01.23.09

The Real Reasons Caroline Didn't Make It

The real reason Caroline didn't get the job isn't taxes. It's that she antagonized liberal interest groups, offended the Clintons, and generally bungled the effort. Not that Gov. Paterson did any better: In the words of someone close to him, "he's incapable of the chess strategy required to think through what the consequences of anything might be two weeks from now."

If you've been following the spat between New York Governor David Paterson and once-likely New York Senator Caroline Kennedy, you've probably asked yourself the obvious question: Who's less impressive? It's a tough one. They're both pretty mediocre.

"I don't know who they wanted," says a Clinton friend. "I know who they didn't want."

Despite the efforts of news organizations, it's almost impossible to put together a timeline of exactly what happened between Kennedy and Paterson earlier this week. Both sides have given wildly confusing and totally contradictory accounts of Kennedy's decision to end her informal campaign for the senate, and the rumor mill is churning with suggestions she had a tax problem, an illegal nanny problem, or even an affair with another high-profile New Yorker.

Somebody—probably everybody—is lying about details. Here are a couple of things we know for certain:

It was a ludicrous idea from the beginning. Here was a woman with virtually no history of political involvement or donations, no clear ideas about public policy, no natural constituency, a poor speaking voice and awkward personal skills, who hadn't even bothered to vote much of the time, who suddenly, for reasons she never explained, decided she should be given Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. Apart from her last name, she was the worst candidate ever.

It was hard to argue she was ready for the job, and few did. "She was walking right onto Broadway without having done a debut in a smaller venue," her cousin Robert Kennedy, Jr. conceded in an interview with MSNBC.

Even her friends don't pretend she's a natural leader. One admirer, who worked with her at the Fund for Public Schools in New York, describes Kennedy as utterly passive in dealings with other people. "She went to the meetings, but she was quiet. People would have stepped back if she'd said 'Let's do it this way.' It would have been nice. And we would have had fewer meetings." But Kennedy never did.

Why would a person like this want to serve in the U.S. Senate? Nobody seems to know. "She never had a rationale for doing this," says one major New York political figure. "In every dealing I had with her family or friends, they clearly thought it was a just theirs for the asking. They had a real sense of entitlement."

Some theorize the 51-year-old Kennedy was in the grip of a midlife crisis. Others who know her say she was persuaded to do it by her uncle Ted. Whoever was giving her advice forgot to mention two iron rules of state Democratic politics: Don't antagonize liberal interest groups. And if you can help it, don't cross Hillary Clinton.

Kennedy did both. Her endorsement of Obama in the primaries ensured that Bill and Hillary would work to undermine her candidacy. "I don't know who they wanted," says a Clinton friend. "I know who they didn't want."

Liberal activists, meanwhile, didn't know Kennedy and many didn't trust her, partly because the consultant she hired, Josh Isay, had once worked for Democratic heretic Joe Lieberman. She should have been naturally appealing to feminists. Gloria Steinem wound up endorsing Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

A skilled politician might have used personal charm to overcome hurdles like these. Kennedy came off as remote and weird. At one now-famous event in Rochester, she all but yawned when local Democratic leaders proudly showed her pictures of her father, who had once visited the area.

Now that Kennedy has dropped out of the race, Paterson's office is claiming she was never really a contender. According to the account his advisors have been peddling to reporters on background, the governor has known for weeks that he couldn't appoint someone so unimpressive and inarticulate to the Senate. He just hadn't told Caroline Kennedy yet.

If this were true, it would reflect poorly on Paterson. Rather than cut Kennedy loose and let her withdraw with dignity, he strung her along, allowing her to humiliate herself in the final hours. Did Paterson really do that? Almost certainly he didn't, because—and this is the other thing we know for sure about his story—David Paterson is too erratic and disorganized to pull off a scheme so complicated.

Listen to people who know Paterson well, and it's hard to believe they're talking about the governor of the country's third most populous state. They describe a man who is witty and charming, but stunningly, maybe dangerously indecisive. "He cannot make a decision," says someone who has watched the process close-up. By his own admission, Paterson didn't decide to appoint Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat until 2:00 a.m. this morning, just hours before he was scheduled to announce the pick at a televised press conference.

We may never really know why Caroline Kennedy didn't get the job, but we can assume it wasn't part of David Paterson's master plan. In the words of someone close to Paterson, "he's incapable of the chess strategy required to think through what the consequences of anything might be two weeks from now."

For the sake of New York, let's hope Paterson got lucky this time and accidentally picked the right candidate in Kirsten Gillibrand. The state could use a break from the headlines. "At this point," says one prominent New York politician, "we're making Blagojevich look good."

Tucker Carlson is a senior political correspondent at MSNBC. He joined the network in February 2005 from CNN, hosting The Situation with Tucker Carlson and Tucker .