Caroline: A Taxonomy of Blame

January 22, 2009 11:35 a.m.
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Now that friends of Caroline Kennedy and the office of New York Governor David Patterson seem to be in open warfare, it’s worth looking back at this skirmish on the Hudson and asking what went wrong and who’s at fault.

First, I think Teddy Kennedy — and everyone wishes him the best — seems to have been way too encouraging about getting another Kennedy in the Senate. Poor health or not, should he not have seen that this was not the right niece for the job?

Second, Caroline Schlossberg herself should have asked herself whether this was really the right job for her. Can someone so preternatually press averse plunge into electoral politics in the toughest of arenas? A reporter from a New York paper and I joked, shortly after her name was floated, about the kinds of questions the Gotham press corps would have no trouble shouting: “Do you want to reopen the Warren Commission?”

Maureen Dowd had a point that Caroline was no worse qualified than the other 99 chuckleheads. But while I believe in citizen legislators as much as the next David McCullough fan, she lacked the self awareness to know that this wasn’t the right fit. Not all public service is created equal and a senator calls for qualities — knowledge of one’s state, an appetite for, or at least not an aversion to, the spotlight, etc.

Caroline would have been an excellent ambassador to the Court of St. James in London — nice symmetry with her grandfather who held the post and a good face to Europe. Maybe a good head of an agency. There were any number of jobs she could have held and engaged in public service short of being a United States Senator.Third, you have to look at the Bloomberg circle — consultants like Josh Isay, who led Ms. Kennedy’s botched campaign and works for the Mayor, too; schools boss Joel Klein who brought Caroline into his excellent effort to reform New York’s schools; and others who encouraged this bid. I’m told his wife, Nicole Seligman, was a big booster, too. I’m sure all did so in the honest belief that she’d be great. But they surely gave her bad advice both in seeking the appointment and, to the extent they may have encouraged it, in launching a Hillary-style listening tour to get it.

A listening tour made sense for Clinton because she could immerse herself in the politics and policy of Oneonta and Buffalo and Utica and come out ahead. Caroline was not the right person to do that. Clinton went on to turn her Senate post into a quasi-gubernatorial job because George Pataki was so ineffective. Bring New York’s top restaurateurs to upstate Vineyards? Hillary was all over it. Or forming a statewide association of Little Italys. Or helping small businesses. She was suited to that in a way that Caroline, for all her fine qualities, wasn’t. One could, of course, have said the same thing about Hillary Clinton in 2000. Why should she jump to the head of the line? It’s a fair question but she managed through months of campaigning to dispel the doubters and win handily and be reelected handily. Caroline’s supporters tried to turn her into a Senator almost overnight.

As I mentioned this morning, had she stayed quiet, she might have actually gotten it, assuming that the tax woes that are being reported were no worse than the average run-of-the-mill nanny problem. The push for a third term and now this makes you wonder what’s going to become of his mayoralty.

Finally, you have to blame David Patterson for letting this thing drag on so long. The list of candidates is not huge and he could have declared early on his intention to nominate someone instead of waiting until Hillary Clinton was confirmed as Secretary of State. Only winners here, it seems to me, are Hillary Clinton who gets quiet revenge over Caroline for endorsing Obama and then trying to take her seat and Chuck Schumer, who may be loquacious, but knew to stay the hell out of this one and who will tower over his now diminished successor.

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