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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Celebrities

It is apparently incumbent on every blogger to express an opinion on the possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton. I guess this is a byproduct of Gothamcentricity: no other place in America has several thousand people who consider themselves preeminently qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate, and many thousands more people who want to write about it. Indeed, the two categories probably overlap.
Having only dipped my toe in the sea of ink that has been spilled on this subject, I can only guess that someone by now (on the mathematical principle that a thousand monkeys with typewriters will eventually write Hamlet) has noted that the last time there was this much caterwauling about an unqualified Senate aspirant, his name was Edward Kennedy, in 1962. Caroline’s Uncle Ted, of course, has gone on to earn virtually universal regard as one of the greatest Senators ever.
That’s not to say that we should assume Ted’s niece has similar virtues; America has had sufficiently mixed experience with Kennedys in office to avoid any preconclusions.
The salient point most often made by Ms. Kennedy’s defenders is that there have been lots of people in politics who started on third base thanks to their name, their (non-political) fame, or their money. This last point is worth dwelling on: the very rich are frequently run for high office because their dough is a tangible political asset that would otherwise have to be rustled up from somewhere else. And if we’ve learned anything over the last few months, wealth, even “self-earned,” is hardly an infallible indicator of competence or wisdom.
Ross Douthat probably offers the best case for the peculiar offensiveness of CK’s candidacy:

I can live with legacy politicians, underqualified appointees, and entitled rich people. I just think the Senate can do without an rich, underqualified legacy appointee whose press coverage would lead you to believe that she’s a cross between Florence Nightingale, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Princess Diana and Princess Leia.

But it’s easy to get carried away with that sort of stuff; if Caroline Kennedy’s resume isn’t overwhelming, it’s not as though she’s a exactly a political Paris Hilton who is simply famous for being famous.
I am sure that Governor Paterson and New York Democrats could come up with another Senator who is better qualified, capable of raising big sacks of cash (from their own assets or from others), and a lead-pipe cinch to beat anybody the GOP is likely to put up. But let’s not get too self-righteous about high political office as a meritocracy. Americans love their celebrities, and their weaknesses (viz. Celebrity Rehab) and their strengths, and that’s not changing anytime soon. Many years ago I used to joke that maybe we should just re-establish a monarchy and turn it over to the Kennedys, or alternate it between the Kennedys and the Buckleys, freeing electoral politics of the craving for family glamor and drama. Until we’re ready for something like that, I don’t quite know by what higher law we can bar Caroline Kennedy from office, unless she really does represent some sort of Celebrity Culture tipping point.

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