THE BLOG
01/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Two Memos Caroline Kennedy Needs

When Robert Kennedy won his seat in the Senate, he got two memos: one on how to organize his Senate office and the other on what he had promised to do for New York. It would do his niece Caroline some serious good to follow his example.

For the memo on office organization, Kennedy turned to Milt Gwirtzman, who had served as a legislative aide to Massachusetts Senator Benjamin Smith (caretaker of JFK's seat) and then Ted Kennedy during his first year in office. He had firsthand experience in making a smooth transition from one senator to another, and wrote a simple, three-page memo explaining the staff positions he would need, how he should divide responsibilities and what qualities to look for in each department. One of the most daunting tasks was to keep all the balls in the air as they juggled Republican Senator Kenneth Keating's ongoing constituent services requests -- phone calls, in-person visits and an estimated 20,000 letters a month (sure to balloon under Kennedy) -- on topics ranging from Social Security benefits, military academy appointments and would-be postmasters.

In Ms. Kennedy's case, she would be picking up the baton from Hillary Clinton, a member of the same party. The ideal person to brief her on pulling an office together would be someone like Patti Solis Doyle, who took part in Clinton's transition into the Senate. If not, perhaps an Obama Senate staffer? Illinois and New York are both large states with big cities and robust farming industries. Or better yet, someone who worked on the transition of the last appointed Democratic Senator, New Jersey's Bob Menendez.

The second memo about promises was Kennedy's way of adding focus to his early years in the Senate -- and also because they were important to him.

The very first thing he did as Senator-elect was to visit a small town in the lower Adirondacks called Glens Falls. It was a promise he had made seven weeks earlier after showing up for his 8:00 p.m. rally five hours behind schedule. As his plane approached the tiny airport around 1 a.m., he was convinced no one had waited, but when the ramp lowered and the Caroline's door swung open, "the sound of three brass bands split the night air and a full-bodied roar went up from a thousand throats." People in their pajamas lined the streets, and another 4,000 were waiting around the corner for the rally. The candidate, overwhelmed by the spectacle, said, "I'd like to make my very first commitment of the campaign. I promise that win or lose, the day after election day, I'm coming back to Glens Falls." And so he did.

But there were more promises to keep -- so many, that they had sort of lost track of them all. Adam Walinsky volunteered to put together a comprehensive memo. He was a speechwriter on the campaign and was familiar with what Kennedy had been saying and committing to. He spent the three days following the election compiling a thick booklet of campaign pledges that ran the gamut, from the national to the local (most were local).

This is a more complicated task for Caroline Kennedy since a memo on your promises requires that actually you make them first. Therefore, she needs to travel the state and start making a list of concerns a United States Senator can help with. A good model to imitate would be the one Hillary Clinton did: Robert Kennedy's December 1964 fact-finding tour. Over three days, a few staffers and members of the press accompanied him to the far frozen reaches of upstate New York: Niagara Falls, Jamestown, Buffalo, the Mohawk Valley, Syracuse, Binghamton and Rochester. Later dates were added for Plattsburgh, Ogdensburg and Watertown.

The Senator-elect was hoping for something low key, wanting to avoid the appearance of political rallies with large raucous crowds. That effort was in vain since hundreds showed up anyway and a speaker could literally elicit laughs by insisting, "This [event] is nonpolitical." Yet the real point was to enhance Kennedy's understanding of the region's problems, and it did. Which is why Caroline should take it statewide.

Critics are saying Ms. Kennedy's lobbying of Governor Paterson and the state's powerbrokers is evidence of her disrespect for the people, and I'm sure if she went to the people before she's selected, the same critics will call her presumptuous. But a tour of the state is not about the critics or appearances; it's about governance. Preparing herself now will smooth the transition from Senator Clinton and give New York's next Senator a running start toward her new career.