Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

January 25, 2009

My Caroline Kennedy Theory: The Crowd at Sylvia's Got It Right

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 6:54 am

It’s worth reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s long thoughtful piece in The New Yorker about Caroline Kennedy and her Senatorial bid. It offers a complex portrait that doesn’t try to advance a single theory, but gives you a sense of the complexity of the person and the process and the mystery behind it.

And a clue to that mystery. While I had been inclined, as the author of The Shakespeare Wars to think of Coriolanus Shakespeare’s late play about an aristocrat who could not bear the humiliation of public exposure that striving for public office he thought he deserved required, I now think there was a moment Ms. MacFarquahar captures that may tell us the real story, a story even Ms. Kennedy may not be fully aware of.

The mystery is why Ms. Kennedy seemed to sabotage her bid so relentlessly, turning every advantage she had into a disadvantage, as if some submerged part of her was trying to subvert the part of her that wanted to do it, become a public servant, a senator like her father, JFK.

Ms. MacFarquhar’s sharp-eyed report of Al Sharpton’s remarks about the reaction of the crowd at Sylvia’s, landmark Harlem restaurant that political aspirants make ritual visits to is, is I think enormously relevant:

“Moreover, by endorsing Obama,” Ms. MacFarquahar writes, “at a time when it was not at all clear that he would win the primary, and from Hillary Clinton’s home state, Caroline Kennedy had won the allegiance of a younger constituency on her own behalf.” “This generation salutes her and Ted for what they did for Obama,” Al Sharpton said in early January. “I’ll give you an example. When she got out of the car in front of Sylvia’s, people in the streets were screaming ‘Caroline!’ ‘Caroline!’ ‘Senator!’ I was amazed. Young people. And when we walked in, the people in the restaurant stood up and started clapping. And let me tell you why I thought that was interesting: they didn’t react that way to Obama when I brought him there. When I brought Obama there, people were shaking his hand, but they weren’t standing up and applauding. I was like, Wow, what is this? I talked to them, and people said, ‘No, man, she risked a lot for us.’ And, see, when you did something for people that nobody does something for, and you didn’t have to do it, it hits an emotional thing with us.”

“Wow what is this?” Well I think it’s obvious what it was, it was the love, misplaced or not that JFK and Bobby Kennedy won for their civil rights efforts (I know, I know, Bobby tapped Martin Luther King’s phone and acceded to J.Edgar Hoover’s malign harassment of him; tell it to the crowd at Sylvia’s).



  1. (Extremely) minor correction: Caroline was five days short of her sixth birthday, not three, when JFK was killed. It was John-John who was (not quite) three.

    Comment by johnshade — January 25, 2009 @ 8:58 am | Reply

  2. As someone, in a family of four, who lost his father, mother and brother successively under tragic circumstances, I fully understand Caroline’s feelings as the last one in such a family unit. I had a chance to see her interact, close-up, with her brother, and their relaxed, unpretentious ease was admirable. As to the Senate bid, I prefer the “clash of humor theory”; David Paterson, whom all the liberal scolds will continue to underestimate, is the edgy devil-may-care surrealist, Rodney Dangerfield; Caroline is the relaxed, fatalistic ironist. Nichols and May. And, of course, when they interacted, the laughs disappeared.

    Comment by charlie finch — January 25, 2009 @ 10:32 am | Reply

  3. Tis McFarquahr piece is just the same old Kennedy propoganda machine at work. The family pushed her forward, thinking “Obama, Paterson, two black guys, slam dunk”, underestimating Paterson’s wonderful perverseness (he is right out of Finley Peter Dunne and God bless him for it! Most Democrats these days are as truly diverse in thought and personality as the Czech Communist Party after 1968 and it is that leaden conformity which Obama salivates at exploiting). The experiment blew up, because Caroline donna wanna go there. So the family trots out sympathetic Larissa and rolls out the “friends” (I mean, Paul Kirk? Where’s Drayne, Sorensen, Vanden Heuvel and Burke Marshall?), highlighting new “friend” (Irish and Hollywood, of course) Lawrence O’Donnell. They did it after Chappaquiddick and they are still doing it. I love ya, Ron, but you, of all people, should know better!

