12.17.08

If Hillary Is Worthy, Then So Is Caroline

Informed about important issues and tempered by personal tragedy, Caroline Kennedy will be an effective and empathic advocate for those in need.

The Kennedy-Schlossberg holiday favor this year is an Oracle Orb, which is remarkably appropriate given the current swirl of “Should she? Shouldn’t she?” speculation.

The trinket works as follows: Ask a question, shake the ball, and a tiny digital readout supplies an answer. So, “Should Caroline Kennedy get the senate seat?” I asked.

“What?!” replied the oracle. And then: “Why not?”

My feelings exactly.

When I heard that the intensely private Kennedy was considering putting her hand up for the New York seat, my first reaction was indeed “What?!” I was surprised that she would choose to step into the kind of withering glare she’s spent her adult life so assiduously avoiding. But on second thought, it made all the sense in the world.

There is every reason to think that Caroline, in time, will be exactly the same kind of dogged, effective, productive liberal as Teddy, and one who is perhaps even less threatening to the other side of the aisle.

For if not now, when?

Kennedy is just one of the bazillions of Americans who feel we’re on the brink of momentous times in this country, and she wants to play a role in it. Barely the other side of 50, with kids raised past the years of most dramatic neediness, it is probably the ideal time for a talented woman who has prioritized mothering to embark on a career of full-time public service.

Kennedy’s good fortune is that she’s famous enough to be able to do something big, and do it fast. So good for her. I think she’ll be a fine senator, and here’s why:

She’s an agile intellect with a top-line law degree and a grasp, among other things, of constitutional law and public education policy. She reads. She reads poetry. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s relevant needs to be reminded of William Carlos Williams’ observation: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for the lack of what is found there.”

She’s a bona fide New Yorker, and if she hasn’t spent a lot of time in muddy upstate barns, then neither had Hillary Clinton, the last dynastic choice, who managed to impress that region with her effectiveness.

Elizabeth Wurtzel opined this week that Kennedy’s life has been “handed to her.” To that, all I can say is if anyone tried to hand me a life as full of grief and tragedy I’d be taking several quick steps backward with my mitts clasped firmly behind my back.

Her life may have been materially rich, but it has been emotionally ravaging. If personal narrative is how we pick our politicians these days, as it so often is, then hers is a story that conveys real experience with the spectrum of loss—the sudden and unforeseen and the cruelly lingering. It implies an empathy with suffering that might very well be one of the most essential qualifications for governing this country at this time.

Wurtzel was also troubled that Kennedy hasn’t run for anything. And yes, it would be better if these Senate vacancies were handled with a special ballot instead of a Sistine Chapel-style finger-of-governor anointing. But Kennedy will get her chance to run in a bare two years, and Democrats who feel dissed or voters who remain underwhelmed will be able to boot her if they choose.

Remember when Teddy Kennedy got his Senate seat? Everybody said pretty much exactly what they are now saying about his niece: unqualified, overprivileged, riding on his family name and narrative in an entitled and dynastic way that was anti-democratic, anti-American. And yet Teddy turned out to be the best thing that happened for the liberal agenda in the last, mostly miserable, three decades.

When Grover Norquist boasted that he wanted to shrink government so small you could fit it in the bathtub and sink it, it was Kennedy who lashed himself to the mast and fought for the programs that make life even marginally livable for poor Americans. There is every reason to think that Caroline, in time, will be exactly the same kind of dogged, effective, productive liberal, and one who is perhaps even less threatening to the other side of the aisle.

Those who want the Obama presidency to succeed know that he is going to need stalwart allies in the Senate, and she’s already a maximum insider who will be able to eloquently argue the president’s case.

Full disclosure: I’ve met Kennedy and dined with her family during their low-key vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, where I live year round. The summer before last, I was at a backyard fundraiser for Obama when Kennedy, her husband, and kids turned up. This created a little buzz as Kennedy’s support was then with Clinton, and the Obama campaign was still seen as a fine but quixotic thing, destined to be crushed in due course beneath the Hillary juggernaut.

Obama was brilliant that night—great stump speech; full, frank, erudite answers to questions. Kennedy kept her counsel at the time, but some months later, after she fulsomely endorsed Obama, she said it had been her kids’ reactions to his inspirational quality that had convinced her to support him. That same quality may be what motivates her now.

Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who worked for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a writer with a special interest in environmental issues. Brooks has worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March, and her novel Year of Wonders is an international best seller. She is the author of Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence.