article

01.01.09

Camelot, The Puppet Show

As Caroline gets a surprise boost from New York's second most powerful Democrat, Harry Siegel on why it's the latest sign that pols are manipulating her campaign for their own gain.

New York has been witnessing a badly directed revival of the play “Camelot.” The production—mounted in the hopes of forcing its audience of one, Governor David Paterson, to appoint Caroline Kennedy to the Senate seat Hillary Clinton is vacating—has been plagued by bad reviews since opening.

The actress has been mocked in reviews not just for her frequent recourse to "you know," but because New Yorkers don't believe that she's up to the job. She had no public profile prior to announcing, has not been politically active or even had known positions, hasn't contributed money to the Democratic Party, and has even skipped voting in elections, including when candidates for the U.S. Senate were on the ballot.

With each miscue the production has been relaunched, each time in the hope that it can dispel the previous bad reviews.

Bloomberg built a reputation as the most honest man in politics by buying off the special interests who usually buy off politicians.

With the show in danger of failing, Kevin Sheekey, the political consigliere of Mayor Bloomberg, her most powerful backer, has upped the ante, telling Elizabeth Benjamin of the Daily News that it would be "political malpractice" to appoint anyone but Kennedy--and offering the only serious rationale for her bid: "If Caroline is appointed, Barack Obama has to come to New York as his first political trip to...support her, and in turn, New York." Continuing the offensive launched just a day after the Kennedy camp floated the claim that Sheekey would take a lower-profile role, he later told longtime Albany king-maker and -killer Fred Dicker that, "I think New York needs someone who supported the new president. I think New York desperately shouldn't appoint someone who opposed the new president."

Read: Whomever Democrat Paterson appoints to New York’s junior Senate seat will vote the same way, but because of Kennedy’s special relationship with Obama, who she endorsed early and then served as co-chair of his vice-presidential search team, she can bring home the bacon.

In the same story, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who’d previously dismissed Kennedy as a senator who’d be loyal to the mayor -- with whom he’s often clashed -- and not the governor who’d appoint her, was quoted in the Post this morning, “I have determined there's a good possibility she will be the appointee of the governor,” and, "If she is the appointee of the governor, I will certainly be supportive of her.”

Since the Kennedy camp has until now conspicuously avoided touting her closeness to Obama, and Silver isn’t known for changing his mind unless there’s something in it for him, the two comments appearing together raise the question of whether Obama — the Illinois mess aside — has given his blessing for her to tout their connection as a potential windfall for New York.

The Post story came just a day after the last set piece meant to set her flailing candidacy right fell from its place: a clumsy attempt to distance Kennedy from Bloomberg and Sheekey, a move accepted only by the easily duped New York Daily News which ran it on the cover with the banner: "Thanks But No Thanks--Caroline & Bloomy camps lock horns." (The Post that day went with "She's Fine! You Know?—Mayor gives Caroline foes tongue-lash," and the Times led its New York section with the charitable header, "For Kennedy, Self-Promotion Is an Unfamiliar Challenge.")

With Silver on board with a Kennedy pick and Sheekey back at the fore, it looks as though the New York press has again been befuddled by Bloomberg, who's built a reputation as the most honest man in politics by buying off the special interests who usually buy off politicians. 

The production worthy of attention, as usual, has been taking place behind the curtains. That would be Bloomberg's attempt to use Caroline Kennedy to advance his own campaign to win reelection in 2009.

What seemed to be an inevitable acceptance of Bloomberg's bid to undo term limits by allowing himself a third bite at the Big Apple engendered a greater backlash than the mayor, accustomed to buying easy acquiescence, had expected.

He's backing Kennedy as much for his own gain as hers—to open up a potential path for himself to run back into the Democratic Party he left in order to dodge the party primary in his successful 2001 bid for the office. Bloomberg is now courting New York City’s county chairs to set up a possible run next year as a Democrat.

That Kennedy's bid to be appointed to the U.S. Senate by a Democratic governor appears to hinge on support from a former Democrat who became a RINO (Republican In Name Only), and later an Independent in the hopes of taking a shot at national office, and now is backing Kennedy to open a potential return to the party he scorned, in order to block the Democrats intending to run against him, says a lot about how dysfunctional New York's parties have become.

With Silver apparently on board with Kennedy, Bloomberg’s push last week for a quick appointment, before Kennedy’s set collapses altogether, suddenly seems much more likely. "This is just distracting and we don't need to have another sideshow," the mayor said. The role his team had played in creating that distraction, of course, was left unmentioned.

The same day, Silver, who had kept his powder dry since Caroline first announced her potential interest, also weighed in to say that she is "being promoted by the mayor, by his deputy mayor, for political aspirations," adding, "And if I were the governor, I would look and question whether this is the appointment I would want to make: whether her first obligation might be to the mayor of the City of New York, rather than to the governor who would be appointing her."

Paterson, too, finally spoke about Kennedy the same day, asking a reporter, "How is she a front-runner?" and sniping, "This whole thing sounds more like the prelude to a high school musical than the choosing of a senator." Would that be a high school version of “Camelot”?

Harry Siegel is the weekend editor of Politico.com, and the co-author with Fred Siegel of The Prince of the City: Giuliani New York and Genius of American Life.