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01.24.09

How Caroline Bested Blago

Caroline Kennedy’s spectacularly bungled bid for New York’s Senate seat has once again relegated Chicago to second city status—even when it comes to political incompetence.

All of life supposedly falls into either something Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra said. This week it has been Stengel, who looked over his hapless 1962 Mets and uttered the immortal, “Can't anybody here play this game?” What the “Old Professor” would have said about the combo of Caroline Kennedy and David Paterson is not in question. More interesting is what Rod Blagojevich might have muttered. Until just the other day, he thought he had Political Fool of the Year wrapped up. Drats!

Kirsten Gillibrand, a congresswoman from upstate, is the new senator. She is a moderate, a mother, a wife, a citizen and a foe of gun control. All that is either good or merely interesting—I take no position on matters of substance—but the best thing about her is that no one in her family has held political office.

It all began when client number 9—Eliot Spitzer—went into room 871 of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

It was two unelected scions of political dynasties—a true reversion to the mean—that produced a night last seen when the Marx Brothers gathered in Margaret Dumont’s stateroom. Caroline Kennedy withdrew from the race, did not withdraw from the race, was told she had the job, was told nothing of the sort, had personal problems, did not have personal problems, had a spot of trouble over taxes, did not have such a problem, could not be reached by aides, could be reached by certain aides and, finally, withdrew via email around midnight, which as any Kennedy might have told her is a bit late for the evening news. Kennedy showed herself to be, as far as politics is concerned, a natural born voter.

Then she and Gov. David Paterson engaged in a lethal duel of a thousand cuts by leak. He wanted her, he didn’t. Favored reporters got calls from favored sources, although some sources were more credulous than others. The New York Times, for instance, kept reporting that Kennedy might have take herself out of consideration out of concern for her uncle, the stricken senator from Massachusetts. The Times did not have the wit to say that her uncle has had brain cancer since at least last May. Still, it was all fun to read.

This is what happens, Stengel could have warned, when you have people who did not spend time in the minors. Gov. David Paterson is himself a bit of a neophyte, having become the state’s chief executive through the wonders of numerology: when client Number 9 went to room 871 of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington and there trafficked with a 5 feet 5, 105 pounds (165 cm, 47 kg) woman not his wife and not even, if truth be known, Kristen. That man was Eliot Spitzer, the governor of the Empire State and Paterson was his lieutenant governor. Just as relevant, he was also the son of the important Harlem political figure, Basil Paterson. David Paterson is in politics for the same reason Abdallah is running Saudi Arabia.

So what we had for the longest time was a selection process in which an unelected governor (Paterson) and a political neophyte (Kennedy) did a sort of dance about a supposedly done deal that got more and more out of control. All of this, I remind you, was to fill the seat of a woman who herself had become a New York senator because her husband had been president of the United States. And while she acquitted herself well in the job, it was star power—not political acumen—that scared all interested parties out of the primary and got her the seat.

Our tale is now over and Casey Stengel is shaking his head in wonderment. New York has once again bested Chicago, relegating it to Second City status even when it comes to political incompetence. Blagojevich has been bested, a new senator has been proclaimed and her father, thank God, was a lawyer.

Richard Cohen is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.