Is the Kennedy Dynasty Over?

Caroline Kennedy won't be the next senator from New York because after George W. Bush, Americans no longer want politics to be a family affair.

01.21.09 11:02 PM ET

There’s been a Kennedy in the Senate since 1952, but events this week suggest this era might be coming to a close. Caroline Kennedy informed Gov. David Paterson that she has taken her name out of contention to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as senator from New York. Sen. Ted Kennedy, suffering from brain cancer, was taken from the celebratory lunch on Inauguration Day; his medical prognosis is uncertain, at best.

Many pundits had expected Caroline Kennedy to get the appointment. After all, she is a Kennedy. When Kennedys have sought a political position, they have usually been victorious.

The Kennedy family has been a powerful force in national politics since the New Deal. The first Kennedy to emerge on the national scene was Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr., who made his name in the Democratic party of Massachusetts and who was named chair of the Securities Exchange Commission by FDR. His son, John F. Kennedy, was elected senator in 1952 and then president of the United States in 1960. (Rose, JFK’s mother, was a Fitzgerald, and her father, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, had been a member of Congress from Boston, elected in 1895, and mayor of Boston, elected in 1906.) Though JFK was assassinated in 1963, his short-lived presidency caused many young Americans to think about politics in inspirational terms and to consider how they could contribute to civic life.

“The irony is that one of the most conservative presidents we have had in the White House might have struck the most devastating blow to the family that has come to embody American liberalism for over half a century. With Bush, the cost of dynastic politics became clear.”

JFK's brother Robert served as attorney general in his administration, guiding the White House through heated standoffs over the racial integration of southern universities and helping his brother navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis. RFK began as an ardent Cold Warrior, but by 1968, as the senator from New York, he stood as the champion of younger Americans who were tired of the Vietnam War and demanded that the government deal with social problems such as urban racism. Like his brother, he was struck down by an assassin; he was killed in 1968 just after winning California's Democratic primary and was headed to the Democratic convention in Chicago.

Senator Edward Kennedy struggled with many problems early in his career, including his failure to immediately report a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard that resulted in the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Following an unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1980, Senator Kennedy emerged as a major voice of liberalism in the conservative era. Kennedy was unrepentant in challenging the Bush administration on every issue, from Iraq to the minimum wage, even when most other Democrats were timid before the once-popular president.

There are many also other Kennedys of a younger generation who still dot America’s political landscape. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003. Joseph Patrick Kennedy II was a Massachusetts Representative from 1987 to 1999 and Edward's son Patrick represents the first district of Rhode Island on Capitol Hill. There are many more.

The Kennedys, some say, are as close to royalty as this nation has ever had. This has been a family that remained influential over the span of three generations. While many Kennedys have displayed immense political skill, just having the Kennedy name clearly offered a ticket to enter into the political arena.

When Caroline Kennedy’s name was first floated as one of the potential replacements for Hillary Clinton, there were many Democrats who were extremely critical of the potential appointment. They argued that in this day and age, picking a person based on their name would be a poor decision. Given that she would not have to run for election and her experience was limited, the name seemed to be the primary reason for her to be the choice. What went on behind-the-scenes with Gov. Paterson still remains unknown, but it now seems that the Kennedy name was not enough.

It is too early to tell if the Kennedy dynasty is really over. Caroline Kennedy might very well try her hand at winning election down the road, but her brief public campaign to secure the Senate seat does not augur well for her political future. Other Kennedys may also likely try to revive the clout of their family.

But there are many reasons to believe that the dynasty has lost its hold on the public imagination. The most obvious reason is that we are seeing a generational change within the Democratic party. Voters were excited this year by the fact that the party leadership is filled with new faces and new ideas. President Barack Obama represents to many Americans not simply the possibility of better public policy or leadership, but the arrival of a new generation of Democrats—who cut their teeth in the Age of Reagan, as the historian Sean Wilentz has called it—and who are not tied to the arguments and biases of previous generations. During his inaugural address, Obama said, “We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

As Democrats try to offer innovative solutions to age-old problems and new challenges facing us at home and abroad, they are not instinctively turning to familiar faces.

The other factor is George W. Bush himself. Former President Bush departed from the White House as one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. The irony is that one of the most conservative presidents we have had in the White House might have struck the most devastating blow to the family that has come to embody the American liberalism for over half a century. With Bush, the cost of dynastic politics became clear. Many Americans were angry, frustrated, and scared as they watched Bush, who as a candidate benefited immensely from his family name, fail to live up to the challenges that he confronted on the job. All of the questions about picking a leader based on the legacy of a family rather than the candidate’s skills on the campaign trail or their previous experience became apparent.

This time around, when a Kennedy name surfaced for a position on Capitol Hill, too many New Yorkers scratched their heads, thinking about the presidency they had just seen and doubting that picking a politician based on a dynasty was really the best way to go.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books. Zelizer is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Harvard University Press).