Beyond Aristocracy

Caroline Kennedy shouldn’t be appointed to the Senate

What’s not to love about Caroline B. Kennedy ’80 ? From the iconic photograph of her toddler self dancing in the Oval Office for her father—the president—to her op-ed in The New York Times last year in which she endorsed Barack Obama, the inspiration behind Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” has never failed to charm the American public. From first daughter to behind-the-scenes advocate for education to best-selling author, Kennedy has played many roles in the last half-century.

And it seems like she might soon play another one—New York’s junior senator. According to a variety of media outlets, that state’s governor David Paterson is considering appointing Kennedy to the seat Senator Hillary Clinton will give up in January for her new post at the State Department.

But such an appointment would be unwise, and not for any reason concerning Ms. Kennedy’s political experience or character, which are both above reproach. Frankly, if she is named to the position, New York voters and the country will be forced into yet another cycle of dynastic politics, in which celebrated surnames, rather than individual achievements, are allowed to earn positions of authority and through which the integrity of the American political system is significantly diminished.

If Paterson does choose Kennedy to fill New York’s junior senate seat, what would happen in 2010, when she would presumably run for re-election? The odds are that she would win in a landslide, and for no other reason than that she is the last living member of the Camelot first family. Name recognition may not single-handedly tip the scales, but voters would certainly pay less attention to her positions on issues or policy proposals than they would her legendary lineage.

At heart, the American political process is about opening positions of leadership to all, not to a select few lucky enough to have been born into a particular (aristocratic) family. As a nation, we rely on underdogs to revitalize the status quo, and we thrive on dynamism and perpetual regeneration. Ironically, that was a large part of the appeal of John F. Kennedy ’40 in 1960. But another Senator Kennedy—especially a temporarily unelected one—would only serve to reinforce the already daunting monolithic nature of her family name, perhaps overshadowing what she might accomplish in office.

I concede that there’s nothing about Caroline Kennedy herself that should worry or anger many New York voters—if anything, quite the opposite is true. As the author of several acclaimed books on civil liberties and a prominent Manhattan attorney, Ms. Kennedy would be an ideal public servant. But through no fault of her own, she could nevertheless make her Senate seat into another Kennedy stronghold, and a “stronghold” is simply not something that should exist in American politics. If chosen, Kennedy alone will not be the junior senator from New York. In a sense, her entire family will, too.

Compared with the Bushes and the Clintons, the Kennedys, from their political impact alone, might be the best of the dynasties from which we voters have to choose. But the problem is that we have to choose at all; our much-vaunted democractic process should consist of something more than knighting one dynasty to follow another. In other words, after too many years of dynastic politics, this country has to draw the line somewhere. Even with “Sweet Caroline.”

James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Weld Hall.