Caroline Kennedy opened a new stage in the evolution of the Kennedy Cult when she announced that she wants to be appointed U. S. senator from New York to fill out Hillary Clinton's term. For 48 years, the Kennedys have treated American politics as family property, like a castle European aristocrats pass on from one clan member to another. Caroline, as John F. Kennedy's daughter, believes she's entitled.
Kennedys think that Kennedys should have whatever they desire. Caroline, never having run for office, proposes to start at the peak of the legislative chain -- an outlandish idea, but not for a Kennedy. She knows that voters are suckers for Kennedys and Democratic politicians are terrified of them.
In 1960, when John Kennedy was president and Robert the attorney-general, they agreed that their youngest brother, Ted, should have a job. What could be more natural than that he should take over the senate seat JFK had vacated?
But Ted Kennedy had no experience except in political campaigns, and was not yet 30, and therefore ineligible for appointment to fill the rest of JFK's term. Obligingly, the Massachusetts governor appointed a businessman named Benjamin A. Smith II, who promised to resign the seat when Ted came of age. In 1962, Ted won the nomination and the election with a slogan promising what the voters would get by electing the president's brother: "I can do more for Massachusetts."
In 1969, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne cast a shadow over his life. She was in a car that Ted drove off a bridge. He swam to safety, she drowned. Through some madness, he didn't call the police until after her body was discovered the next day. Platoons of lawyers worked desperately to limit the damage. He was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended, for leaving the scene of an accident.
Ten years later, during his unsuccessful attempt to take the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination away from president Jimmy Carter, he was asked on a CBS interview why he wanted to be president. He had the sense not to give the real reason ("Because, as a Kennedy, I expect it") but the answer he offered was so vague that it was clear he had never given the matter much thought.
Still, he's been a success as a senator, though he's been burdened since the discovery last May of a malignant brain tumour.
His son, Patrick Kennedy, symbolizes the next Kennedy generation. In 1988, when he was a 21-year-old student at Providence College, it was decided that he should become a member of the Rhode Island legislature. In the Democratic primary, the Rhode Island politician who had expected to be renominated suddenly found himself overwhelmed by a swarm of Kennedys who poured into Providence. Patrick stayed in the legislature six years, finished his college degree, and moved up to the U. S. House of Representatives.
He's been there ever since, despite public embarrassments that might have annulled anyone else's career. A struggle with a security guard in the Los Angeles airport, for instance, was settled when the guard was paid a satisfactory sum. Patrick has twice considered moving up to the Senate but abandoned that plan in 2006 when he crashed his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill at 2:45 a. m. Police said he seemed drunk but he claimed that prescription medication had disoriented him. He also said he was rushing because he was "late for a vote," though the night's last vote had taken place six hours before. He quickly checked into drug rehab. Later he mentioned he was treated for cocaine use in adolescence and Oxy-Contin addiction in 2006. After strenuous lawyering, the serious charges against him were dropped and he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs (one year probation, $350 fine).
Last March, he said in speech that he was a recovering alcoholic and suffered from bipolar disorder. He urged other victims to speak frankly in the same way and he became something of a hero for revealing his habits. This week, he supported his cousin Caroline's plans, arguing that she has more experience in public life than almost anyone he knows.
Collecting opinions on the street this week, The New York Times quoted a woman who admires Caroline: "I somehow can't see her as being corrupt." Since Caroline is wealthy, she certainly can't be bought, like the Illinois governor accused of auctioning off Barack Obama's seat. But there are other forms of corruption, such as believing in the divine right of Kennedys.