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Should She Be Senator Kennedy?

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Caroline Kennedy made her political debut in Manhattan almost exactly 10 years ago, when she showed up as the surprise speaker at a "teach-in" against the impeachment of Bill Clinton at New York University Law School. Her speech on that occasion was not memorable, nor did she display great passion as she read it, but none of that mattered. Her presence electrified what would otherwise have been a mundane gathering of liberal intellectuals, professors and politicians.

She had at least a touch of the magic -- and a sense of when and how to use it.

Now, after a decade of writing and editing books, raising money for public schools in New York City and leading a mostly private life, Ms. Kennedy is seeking the Senate seat that will be left vacant by Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the culture of celebrity, the media have instantly deemed her a leading candidate, much to the frustration of elected officials who feel they have earned a chance to win what she would merely take.

The arguments advanced on her behalf by many of her supposed friends have ranged from sentimental to crass. For more than half a century, the United States Senate has been the center of the Kennedy family's public service. Her late father was a senator before he ran for president. Her uncle Robert F. Kennedy occupied that same seat until his untimely death in 1968. Her uncle Ted Kennedy, a towering figure in that body, is gravely ill with brain cancer. And while there are other members of the family who could plausibly seek a Senate seat, most notably the environmental leader Robert Jr. and human rights activist Kerry, they have stepped aside in favor of their cousin.

Aside from her candidacy's romantic appeal, there is also the money. Democratic leaders say they believe that Ms. Kennedy is uniquely equipped to raise the estimated $70 million or more needed to hold the seat through a special election in 2010 and the regularly scheduled contest two years later. She is not without resources of her own, and she has demonstrated considerable prowess in raising funds for education, ballet and other causes. Perhaps that ought not be a major factor in selecting a Senate candidate, but of course it is.

Aside from money, celebrity and tradition, what else does Ms. Kennedy need to propel her candidacy? New York Governor David Paterson, who will actually make the interim appointment, may have asked himself that question when she called to inform him of her interest. As he told reporters, "She'd like at some point to sit down and tell me what she thinks her qualifications are."

In the governor's remark, there is an edge that expresses what many politicians may be thinking. Unlike members of Congress who want the promotion, Ms. Kennedy, a nonpracticing attorney, has little familiarity with the legislative process. Unlike them, she has never tested herself in the brutal arena of electoral politics. And unlike many of them, she has lived in a world of privilege quite remote from the concerns of most voters.

It is not hard to imagine the difficulties Ms. Kennedy might confront in a race against someone like Representative Peter King, the first Republican to declare his intention to run for the Senate seat no matter whom the governor appoints. How would the soft-spoken lady from the Upper East Side hold up in a debate against a self-styled populist from Long Island?

Nobody who knows Ms. Kennedy doubts her intellect or her commitment. But beyond her endorsement of Barack Obama at a crucial moment in the Democratic primaries, nobody knows much about her positions on public policy. Presumably, the governor will explore that question when they meet.

The same criticism -- that she's only where she is because of her name -- was leveled at her uncle Ted when he first ran for the Senate. Then again, we know how he turned out. If that is what she means to become, New York could do much worse.

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