    Comment by charlie finch — January 25, 2009 @ 11:14 am | Reply

  4. Most Democrats these days are as truly diverse in thought and personality as the Czech Communist Party after 1968 and it is that leaden conformity which Obama salivates at exploiting).

    Wow ! That is great insight and I mean it.

    I really feel sorry for her, especially if the Sulzberger rumor has any substance.

    Comment by Mike K — January 25, 2009 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

  5. Caroline Kennedy is not qualified for the job, period. Maybe she took stock, admitted it to herself, and didn’t want to take the risk of failure at the family business.

    Comment by RebeccaH — January 25, 2009 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  6. Weep no salt tears for Nazi Joe’s grandtwinkie…she is a big girl and half a century of being a Kennedy taught her that politics aint beanbag

    Comment by Robbins Mitchell — January 25, 2009 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

  7. The real answer is much simpler; Caroline Kennedy is an introvert. We introverts sometimes fool ourselves that we can do the whole meet-and-greet, give speeches crap, but once it actually happens, it not only kills us, we come off as detached and well, very much like Caroline. In short, Caroline’s actual personality overrode the one everyone else was imposing on her.

    Comment by Joe — January 25, 2009 @ 5:49 pm | Reply

  8. Personally, I think you need to get over your hero worship of a family that truly screwed up.

    People who idolize the Kennedys, as you obviously do, need to grow up.

    And this isn’t said in a mean way.

    Ms. Schlossburg thought she was entitled to the seat based on her name and family connections and that kind of hubris is frightening in someone seeking to ‘serve’ the public.

    Comment by John Smith — January 25, 2009 @ 6:16 pm | Reply

  9. If I was a more cynical person, I might think that Carolyn Kennedy was merely a stalking horse. Someone who can absorb all the attention right up until the last minute, at which point the real senator-to-be gets appointed. Not much chance that anybody is going to dig too deep into the background, qualifications and positions of Kirsten Gillibrand before she assumes office.

    Comment by Anon Y. Mous — January 25, 2009 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

  10. I think its a lot simpler than trying to shrink her. She was reminded once again that life is short, once again, when Teddy came down with cancer, and via the public scrutiny prior, realised politics isn’t worth it. She can make more concrete contributions to the public good in her philanthropic work, and have a life too.

    Comment by Kevin S — January 25, 2009 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  11. I think the explanation even more simple than Joe’s. While it may be true Caroline an introvert, she has no problem speaking in front of thousands of people at any Democratic convention.

    No, I think Caroline’s real problem is she is a lightweight. A pampered and sheltered Veruca Salt, who once exposed to real America, suddenly hasn’t a clue.

    Comment by Tex Taylor — January 25, 2009 @ 7:16 pm | Reply

  12. A sophisticated discussion that doesn’t erase what Caroline’s own words say about her. She’s a bit of a dingbat, she isn’t up to the job of being a U.S. senator, and she knows it.

    Comment by Oy Veh — January 25, 2009 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  13. The women had fewer qualifications for public office than Barry Obama. New Yorkers, you dodged a political bullet.

    Comment by Denny, Alaska — January 25, 2009 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

  14. All these theories are rubbish. Kennedy was as out of her league from the opening bell as any public figure I have ever seen. While the Left went after Palin as if she were some Artic rube, she was positively Einstein compared to Kennedy.

    Comment by Fisher — January 25, 2009 @ 7:51 pm | Reply

  15. Doesn’t anyone remember what happened to Caroline’s uncle Ted during the primaries against Carter? Roger Mudd asked him why he wanted to be president – and he simply could not answer coherently. (Of course, telling the truth would have been politically unacceptable: that it didn’t occur to him NOT to want to be president.) It was the beginning of the end of his candidacy.

    Caroline was simply afflicted by the same inability to come up with an explanation not based on divine right. She was done in by the Kennedy version of the Habsburg lip.

    Comment by M. — January 25, 2009 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  16. What do you think?

    RR — Not much.

    If Caroline Kennedy had been a good deal more on the ball to be more of a threat to her enemies than to her own self-esteem, maybe.

    However, she was no Jack Kennedy, she was no Robert Kennedy. She was an embarrassment to herself, to her clan, and even to the Democratic establishment. She was wise enough, finally, to recognize her limitations and the comfortable life she would have been leaving behind. Everone, CK included, are better off this way.

    Comment by huxley — January 25, 2009 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  17. Nonsense. In my opinion, which may be as valid as yours, she was nudged into running by her corpulent Uncle Teddy on his way out. She never wanted to be a Senator. What in her background indicated she was the least bit interested in politics? She never even voted.

    Comment by jgreene — January 25, 2009 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

  18. I have little doubt that she was put up to this after a family meeting… which only serves to show what a botch the next generation of Kennedys have made of the dynasty, rendering themselves ineligible for national office.

    And it’s amazing to think how different the political scene would be if Hillary had chosen to run in her home state (Illinois, I mean) instead of New York. She’d be president, Obama would be an obscure state senator eyeing running for her seat as it finally opens up… and Rudy Giuliani or somebody would be the other senator from New York, leaving Caroline Kennedy in peace.

    Comment by Mike G — January 25, 2009 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  19. An interesting hypothesis. But my problem is it’s all basically bullsh*t psychologizing. There’s easily a thousand refutations, first and foremost that Caroline Kennedy has been a public figure for many, many years now. Kennedy Family be damned, if she wanted to live the life of a recluse who would stop her?

    Simplest answer is the best one. The reason she wasn’t appointed is that she’s an overly entitled, unskilled primadonna with too much baggage.

    Comment by Robert — January 25, 2009 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  20. @charliefinch #3: I thought that was Peter Finley Dunne. Am I mistaken or did you make a typo.

    At any rate, a mug of Mr Dooley’s finest to ye for your insights on Governor Paterson.

    And then he appointed an NRA “A” to the Senate? Glad to know there is a least one Democrat with enough gumption to do some independent thinking. Please accept my assurances that I would rather deal with
    a real person than with an automation, regardless of party affiliation.

    Comment by Dave — January 25, 2009 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

  21. I haven’t read the New Yorker piece yet, but the

    NY Mag piece presented the most plausible ideas I’ve read so far as to what Caroline’s personal reasons were for withdrawing (realizing the amount of public scrutiny just wasn’t worth it..and that she was at least not prepared for the position in the terms of her presentation of herself to reporters). Unfortunately, this bit is just a blip at the end of a rather meandering piece.

    On his branding blog, John Tantillo analyzed Caroline’s candidacy from a branding position just before the new year–predicting that she would not only be Senator but also the first female President.

    Interestingly, the NY Mag piece quotes David Axelrod as saying (the night before Super Tuesday), “As for Caroline’s endorsement, someone said to me she’s the purest brand in American public life.”

    I wonder if she’s out for good or will throw her hat in the ring again later…perhaps after a lot of work with a speech coach?

    Tantillo’s full post:–a-brand-that-will-be-president-2.aspx

    Comment by sloane — January 26, 2009 @ 1:14 am | Reply

  22. […] Read the entire piece here. […]

    Pingback by Pajamas Media » Caroline Kennedy’s Self-Sabotage — January 26, 2009 @ 1:51 am | Reply

  23. knowing what kind of crabs basket she was going to fall in, she is wise to renounce and preserve the last years of her life, cuz, can’t say that her youth h’s been hapy

    Comment by Marie Claude — January 26, 2009 @ 2:49 am | Reply

  24. “While I had been inclined, as the author of The Shakespeare Wars to think of Coriolanus Shakespeare’s late play about an aristocrat who could not bear the humiliation of public exposure that striving for public office he thought he deserved required, I now think there was a moment Ms. Macfarquahar captures that may tell us the real story, a story even Ms. Kennedy may not be fully aware of.”

    While I agree with the bulk of this article, this travesty of a sentence should never have made it past the editor.


    Comment by Harsh Reality — January 26, 2009 @ 3:06 am | Reply

  25. Why do the blogists, on this and other blogs, refer to Mrs. Schlossberg as Ms. Kennedy? Doesn’t that just re-affirm the message that they/we are trying to negate: that the name is everything?

