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The Next Senator Kennedy

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The news that Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president and much-dubbed Princess of Camelot, is seeking to replace Hillary Clinton in the United States Senate has set many tongues to wagging.

It's all about entitlement, some are saying: What has she done to deserve a seat in the Senate? What does she know? Who does she think she is?

Some years ago, I was helping a candidate prepare to enter politics for the first time. He didn't know what to say. I did. "How come I'm running and you're not?" he said to me, not entirely in jest. The answer was obvious: You can hire someone like I used to be to brief you on issues, write speeches, talk through positions. He had the money and the contacts to finance the race. I didn't. End of story.

He did a great job, by the way. He learned what I could teach him and put together the money to run a successful campaign. It may not be fair, but what is?

Politics isn't a contest to see who can name the most heads of state or rattle off the most bill numbers. That you can learn. What you can't learn is what Caroline Kennedy already has: stature, charisma, standing in the world. What you can't buy -- or shouldn't -- is the kind of influence that can be wielded by someone who can call anyone in the world and have their call taken, walk into any room and be noticed, give a speech on anything and get an audience for it.

Her supporters point out that she raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the New York City schools. Her critics point out that raising that kind of money doesn't prove you know anything about education. They're right, but it's beside the point. Raising that kind of money proves you know how to tap into the levers of power, who to call and how to get them to say yes -- and that you are big enough in every sense of the word to get big things done.

Will Caroline Kennedy be a more effective spokesperson for New York for all these reasons? Of course she will. When she stands up, people will listen. When she asks, people will respond. When she puts herself on the line, the chances of a bill passing or a nominee being confirmed will increase. Most junior senators, especially the ones even people in their home state can't identify, don't have much clout in Washington. Caroline Kennedy will be a player from the moment she arrives.

I remember when I first went to Washington, too many years ago, being awestruck as I sat in the Senate galley and recognized one giant after another on the floor below. Humphrey and Kennedy, Hart and Russell, Jake Javitz and Pat Moynihan and Paul Douglas and Ed Brooke, J. William Fulbright and George McGovern. I'm not sure I could point out as many people today as I could then; actually, I'm sure I couldn't. With Hillary leaving and Ted Kennedy fighting serious cancer, the Senate is heading for a giant gap.

Caroline Kennedy doesn't need to be a senator in order to be noticed, listened to, taken seriously and invited to fancy parties. She can do all those things right now. She doesn't need the Senate in order to speak her mind and have her voice be heard. She certainly doesn't need the salary, and she could probably live without the aggravation. Two campaigns in two years is not exactly a gift. She will lose her privacy and become a target for the toughest media crowd in the country.

I think it speaks well for her -- and for the idea of public service that her father so eloquently championed -- that Ms. Kennedy is throwing her hat in the ring. I wish her the best of luck. She doesn't need the Senate, but the Senate could certainly use her.

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