01/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Culture Zohn : In My Mind, I'm Going to Carolin(e)


Caroline Kennedy's declaration of interest to David Paterson has produced the perfect storm of political controversy, pushing everybody's age, income, gender and entitlement buttons.

But why the vitriol and snarkiness?

I think I know.

We just proved, resoundingly, that it doesn't have to be that way, that you can come from nowhere without a pedigree and get it done. We are liking ourselves, patting ourselves on the back for re-inventing the political meritocracy with Barack Hussein Obama.

Then along comes Caroline to be in our face and demonstrate that it also still works the other way, especially at a time when looking the other way in New York as far as the economy is concerned has turned out to be an utter disaster.

We all know what our version of entitlement feels like. Mine, tested sorely just a couple of days ago goes like this: You've been standing in line at the airport and suddenly twenty people from the TSOA and the GoGo wifi company come barging over and jump ahead of you. Wait a second! Weren't you just standing there on the line? What makes them so special?! Don't you have a flight to catch and they don't?! (When I piped up about this, I was told all airport workers are allowed to jump the lines (like crew) and this is up to the individual airlines.)

But it feels crummy. You feel second rate and stupid and angry all at once.

I do understand the envy, the questions about her hubris. But the snarkiest comments seem to be coming from younger people who don't carry the Kennedy mystique (or baggage) around with them like some sacred totem that they have to rub every once in a while to get their political mojo going. Fair enough.

I read a story in the New York Times that said the kids don't even know who President Kennedy was. Who are they talking to? Forgive me but I don't know any kids who don't know who he was, and if I do, they aren't going to be the decisive voters: if Caroline does a good job and gets to run in a real election, by then they will know who she is.

But let's think about it from the pragmatic, New Yorker perspective. For a long time, at least as long as Roosevelts and Rockefellers and well, yes, Kennedys ruled the planet, New York's senate seats (and mayoralty, and well, just about everything) have often gone to the highest, best-connected bidder. That's our state, and the way it's worked since Lady Liberty held up her torch to light the way to lucre and power.

There was and will always be a meritocracy in tech and finance and basketball. Intellectuals, too, have come to New York to demand their place in the sun. New York is the place you didn't need to be from to be a taken seriously.

Then, too, sometimes we put things on the back burner.....long term, closely held fantasies about what we would do when the kids grew up or we had a lot of money or our husbands and families were willing to give us the room to spread our wings.

Caroline did, it turns out, and it's just that her back burner is the entire US senate.

People can write best sellers when they are over fifty having never before been published and we don't get angry at them: we are impressed and re-invigorated. We think, if they can do it, we can too.

And I remember when Jackie did the same coming out thing as an editor and a civic leader in New York, after Onassis, when she could finally be her own person. We used to call it being a late-bloomer, something we understood and forgave, admired even.

As someone who has changed careers and who let children trump career over and over again, I understand why Caroline couldn't quite get it organized no matter how many Park avenue nannies there were.

Plus others in her family found it easier to step up to the plate and take a swing at it.

The Kennedy cousins are an amazing bunch--you only have to be in a room with one of them for about fifteen seconds to know there IS something different about them--a sense of history, of oratory, of occasion. They are very smart and very passionate.

But that sense of risk and competition was something she was not willing to take on for a long time and I don't blame her. It's also gotten a lot of people in her family into trouble, or worse.

But it's not about her really her good manners and regal lineage.

It's about whether she can get it done for New York.

Yes, I am part of her Caroline's generation, the one that remembers her running around under her dad's desk

And then of course suddenly she was living the nightmare.

But let's take Caroline on her own merits (or demerits).

Her announced platform is probably like most other Dems: she is for gun control, against teens having to tell parents if they get into trouble, was always against the war and wants us out.

But if I were Caroline I'd be petrified. She hasn't been a community organizer: raising money from rich people for the public schools of New York, while worthy, is not the same thing as running a meeting in which competing factions vie for that money. Her elbows are still not calloused from knocking them against the bruising factions of congress or Tammany.

Yet Caroline is smart enough to know what she doesn't know. Ok, having a learning curve in the US Senate is pretty cushy. But it's not impossible. And what does she bring: She is a lawyer, a historian, a writer. And even senators are impressed with the Kennedy name.

Plenty of our elected officials can't get it done. Who's to say what the perfect resume for government is anymore, given that so many in government have turned out to be corrupt liars? Didn't we just have this whole conversation about experience? Experience matters except when it doesn't need I remind those with very short memories about our Pres-elect.

And if your uncle Ted who was a legendary senator and the President-elect and the Mayor, called you up and whispered in your ear and told you now was the moment to come out of the closet, wouldn't you? And won't it help us when the ear-whispering thing works the other way?

And this whole upstate downstate thing? I went to school in Syracuse for a while so I know what it's like to do time in that frozen tundra. If you can speak Manhattan, you can speak Onondaga and Oneanta.

So let's give this whole elite thing a rest: one of the great things about this country is that the elites and the not so elites can mix it up and somehow come out with something that resembles democracy. We're a notoriously forgiving melting pot, or should be for daughters of assassinated presidents who've been quietly gaining the strength to join the team (and who btw have lived in New York their whole lives)

In my mind I'm going to Carolin(e).