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A Senate Seat Is Not a Kennedy Heirloom

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have New York Democrats lost all self-respect? Their excited talk of whether Caroline Kennedy is "interested" in Hillary Clinton's Senate seat makes you wonder. The late John F. Kennedy's daughter has made at least one feeler phone call to New York Gov. David Paterson. And Uncle Teddy, the Massachusetts senator, is busy pulling the levers to slip her in. The seat will be vacant upon Clinton's confirmation as secretary of state.

This unsavory spectacle has been upstaged by the wild drama in Illinois, where Gov. Rod Blagojevich is being accused of trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat. The doings in New York are not blatant corruption, but they are corrosive to our democratic ideals. Lest anyone forget the point of the American Revolution, our representatives are not chosen by hereditary succession, which, to quote Thomas Paine, "is an insult and imposition on posterity."

Of course, Caroline can ask for whatever she wants. The astounding part is that the idea of such a request hasn't been laughed out of the news pages.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, against all evidence, touts Caroline as "a very experienced woman." Her government service starts and ends at raising private money for the New York City schools. While a worthy endeavor, it's a socialite's job.

For nearly four decades after her father's assassination, Caroline commendably resisted the call to become a Democratic Party ornament. Then at the 2000 Democratic convention, she stepped on the stage to the tune of "Camelot" and, with no little presumption, thanked the American people for "sustaining us through the good times, and the difficult ones, and for helping us dream my father's dream." Then she introduced "Uncle Teddy."

Women's groups have been eager to see Clinton replaced by another female. The Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women had already endorsed Carolyn Maloney, a congresswoman who has represented parts of Manhattan and Queens for 15 years.

But if Caroline Kennedy wants the job, all bets are off, according to Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal. "You're talking to someone who thinks Ted Kennedy is the most effective senator there," Smeal actually told The New York Times.

Here you have it. Without a second thought, feminists talk of throwing a seasoned, self-made professional overboard to make room for a Kennedy princess.

Uncle Ted has been reminding Democrats that Caroline would be backed by -- as the Times straightforwardly put it -- "the Kennedy family's extensive fundraising network." That's nice, but this is New York state, where electing a Democrat requires no miracle.

Set aside whether any seat should be gender-specific. It certainly shouldn't be genealogy-specific. But that's one of Caroline's selling points, at least from the Kennedy perspective. The seat was held for three years by her uncle Robert F. Kennedy, who was killed in 1968. For this reason, RFK's son Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was also eying the seat for himself. (Perhaps he could be made ambassador to France, instead.)

Hey, what about the Moynihans? Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan occupied that Senate chair for over 20 years. No Moynihan has yet come forward to claim it as a family possession to be handed down unto the generations.

Are we really having this conversation?

Paterson says he hasn't decided whom he will choose, though he notes that Caroline is "thinking about" the Senate position. According to the Times, "Some influential Democrats have privately suggested that given the buzz set off by Ms. Kennedy's emergence, the governor would have little choice but to appoint her if she decided she truly wanted the job."

Actually, he does have a choice.

Can New York Democrats summon up some dignity? We shall see.

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