg up, and if it's a shapely leg that might be further advantage. Natural skepticism of the dynasty phenomenon usually runs to bemusement or amusement, not outrage.
Observes a perceptive author of a letter to the editor of the New York Times: "It's amusing that Andrew M. Cuomo, who owes his whole career to his dad, may not get the Senate seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton (who owes her whole career to her husband) because David A. Paterson (who owes his whole career to his dad) may give it to Caroline Kennedy (who owes her whole career to her dad). You would think a state as
large as New York could find someone who deserves something on his or her own."
All these worthies should at least remember to send particularly nice Father's Day cards to their dads (in Hillary's case not a dad, but a daddy) next summer.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who aspires to be Caroline's daddy, is pushing her candidacy hardest, and you might think this would inspire a populist backlash. The mayor, who is a Democrat when he isn't a Republican or some other convenience, has turned his top aides over to the Caroline cause, and this has in fact summoned a reaction, but it's too early to determine its strength.
"It appears to be another case of central casting by the city's cognoscenti," Joseph C. Liu, a Democratic alderman, tells the New York Times.
True enough, but it might be that Caroline's candidacy only demonstrates how celebrity is the face of the future of politics. If it's good enough for an Obama, it's good enough for a Kennedy, American idols all.