    Comment by boston — January 26, 2009 @ 5:21 am | Reply

  26. Sorry, contradict instead of re-affirm!

    Comment by boston — January 26, 2009 @ 5:23 am | Reply

  27. The exact same thing happened when her cousin Max tried to run for congress. He bought a house a couple of blocks away from me, never moved into it, spazzed out at a couple of campaign appearances and quit ‘because of his 3 young children’. I feel bad for Ms. Schlossberg for the loss of her parents and brother but people who think she ‘inherited political genes’ or is ’eminently qualified’ live in a dream world. She got thru Ivy league colleges because of her name, got a law degree but never practiced and couldn’t even be bothered to keep her license, put her name on a couple of books other people wrote and lent her D-list rolodex to the the NYC public school system. I’m not saying that doesn’t make her as qualified for the Senate as half of the rest of them but she’s not rolling with driving all over the state and being asked questions by people she wouldn’t look at. That’s for little people.

    Comment by Bandit — January 26, 2009 @ 7:04 am | Reply

  28. It appears that after Bobby, all Kennedys are members of the ‘lucky sperm club’. Without that name, they qualify for Starbucks jobs.

    Comment by Vaughn — January 26, 2009 @ 7:13 am | Reply

  29. I think she had no clue why those polls started falling. I can’t picture the person who would say to her, frankly, “Caroline, dear, you’re not ready to be a senator. I’m afraid it will become publicly obvious if you do this.”

    So, no. I saw no signs that she was subconsciously undermining herself.

    I think she never has felt beholden to the standards imposed on others. She had no interest in winning the job in a normal sense. She was interested in being installed without any hassle.

    Comment by AnninCA — January 26, 2009 @ 8:19 am | Reply

  30. An astute friend of mine, who is a psychologist, pointed out something interesting ten years ago in the aftermath of John Kennedy Jr. plowing his plane into the Atlantic.

    He was a detached observer of JFK Jr. and noted that throughout his life he was quite often in various states of injury. Broken limbs, on crutches, etc… My friend (60-ish at the time) said he had never seen a figure in the public eye so prone to injuring himself.

    He suspected that this was the manifestation of self-destructiveness that seems to characterize the Kennedy family tree. (No pun intended given a particular ski mishap.) Mr. Rosenbaum’s theory about Caroline seems spot-on to me. They’re very careless with themselves and, often, others.

    Comment by Andrew — January 26, 2009 @ 8:29 am | Reply

  31. Someday, somewhere, a Kennedy will do a decent thing. But it hasn’t happened yet.

    Comment by Ken Hahn — January 26, 2009 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  32. I found the Coriolanus reference interesting, as I was re-reading it during the election and I thought of McCain repeatedly…a war hero brought down by the Tribunes (the mass media of their day.)

    Of course, the analogy can only be stretched so far since McCain didn’t join Al-Quaeda and fight against his country in retaliation.

    Still, it’s fascinating how relevent Shakespeare still is to us in the 21st century.

    Comment by BlueStateBilly — January 26, 2009 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  33. Caroline cannot walk and chew gum at the same time and sounds like an idiot.

    Comment by Gil C — January 26, 2009 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  34. I think she was an embarrassingly terrible candidate. If she can’t handle a softball question like “When did you decide to run?” then how could she have handled the harder stuff later? She was imperious with reporters (“We’re done now” she told one) and defensive and brittle ( “Like, you should go write for a women’s magazine)

    She’s never been gainfully employed ! She’s only voted in half the elections (presidential, gubernatorial and mayoral) in the last 20 years. Someone who can’t even do her civic duty by schlepping to the polls like the rest of us peons has absolutely ZERO business running for Senator of my state.

    Gillibrand is a rising star and formidable candidate. Watch.

