01/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Caroline Serious?

Caroline Kennedy does nothing publicly without thought and calculation. Her name is being bandied about as the new Junior Senator from New York State for only one reason. She is seriously interested in having Governor Paterson appoint her to Hillary Clinton's seat. But she is doing it in such a way that if it doesn't work out, she will be able to say that it was all somebody else's doing.

To understand her interest in this office, one must go back to a November day in 1988 when her brother John Jr. was standing at a polling place in Providence, Rhode Island having his picture taken with voters and signing the Polaroid prints. His twenty-year-old cousin Patrick was running for the Rhode Island legislature against incumbent Jack Skeffington, a man who had served his constituents long and well. But the Kennedys had descended on the district with their money and celebrity, and Skeffington was a marked man.

On Election Day, a Kennedy, a photographer, and an advance man stood at every polling place giving the largely working class constituents a wonderful piece of memorabilia. John was six years older than Patrick and he hated what he was doing. When Skeffington showed up, John went up to him. "Jack, I'm going to tell you something," he said. "I don't like being here. I want you to know the only reason I'm here is for my cousin. But I don't believe in it. I don't think it's fair. This is your neighborhood."

Patrick won overwhelmingly that day but the biggest loser was Patrick. He was a shy, insecure young man with no credentials except his name. If he first had had some semblance of a career outside politics, he might have made a different kind of public servant. His weakness is not just his problems with alcoholic and drugs, but that he has never gone through the struggles for adulthood that most of us have to go through and he has had such a limited life experience beyond the walls of Washington.

John wanted to do it differently. He got his political education running George, the biggest circulation political magazine ever, and he was seriously interested in running for the Senate from New York in 2000. He took polls and was ahead of another putative candidate, Hillary Clinton. John's main weakness was that he was too much of a gentleman and when Hillary declared, he backed off. If he had not died in a plane crash, he almost definitely would have been interested in Hillary's seat.

Caroline never would have assumed her high public posture if not for John's death. That Caroline is now interested in that same Senate seat is not some clichéd Kennedy drama of the next youngest picking up the banner of the fallen hero and running forward in the face of the enemy. But she too developed into a serious person, a lawyer, an author, a social activist, a philanthropist. And when largely because of her children, she decided to endorse Barack Obama, it transformed her. When Senate Edward Kennedy and Caroline proclaimed their support of Obama, this was the Kennedys transferring the mantle of their name and glory to an African-American politician from Chicago. The Kennedys are profoundly aware of the power of their name, and this was something I never thought would happen.

I was a volunteer for Obama as were many of you reading this and you know what a transformative experience it was so many. It was for Caroline. She wants this now not because she is going to live somebody else's life but because she is living her own. She is unlikely to get the post because the main constituents politicians have are not the people who elected them but other politicians, and Governor Patterson is likely to appoint one of his kind. One of his aides has been quoted anonymously worried that Caroline isn't tough enough to bring home the goods to New York in a brutal economic climate. That's pathetic. Obama is about a new kind of toughness that doesn't shout and strut. We've had a faux redneck in the White House for eight years, a blustering bully. We need real toughness in the White House and next month we're going to get it. And Caroline has that same toughness.

Senator Edward Kennedy is in the last months of his life. At this moment an extraordinary public memorial is being planned, in its emotional power and political consequence unlike anything in American life since the death of John F. Kennedy. When the president was assassinated, his widow planned a funeral that memorialized all that was good and noble about her late husband. She did it for the nation and she did it for her family. That's the JFK Caroline knows. She's not like the rest of us who with one revelation after another having chipped away the myth of Camelot into a bunch of broken pieces. She brings that noble idea of her father to Washington.

When Senator Kennedy is gone, the torch of progressive politics will pass on to a new generation. It will be a transcendent moment that will profoundly affect the American psyche, a moment even more powerful, if there is a new young Senator Kennedy in Congress.