12.14.08

Uh, Qualified?

Caroline Kennedy has mostly spent her life as a wife, a mother, and most ceremoniously, a daughter. Elizabeth Wurtzel on why those aren't qualifications to be in the US Senate.

Caroline Kennedy is seeking Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, but she has mostly spent her life as a mother, a wife, and, most ceremoniously, a daughter. That doesn't make her qualified.

Nostalgia aside, why would anyone think it a good idea to appoint Caroline Bouvier Kennedy as the replacement senator for New York? Are we not at long last tired of turning the reins of government over to the underqualified offspring of former presidents?

Caroline Kennedy has shown no evidence of being able to hold down a regular job—all her fundraising work has been voluntary—so the only logic for making the Senate her first employment opportunity is that we actually like the amateur hour that has become the Congress. Kennedy is a Harvard graduate with a law degree who has written a few books and duly served the public on some prestigious committees and blue-ribbon panels. I don’t want to scare anybody, but on this basis, I could be the succeeding senator to Hillary Clinton’s abandoned post. If all it takes are some fancy credentials and some impressive hobnobbing, I daresay the Senate is open to many comers.

Kennedy, whose whole life has been handed to her, is once again about to have her whole life handed to her. Is this what we really want?

Do not misunderstand me: I know Kennedy is far more than some lady who lunches and then serves oranges to the homeless at the church soup kitchen. She has raised $65 million for New York City’s school system, no small sum. I know she is the keeper of the Camelot flame, a position that entails some effort and élan. And I realize that just being daughter of a president, and of course a Kennedy, is a substantial qualification for government work: Growing up in a political world is fine preparation for a public life.

But there’s got to be more going on. It’s not enough merely to exercise the opportunities availed to you because you just happen to be born on third base. It’s not even enough to perform the duties of legacy with grace and intelligence, which Caroline Kennedy appears to have done. I would like to think the Senate is a repository for people who have achieved something on their own—even if the only thing is the act of running for office, a demand we don’t even seem to be making in this case. Kennedy, whose whole life has been handed to her, is once again about to have her whole life handed to her.

Is this what we really want?

Perhaps it is: Even in parvenu America, noblesse oblige is as good an impetus as any, and many of our best (and a couple of our worst) leaders have been to the manor born. We have a tradition of electing officials with last names like Roosevelt and Adams and, of course, Kennedy, and we are often pleased with the results. Dynasty is not un-American, even if it is anti-democratic. Conversely, some of our most naturally gifted presidents of recent years—Nixon and Clinton come to mind—came right out of the dogpatch and spent a good deal of their public lives struggling with their upstart demons to the detriment of just getting the job done. It was far better to live in ancient Judea in the time of King Solomon, who was born a prince, than in the turbulent days of King David, who started his life as a simple shepherd.

And in fact many of the Kennedy kids of this third American generation are very accomplished, working as physicians, producers, policy wonks, and public officials. Even Caroline’s brother, affectionately known as John-John, tried life as an assistant district attorney and a magazine publisher to some degree of success before his untimely death. But Caroline Kennedy has herself done very little: She is so smart and sturdy, elegant and eloquent—as is always noted, Jackie did a good job with her kids—that we have come to take her aspirations seriously, when she has no record of achievement.

She’s been quietly reaching out to state leaders, including New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, despite opposition from prominent Clinton backers. “Democratic officials and Clinton fund-raiser Robert Zimmerman blasted Kennedy’s lack of campaign experience,” the New York Post reported Sunday.

Kennedy has mostly spent her life as a wife, a mother, and most ceremoniously, a daughter. Nothing wrong with that—who wouldn’t like to raise kids and go to parent-teacher meetings and occasionally pick a Profile in Courage award recipient? It’s not a bad life, and she’s not a bad person. Unlike a couple of her first cousins, she’s has never been accused of rape or caught driving while intoxicated—not that even these indiscretions are preclusions to public office. She has shown good judgment, and it’s no wonder you might want her to serve on your board of directors or help vet the vice president-to-be.

But being a senator—drafting bills, serving and servicing constituents, organizing an office—is the kind of job that involves more than soliciting donations from your wealthy friends and neighbors. It’s filthy and consuming work. If we really want a Kennedy to fill this empty seat, it would make far more sense to choose Robert Jr., who has accomplished a lot as an attorney and activist, though he has taken his name out of the running. Caroline Bouvier Kennedy is glamorous woman with a top-notch pedigree: Her place is not in the Senate.

RELATED: Is Caroline Entitled to the Senate? By John Batchelor

Elizabeth Wurtzel is author of Prozac Nation, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, and More, Now, Again. She has been popular music critic for The New Yorker and New York, and the film reviewer for Nerve. Her work has been widely anthologized.