In one corner stands the favorite, the child of one of America’s great political dynasties. With a globetrotting social life and a résumé that includes seats on charitable boards but excludes steady employment, the charmed candidate infuriates rivals but captivates the press. The underdog, also the scion of a famous political family, has trod another path. A state attorney general who has worked his way up the political ladder, he resents his neophyte rival’s start-at-the-top presumptuousness.
That scenario aptly describes the jockeying of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John Kennedy, and New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo, son of three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo, to succeed Hillary Clinton in the United States Senate. But it also works as a thumbnail sketch of the 1962 Democratic senatorial primary contest in Massachusetts between Edward M. Kennedy, brother of the same president, and Massachusetts attorney general Edward McCormack, nephew of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Americans following the Caroline Kennedy drama are watching a rerun of her Uncle Ted’s rough introduction to politics 47 years ago.
The most striking resemblance between the candidacies of Caroline and Ted is their slender work experience, making them poor candidates for just about any job, let alone that of U.S. senator. In fact, Caroline’s 2009 résumé is nearly a carbon copy of her uncle’s 47 years ago. Caroline earned $1 a year raising money for New York’s public schools. Ted earned $1 a year as an assistant district attorney in Boston. Caroline is the president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Ted was the president of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation. Both lent their famous names to numerous charitable endeavors: she serves as the honorary chair of the American Ballet Theatre, while he served as the director of the Massachusetts branch of the American Cancer Society. Both played prominent public roles in electing a Democrat in the previous presidential election.
The sense of entitlement that spurs such novices to run for the Senate incenses other aspirants. Edward McCormack—whose 300-plus-pound bookie/barkeep father, “Knocko,” had been an integral cog in James Michael Curley’s machine, which used Boston politics to wage family feuds and pad friends’ pockets—rose above the hack mentality he was born into. He graduated first in his class at Boston University Law, presided over the Boston city council, and served two terms as Massachusetts’s attorney general. Meanwhile, the only paying job that Ted Kennedy held before his election to the Senate was a two-year Army stint. Whereas McCormack transcended his ethnically insular, machine-politics background by earning a national reputation as a defender of civil liberties and civil rights, his underachieving opponent consistently sullied the reputation of Boston’s Irish Brahmins by cheating his way out of Harvard, driving drunk, and womanizing. In a debate in a sweaty, packed-to-the-rafters South Boston gymnasium, McCormack dramatically chided his opponent that if his name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, his candidacy would be a joke.
If Andrew Cuomo, the former secretary of housing and urban development and current New York State attorney general, harbors such heretical thoughts of the Kennedy who blocks his political climb, he is too savvy to voice them publicly. The primary effect of McCormack’s barb was to engender sympathy for the beleaguered brother of the president: “To put it bluntly,” a frustrated McCormack worker explained, “our problem is whether or not you can attack God.” Cuomo faces the same conundrum of whether to attack a party saint whom Democratic true believers consider sacrosanct. But that blasphemy taboo has not stopped other aghast New York Democrats from recoiling at Caroline’s bumptiousness. “I don’t know what Caroline Kennedy’s qualifications are,” confessed Queens congressman Gary Ackerman, “except that she has name recognition, but so does J-Lo”—singer/dancer/actress Jennifer Lopez. That’s the twenty-first-century way of calling Caroline’s candidacy a joke.
McCormack’s ongoing taunt that a Senate seat should be “merited and not inherited” rang hollow to some ears, since its speaker hadn’t exactly been born outside the political loop himself. This sense of dynastic politics run amok soon became even more farcical. After Ted dispensed with McCormack in the primary, he faced off in the general election against Republican George Cabot Lodge—whose father, great-grandfather, and great-great-great-great-grandfather had held the same contested Senate seat—and also against independent candidate H. Stuart Hughes, the grandson of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Likewise, Caroline’s off-putting sense of entitlement is somewhat neutralized by the celebrity of her rivals, real or imagined: Chelsea Clinton, constitutionally ineligible though nevertheless the subject of boosters; Cuomo, qualified and connected; and even television star Fran Drescher, whose much-publicized interest in the Senate seat puts the popularity contest in proper perspective.
In addition to eerily similar opponents and résumés, Ted and Caroline both embodied slacker apathy rather than engaged idealism prior to their Senate bids. Contrary to the Camelot mythology of a family obsessed with public service, Uncle Ted and Niece Caroline have often displayed a listless indifference to electoral politics when the family’s interests are not involved. The New York Daily News reported that since Caroline first registered to vote in New York in 1988, she has skipped about half of all elections. Though many of those missed votes involved all-but-predetermined primary contests, they also included the 1994 Senate election in which she didn’t bother voting for the very office that she now wants to hold. Ask not what a Kennedy can do for you; ask what you can do for a Kennedy.
Likewise for Ted back in 1962. The 29-year-old kid brother of the president had cast a ballot in just three of the 16 elections in which he was eligible to vote. Predictably, his brother’s name appeared on the three ballots that he did cast, and in the 13 contests in which Edward Kennedy stayed home, no familial interests were involved. As McCormack caustically asked: “Must he or a member of his family be a candidate for office for him to participate in the democratic process of voting?”
Further, the family reputation for Ciceronian oratory and high-bred eloquence has taken a hit from Caroline and Ted from which it will probably never recover. In an interview with the New York Times, Caroline relied on the filler phrase “you know” more than 130 times. Other words and phrases popular in the lexicon of this author and education activist include “I mean,” “uh,” “kind of,” and “like.” Her painful inarticulateness gave students of Kennedyana flashbacks to Ted’s disastrous 1979 interview with CBS newsman Roger Mudd. Basic questions like “Why are you running for president?” baffled the U.S. senator and sent his nascent campaign into a tailspin. That wasn’t the first time Ted had trouble finding the words. Ralph Martin, author of Seeds of Destruction: Joe Kennedy and His Sons, recalled Ted’s reputation for verbal clumsiness during the 1962 campaign: “Reporters at first criticized Ted Kennedy for his seeming inability to talk in direct sentences: he used a lot of ers, uhs, ummms, and ahs.” Sound familiar?
The most endearing quality that Ted and Caroline shared—their reluctance to seize political offices there for the taking—was squandered when they entered the fray. Repeatedly over the years, Caroline rebuffed efforts to persuade her to run for public office. “No, thank you, I have a life,” read the translations of her refusals. Ted, despite his gregarious and glad-handing nature, didn’t initially envision a politician’s life. As he ran his brother’s 1960 presidential campaign in such unwinnable locales as Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, he briefly dreamed of beginning anew in the West as his Irish ancestors had begun anew in East Boston and the Shawmut’s North End. But his father shattered the dream of a quiet life across the continental divide. “I spent a lot of money for that Senate seat,” family patriarch Joe Kennedy declared. “It belongs in the family.”
Now the family patriarch speaks again, but his name is Ted. And as the cancer-stricken liberal lion glimpses a Senate without a Kennedy, an oddity occurring in just two of the last 57 years, it is not bumbling congressman Patrick, or heroin-addict-turned-environmentalist Robert, or former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen, but Caroline who strikes him as the ideal Kennedy to keep the torch burning.
Despite polls showing greater support for Cuomo and indicating that more New Yorkers regard Caroline as unqualified than qualified, New York’s governor is being pushed by nostalgic party activists, a courtier press, and the Kennedy family toward the one acceptable choice to replace Hillary Clinton. David Paterson would merit a Profiles in Courage Award for appointing anyone other than Caroline Kennedy to the Senate.