Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ruth Marcus Loses It

Ruth Marcus's column today on why Caroline Kennedy should be named Senator for New York starts off trying for some fair-and-balanced by discussing several very good reasons why she should not be named:

I always find it a bit creepy when children follow the career paths of their parents.... even though politics as family business has a lengthy pedigree in American history, I recoil from political dynasties.

For one, dynasties tend to illustrate the phenomenon of reversion to the mean: It's rare that the second generation outperforms the first....

More unsettling, political dynasties are fundamentally un-American. This is not -- or is not supposed to be -- a country in which political power is an inherited commodity. The notion that Caroline Kennedy could simply ring up the governor and announce, or even politely suggest, her availability grates against the meritocratic ideal. After all, even the children of politicians generally take the time to climb the usual rungs rather than parachute into top jobs.

Right on, Ruth. She gets it. Caroline for Senator would be a bad idea. If she wants to attain high elective office, let her go through the rigors of a campaign. Let her demonstrate her competence and let the voters decide if she's worthy.

A big bundle of cash -- see, for example, Jon Corzine, former Goldman Sachs chairman, former senator from New Jersey, now New Jersey governor -- is helpful for vaulting your way over the drudgery of doing time on the state Senate subcommittee on pensions. Ditto other forms of celebrity -- see, as an example, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before getting all huffy about Caroline Kennedy's qualifications for the job, let's take a breath and remember Jesse Ventura and Sonny Bono.

But, again, they all campaigned. They all went through the process. They had to come out with positions on issues that weren't their pet causes, they met the voters, they did what they were supposed to. Yes, they had advantages. All other things are never equal. But U.S. Senator wasn't their first elective office. Even Hillary went through the process. Did she run on Bill's coattails? Duh, of course. But she also did fundraising, and campaigning, and the other things that gave her legitimacy.

So, why is Caroline so uniquely qualified? What makes her the best person to fill that position and represent New York in the Senate at this time?

What really draws me to the notion of Caroline as senator, though, is the modern-fairy-tale quality of it all....The lucky little girl with a pony and an impossibly handsome father. The stoic little girl holding her mother's hand at her father's funeral. The sheltered girl, whisked away from a still-grieving country by a mother trying to shield her from prying eyes.

In this fairy tale, Caroline is our tragic national princess. She is not locked away in a tower but chooses, for the most part, to closet herself there....She is the last survivor of her immediate family; she reveals herself only in the measured doses of a person who has always been, will always be, in the public eye....

I know it's an emotional -- dare I say "girly"? -- reaction. But what a fitting coda to this modern fairy tale to have the little princess grow up to be a senator.

Actually, no. Not if it's by being named to the position with little significant accomplishment in public life. (Yes, she's written a book. Better than nothing, but is that enough? By that standard, Bill O'Reilly is better qualified.) For her to enter politics and build on her family's legacy, by achieving something significant in her own right? Absolutely.

But of all the ways of choosing Senators, and of all the reasons to choose a particular person to fill a vacant seat, "it would make a perfect fairy-tale ending" is one of the worst. It isn't (or shouldn't be) about happy endings to stories we tell ourselves, it should be about the best combination on ideology and competence to get done what needs to be done now. I suspect Ruth Marcus knows better and, on reflection, will come to her senses.

No comments: