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Political Animal

Politics Ain't Beanbag

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/24/2008

OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS OR SO, THE term "career politician" has obtained a connotation of disrepute. Now, perhaps that's because the term "politician" has always been laden with disrepute, but the idea that there is a professional class of something, where one has spent a career learning how to do something (hopefully correctly), shouldn't cause such scorn.

There's also the flip side of this, where politics is the one job where often it's believed that no expertise is required to dive in and do the job. With that context, let us examine the budding political candidacy of Caroline Kennedy, who, we are told, wants to succeed Hillary Clinton as senator from New York. Kennedy is the daughter of a senator turned president and the niece of two other senators, one of whom succeeded her father as senator from Massachusetts. And yet Ms. Kennedy has never spent a day of her life before this in, or attempting to gain, public office.

When it comes to credentials, this author doesn't believe her lack of them should be a disqualifier for the job she apparently now wants. She has lived in the cocoon of the family that, for the last three-quarters of a century, has been the pre-eminent political family of America; she is educated; she has written two books; and she has immersed herself in the education-policy establishment of New York, including fundraising, which is the ugliest part of politics.

And yet still, she is considered a cloistered neophyte.

Let us examine a more recent, and local, example. Caroline Kennedy's cousin, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, had never won an election before in her own right, having lost in an 18-percentage point thumping to the irascible yet lovable diminutive septuagenarian Helen Delich Bentley in a 1986 race for Maryland's second congressional seat. Townsend graduated from Harvard cum laude, had a law degree, practiced as a lawyer--and got clobbered. Eight years later, she'd be picked as Parris Glendening's lieutenant governor, as Parris required someone who carried a luster, yet wouldn't outshine him (no small burden indeed.) Access to the legendary Kennedy family fundraising prowess was a plus.

After eight years as a policy wonk in the Glendening administration, Townsend ran on her own. She named the godfather of her child, a family friend with no campaign experience, as her manager, and then picked as her running mate a white man who switched parties two weeks before she named him. In a state where almost one quarter of the electorate is African-American, nearly all of which serves as the core Democratic base, Townsend's tin ear for the realities of Maryland state politics cost her the election. In the final stinging mot juste of the election, her mentor Glendening told the media after the election that she conducted "the worst-run campaign in the country."

Now Caroline Kennedy, with a law degree under her belt and the most famous name in American politics, decides she wants to convince the electorate of one--the governor of New York--that she deserves to be the next senator for New York.

Kennedy, whose book with Ellen Alderman is titled The Right To Privacy, has never gone out and rubbed elbows with her fellow New Yorkers; if anything, she has been sequestered in Park Avenue exclusivity. When she announced (through associates, of course) that she was interested in the senate seat, she then went on a "listening tour" across the state, speaking to other politicians. After her meeting with the mayor of Syracuse, she was bombarded by questions from the irrepressible state media. She simply waved and let aides escort her into a waiting vehicle without answering a one.

She released a maddeningly incomplete list of terse answers to questions posed by the Politico, a Washington political web site, in which she ducked the first two questions: "Will you commit to supporting your party's nominee for mayor against Michael Bloomberg in 2009? Did you back the mayor's efforts to suspend term limits?" And she has yet to hold a full-on press conference or even submit herself to talking to the actual electorate--you know, the people she would supposedly be representing.

New York is rife with plenty of good, smart, experienced Democratic politicians who have shaken the hands, kissed the babies, and made the difficult votes: Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Louise Slaughter, and Nita Lowey. The state's attorney general and former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo, son of the former governor who formerly was married to Kennedy's cousin Kerry (who has been out front and vocal in backing her blood relative). Any of them would make a good, experienced senator.

But should Gov. David Paterson choose Kennedy over any of them, don't be surprised if what we saw in Maryland in 2002 happens in 2010 in New York when she runs for re-election. Politics isn't like a kids' game of beanbag, and sometimes it helps to have gone out and gotten your hands dirty yourself.

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