01.05.09

Caroline: The Reasons Why

The baying of the press for Caroline to justify her desire to occupy Hillary’s seat in the Senate is about the exchange in fairy dust between herself and Barack Obama.

Caroline Kennedy’s week-long radio silence about her candidacy for the New York Senate seat has only increased the media clamor for her to explain herself. Her declaration to The New York Times that “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I would be the best” hasn't done the trick. As the Albany Times Union commented yesterday, “Her problem, in essence, is the ‘why’ question. She hasn't come close to answering it.”

I have my own theory of why Caroline wants it—or, at least, why she suddenly emerged from her Upper East Side walk-in closet after 51 years.

No wonder the Republicans love to compare her to the still widely popular Sarah Palin, who is pure animal protein to Caroline’s endive salad.

Her default state of mind is captured by that affectless voice we hear on the AP tape and its self-defeating y’knows—dozens of them in less than two and a half minutes. To a British ear, it’s the same low-energy stance of the younger generation of the Royal Family or the grander British aristocracy—which, in American terms, is exactly what she is.

Take a tour of a British stately home with the laid-back heir or heiress to all the Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses on the satin walls (“This is the Red Room, yah, where, y’know, the Duke of Marlborough was, I dunno, like, arrested, we just roller skate here now”) and you will experience the same gusts of disinterest that Caroline displayed in Rochester when she visited the Democratic headquarters there recently.

Local officials eagerly ushered the prospective senator into a conference room known as the Kennedy Room, adorned with pictures of (what a drag) her father, mother, and younger brother, and Caroline herself as a little girl. “She never responded to the pictures,” the mayor of Rochester, Robert Duffy, told The New York Times. “She looked and perhaps nodded. She never said a word about it.” (To be fair, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from upstate New York who has endorsed Caroline, noted that Kennedy’s reaction to the pictures was to say, “Oh, that’s very nice.”)

Caroline’s whole demeanor, with its combination of slouchiness and snippiness (also very royal) when her rank is challenged (“Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?...I thought you were the crack political team here”), proclaims the sad truth of her life: that being the heir to a legacy fraught with so much tragedy is a heavy-hearted chore—especially when you have no real visceral feel for the spirit that forged it. All those meetings with the great and the good at the Kennedy Library. All those requests from new biographers for interviews to turn down. All those battening social climbers, from as early as kindergarten, when the play-dates were about the moms who wanted to meet Jackie. All the lies—or, worse, truths—written about your family. It was, y’know, draining.

No wonder the Republicans love to compare her to the still widely popular Sarah Palin, who is pure animal protein to Caroline’s endive salad. (Palin’s own interview debacles were from ignorance, which is less off-putting, it seems, than that new curse word in politics, reserve.)

Caroline has been raised all her life as a Bouvier, not a Kennedy—and a reticent female Bouvier at that. She’s not a swashbuckler like Black Jack Bouvier, Jackie’s dashing, dissolute father. Caroline has led a parochial, socially timid life centered on Manhattan’s most cosseted enclave, remote from the competitive cut and thrust of local or national politics, the blood-coursing challenges of winning and losing that defined her father’s side of the clan. Life with Jackie was all about hiding.

But something happened last January as Caroline was pushed by her Uncle Teddy to come out for Obama. The Kennedys, blindsided by the success of pea-picking, penny-ante, polyester-wearing provincials like the Carters and the Clintons, were never all that delighted when Bill Clinton’s wife commandeered RFK’s old Senate seat. Keeping Hillary out of the White House pulled Caroline off the sidelines as much as enthusiasm for Obama, who so shrewdly and assiduously courted the Kennedy blessing. Some of Caroline’s veiled dislike of Hillary was perhaps also vigor envy. No self-doubt in Hillary. No fear of the fight.

With the press in a swoon calling young Sen. Obama the next JFK (and with Ted Sorensen actually around as a kind of Hobbit figure), Caroline, I expect, fell into a strange time warp. For the first time, she really tasted the rawness, the exhaustion, and the exhilaration of the family business. She discovered what a race for the White House feels like in the flesh, not just on tape or in books or in dinner table reminiscences. Suddenly she was with inspiring JFK in West Virginia and Los Angeles, with magical RFK in Indiana and Oregon. At Obama’s convention in Denver, as thousands watched and cheered with tears streaking their faces, she was at center stage, catapulting past her cousins to her new place just behind Ted in the line of Kennedy succession.

Of course, Obama fell in love with having the JFK fairy dust heaped on him too. (As the old Aretha Franklin song goes, Who’s Zoomin’ Who?) Every other Democratic contender since 1968 has yearned for the Kennedy anointment as The Next One. Gary Hart actually got to fiddling with his suit jacket pocket the same way JFK did, and John Edwards—oh, how John Edwards wanted them to say it about him! That stuff will go to your head! Even a lowlife like Rod Blagojevich thought the shock of hair might confer the magic.

Obama was different; his glamour was his own. He wasn’t some Bob Forehead type, trying to be “Kennedyesque.” He was as brilliant a wordsmith as herfather’s speechwriters. Besides, he was African-American. Paradoxically, these qualities made him the perfect successor as Camelot caretaker. Arise, Sir Barack!

Obama, in return, knew he owed the Kennedys. He didn’t just let Caroline hang around the plane and the hotel suite; he made her one of the “vetters” on his veep choice committee. (Nice for her, too, that she would be able to not choose Hillary.) Like everything else about Caroline, from her finances to why she wants the job, her actual role in that process—undoubtedly handled in reality by the usual firm of Axelrod, Jarrett, Emanuel & Co.—has been consigned to a lock box. We’re left to imagine Obama on his BlackBerry: “Hey Caroline, if it’s Biden, Bill R or HRC, who u prefer? Really? Thx! C u later.”

When people suggest that Caroline’s intimacy with Obama is a prime reason Gov. Paterson should appoint her, it assumes that intimacy with Obama is actually possible. The cool cat has stayed cool, choosing the catchall she’s a “very dear friend” over touting her professional achievements. And Paterson himself, a new player to the big time, is busy forging his own identity. It can’t sit well with him to suggest that without Caroline he, the governor of New York, won’t be able to get President Obama and his circle on the phone.

The hope for Caroline’s troubled candidacy now is that another dynastic story than her own may provide her next act. When The Washington Post’s Phil Graham was the manic, magnetic media king of the New Frontier capital, his wife Katharine was drab and invisible in the background. When her husband died in a suicide, she stumbled uncertainly at first. She was inarticulate, she lacked charm. No one really imagined that she would run The Washington Post herself. Then she found, just as Caroline has with politics, that printer's ink coursed through her veins. Yes you can, she thought. And yes she did.

I have to admit I’d love to see Princess Caroline get the seat just to watch that transformation. Perhaps that’s what the governor is betting on.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown . She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.

Note: This article originally stated Kennedy endorsed Obama this summer. It has been updated.