    Comment by Alison — January 26, 2009 @ 1:23 pm | Reply

  35. I think the truth of the matter of why she entered the arena is a bit more complex. She’s not really much of a public figure. If she wasn’t a Kennedy, she wouldn’t have any of the attention she otherwise has. There have to be dozens (maybe hundreds) of trust fund babies of the same approximate generation who live in NYC, attend the same charity events, and occasionally edit a book (with someone else to do the actual work, for a salary). What drew her to this was that she endorsed Obama early (who knows why) and found that she liked the crowds and the atmosphere. You have to imagine that these things would, at least to start, give her a somewhat queasy feeling, given what happened to her father and uncle. So she starts thinking about being a Senator.

    But she’s a Kennedy. She shouldn’t have to run for office, get her hands dirty, actually get down in the mud and wrestle with an opponent. So she doesn’t want to disclose financial information, is clueless with the press, and tries to avoid saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing and screwing up her chances. This situation was the ideal one for her, if only her critics would have remained quiet. Instead of an election campaign, there could be what amounted to a coronation, and then, of course, when she ran for re-election, she’d have the advantage of being a Democratic incumbent in a largely Democratic state, and probably would be a senator until she got tired of it or died in office. Problem is, once the criticism started, she had nothing serious or substantial to say about it or her critics, just looked basically like the bunny in the highway, waiting for the next semi but too frightened to move. Doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence, does it? I think her reaction to the whole issue shows she wasn’t really qualified to be a senator anyway (which a glance over her resume would have shown any reasonable person in the first place). At least Hillary was *married* to someone important. Six-year-olds don’t have much chance to have their father’s job skills rub off on them.

    Comment by DavidN — January 26, 2009 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

  36. Caroline has one thing that Pelosi, Reid, Hillary, Bubba and just about every politician but Obama, Paterson and McCain lack: wit

    Comment by charlie finch — January 26, 2009 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  37. How kind, sensitive, analytical, forgiving and thoughtful of Ron Rosenbaum to write all that junk. WHAT I KNOW is that no male who had behaved as Caroline Kennedy did would receive the generous forgivness of Mr. Rosenbaum. A whole different attitude would prevail. Caroline Kennedy, good riddance. Too bad we’re still stuck with Rosenbaum.

    Comment by TomT in SF — January 27, 2009 @ 12:41 am | Reply

  38. your claim that the assassination of JFK was somehow a result of his charisma. However his assassin first attempted to murder an anti-communist ex-genera, who had little or no charisma. His motivation for his actions seemed to be violent anti-capitalism, and hatred for those opposing Fidel Castro. What on earth did that have to do with JFK’s charisma?
    Robert was assassinated by a Palestinian terrorist for his pro-Israel position. Perhaps that was influenced by Robert’s charisma.

    Comment by daniel — January 27, 2009 @ 5:56 am | Reply

  39. You’re overthinking this, Mr. Rosenbaum.
    Caroline is a non-entity who has never done anything but be a Kennedy. If she had run with her real name, Schlossberg, I would have had a lot more respect for her. But then, if she had done that she wouldn’t be so incompetent, would she?

    Comment by james — January 27, 2009 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  40. “…but gives you a sense of the complexity of the person…”

    COMPLEXITY? You know? know. Nah. I’m thinking SIMPLE.Very simple.

    Comment by Craig — January 27, 2009 @ 8:59 am | Reply

  41. She isn’t charismatic. She isn’t articulate. She isn’t brilliant. Politically, she isn’t anything much other than a rich self-impressed “name.

    Comment by Elle — January 27, 2009 @ 9:28 am | Reply

  42. All I can think to say is thank you Ms. Kennedy for being so unprepared for the spotlight that you have now effectively negated any further attempt to hold publc office. With 1/10 the prep that Obama received, Caroline would have been another scumbag Kennedy in office and trying to destroy our country. Good riddance!

    Comment by WestWright — January 27, 2009 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  43. Maybe someone told her to wait for Teddy’s seat? Perhaps he will not run again.

    [this was not my idea, it was dd’s]

    Comment by LindaK — January 27, 2009 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  44. Dang Bubba she cannot do any where near as bad a job as AL FRANKEN will do.
    Besides she is not a “real clown” like he is.

    Comment by barry 0351 — January 28, 2009 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

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