01/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Caroline Kennedy: All Entitled, All the Time

I'd wanted to meet Caroline Kennedy -- or, really, not meet her necessarily, but just to be in her presence, to sit across the table from her and look at her. It wasn't a good reason to do a story, but no one was asking and it looked legit: it was 1991, I was the law columnist for The New York Times, and Kennedy had just co-written a book entitled In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action. Why shouldn't I write about her?

Well, there was a good reason, actually. The interview was conditional: I could talk to her alright, but only, her publicists warned me sternly, if I asked no "personal" questions. We Times reporters never accepted interviews under such circumstances. Besides, it was outrageous, chutzpahdich in the worst way. Kennedy's book was news only because of her famous name. It's how she was able to get luminaries like Bill Moyers, Barbara Jordan and Laurence Tribe to blurb it. Moreover, most people peddling books would have died to have had anything about them in the Times. Yet here was an author handcuffing a reporter before he even walked into the room, and getting away with it!

I was star-struck, I guess. After all, I'd grown up with Caroline Kennedy. I'd loved her father, the first president I ever really knew. When she stood alongside her black-veiled mother and brother at his funeral, I was only a few years older than she. So I went along wimpily. The interview was predictably pedestrian; neither Kennedy nor her co-author, Ellen Alderman, had anything remotely memorable or interesting to say. With one exception. One moment in that interview, in fact, has always stuck with me, and I've thought of it often these past few weeks as Kennedy pursues a seat in the United States Senate.

Perhaps because no reporter likes to be restricted, perhaps to live a bit dangerously, perhaps because I thought it might enliven what promised to be a dull column, I ventured brazenly into forbidden territory. In the course of her research, I asked Kennedy, had she bumped up against the legacy of her father and her Uncle Robert, who presided over the White House and the Justice Department at a time of constitutional tumult? Anything in her book touch on them?

It was hardly a "personal" question. It wasn't about her husband or children, nor about her mother or brother. It was germane and respectful and, to most fair-minded people, would not have seemed in the slightest bit offensive. Even so, Kennedy got her back up, enough for me to drop the usual decorum and to note it at the time. "The line of questions had what a famous First Amendment case not discussed in In Our Defense called a "chilling effect" on the proceedings," I wrote. "Such subjects, Ms. Kennedy cautioned, entered the forbidden realm of the 'somewhat personal.'" She did venture a short answer. "A lot of the things that they did, I'm very proud of, but we didn't run into them very much at all," she told me. "It was a pretty long time ago.'"

It wasn't much, but it was the most usable quote I got that day. The only one, in fact. Had I any guts, I would have canned the column, as a protest to this sort of authorial arrogance. But ideas were hard to come by and I'd already invested something in this one and my deadline was approaching. So I just wrote my piece. Like everyone else, I had succumbed to Kennedy's name, was shilling for her book, and giving her a pass, which in its infinitesimal way would only have made her more the way she was, and still is -- a way which, it is becoming increasingly clear, is likely to doom her candidacy.

The other day, Nicholas Confessore and David Halbfinger of the Times sat down with Kennedy, and encountered a more pointed version of what I'd observed seventeen years ago. Times reporters -- as opposed to Times columnists -- aren't supposed to show their feelings. But sometimes, they can't, or don't want to, resist. With a couple of well-timed jabs -- describing how Kennedy grew testy at one of their questions, then refused to answer another when the interview was ostensibly over -- they let the world know how thin-skinned and petulant and entitled she is. And their editors let them do it.

Good for them all, I say. I should only have been so gutsy.