Caroline Kennedy: So Good! So Good! So Good!

For weeks, Caroline Kennedy appeared poised to take New York’s open Senate position, but on Friday, Kirsten Gillibrand was awarded the seat instead. Josh Fischel explains why this was a huge mistake.

Count me among the apparent few who think it a shame that Caroline Kennedy is not now the junior senator from New York.  I’ve argued in the past that we ought to look beyond prior electoral success as a prerequisite for political appointment.  We just voted out “politics as usual,” so why is everyone across the spectrum of the blogosphere, from Daily Kos to the Drudge Report, so triumphal about the appointment, instead, of first-term Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand?  

Kennedy, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Law, could have been a bright, fresh face in the Senate, knowledgeable about a variety of issues, including civil liberties (she co-authored two books on that) and education funding (she raised $65 million on behalf of New York City public schools as the Director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships).  Couldn’t she have developed laws with her staff to encourage private donations to fund the vast public works that Obama supports for job creation?  Just because she doesn’t have a voting record doesn’t mean she doesn’t have strong opinions.  

There are some people who have spent their lives out of the public eye, who get motivated by a person or a cause, and who need a hand up to a position from which they will be most effective.  They don’t have the self-promotion skills of a typical candidate. When the occasion comes along to appoint that sort of person, those in power have a special opportunity to change the face of leadership.  Colorado’s governor did it: when looking for Ken Salazar’s replacement in the Senate, Bill Ritter looked beyond the popular elected officials in his state and instead chose Michael Bennet, Denver’s superintendent of schools.  Much less of a fuss is being made about that move; maybe it’s because Michael Bennet didn’t say “you know” quite as much in interviews or because his last name isn’t Kennedy.  

The cry of nepotism rings hollow to me—nepotism is more pernicious when the close friend or family member has been gunning for a top position.  Caroline Kennedy hasn’t shown that tendency.  When she launched her initial salvo on Obama’s behalf—an elegant editorial in The New York Times—I doubt she was aiming for a position of power in exchange.  She became involved because, like her father had been for a generation, Obama was an inspirational figure to her.  It’s cynical to think that her desire to be in the Senate was merely a desire to further a family legacy.  I didn’t vote against Hillary because Bill is her husband, and I wouldn’t vote against Jeb Bush because his brother is George; there were and will be better reasons than that.  

I also bristle at the idea that Caroline Kennedy and Sarah Palin should have gotten equal treatment.  Being elected the governor of Alaska does not make you smart—obviously.  Getting a great education, growing up exposed to the world, and getting involved in a cause before it is thrust upon you (as in, when you give birth to it) are all ways to make yourself broadly qualified for positions that have no clear requirements.  Having an unfortunate verbal tic does not begin to compare to being unable to name more than one Supreme Court case or a single newspaper that you read.  I know it’s not true that Governor Palin thought that Africa was a country, but the fact that it was at all believable speaks to the horrible danger of her ignorance, should she ever hold higher office than she does now.  The only similarity between Palin and Kennedy is anatomical.  

The sexism here doesn’t lie in the differences between those two; it lies in the different treatments of Kennedy and Timothy Geithner.  Geithner didn’t pay $34,000 in taxes, and had a household employee of questionable immigration status.  Neither of these appear to be disqualifying to his confirmation, nor should they be.  But the rumored reasons for Governor Patterson being allegedly cool to appointing Kennedy were precisely these same reasons, the ones that made him pass her over.  

If the only people who can make it to elected office, by appointment or election, are (a) those who have been previously elected or (b) those who seem most like us Average Joes, then we’re at serious risk of dangerously limiting our pool of potential candidates.  I want the people working on policy, especially right now, to be freaking geniuses—people with advanced degrees, people who have published papers or shown competence in areas outside of politics, people who have had a greater interest in being experts than in accumulating power.  New York missed out on a chance to have that kind of person in the Senate, and I’m not sure it’ll get an opportunity to correct its governor’s political choice.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.