02/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Anti-Kennedy Coalition: Radio Ranters and Intellectuals

Whenever a Kennedy runs for office, the tom-toms resound. Her uncles and cousins heard it. So did her father. Unqualified, inexperienced, starting at the top, impatient, dilettantish, haughty. Also inarticulate and afraid of work. Anti-Kennedy clatter has echoed for half a century.

Can wealth and fame help Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg win any election, even in a one-vote electorate? As Sarah Palin might say, you betcha. Or as John F. Kennedy said in 1962, "It's very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair."

Major critics are from disparate groups, radio ranters and intellectuals. In the large Irish tribe of begrudgers, nourishing resentment is a highly valued skill. Thus, any tribesman whose head might bob above the mob is assured of swift retribution. Modern American technology has refined this ancient art. The begrudging Druids were born centuries too soon to find gainful employment on AM radio and cable television. When today's yahoos reach full venting capacity, they denounce money, glamour and all dynasties, including those bums, the Adamses and Roosevelts.

Intellectuals follow a narrower path. They resent the Kennedys because the Kennedys don't need them. Academics and ideologues in both parties brandish questionnaires and litmus tests, which Kennedys usually ignore. So did Ronald Reagan when he ran for president in 1980.

In the late 1950s, a predecessor to the Democratic party's netroots blogosphere was a liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action. "Those people make me uncomfortable," said JFK. The feeling was mutual. Many ADA members favored a third presidential nomination for Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a dynastic figure himself, whose namesake and grandfather was elected vice president in 1892. JFK won the 1960 nomination.

In the decades since, I have seen tire tracks across the foreheads of estimable politicians who opposed the Kennedy juggernaut. In 1962, a dynastic clash enlivened Massachusetts politics as Ted Kennedy announced for JFK's seat shortly after his 30th birthday, the Constitutional requirement for the Senate. This was his only qualification, according to critics. "You never worked for a living," Ed McCormack told Kennedy at a debate in South Boston. McCormack, a nephew of House Speaker John McCormack had served on the Boston City Council before being elected attorney general of Massachusetts.

He was a civil libertarian and a solid liberal, but the reason McCormack was popular in Cambridge was that most Harvard professors were anti-Kennedy. In the statewide primary, Kennedy beat McCormack with 67 percent of the vote. In November, the 30-year-old candidate defeated another dynastic scion, George Cabot Lodge, and has won re-election easily ever since.
In New York in 1964, Sam Stratton, an articulate three-term upstate congressman was the early favorite to take on Republican Sen. Kenneth Keating. Then, Robert Kennedy entered the race. "Reform" Democrats, led by Ed Koch of Greenwich Village, fiercely opposed RFK. On September 1, at the Democratic State Convention in the old 71st Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, I heard Stratton's congressional colleague, Otis Pike, deliver a passionately eloquent endorsement of Stratton. Kennedy won 968 delegates to his opponent's 153. Stratton's strength, far from his Schenectady base, was in Manhattan.

In the 1968 presidential primaries, many "Reform" Democrats favored the intellectual Sen. Eugene McCarthy over RFK. To this day, in some Manhattan neighborhoods, people cross the street to remind fellow Democrats that they were wrong about Bobby or Gene. The same passions and divisions attended the congressional races of Joe Kennedy in Massachusetts and Patrick Kennedy in Rhode Island.

The anti-Kennedy instinct, as opposed to any specific anti-Kennedy argument, is emotional and often fails a test of logic, in New York especially. The Empire State is a triumvirate uniting the House of Clinton, the House of Cuomo and the House of Paterson. Would reviving the Kennedy dynasty disturb this delicate ecological balance?

The Senate seat that Gov. Paterson must fill has often been a dynastic totem since 1964, when New York elected RFK. In 1970, the Conservative Party's James Buckley, brother of William F. Buckley Jr., won. In 1976, a marvelously meritocratic moment intervened. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, son of a saloonkeeper, won fame as US ambassador to the UN, and was elected to four fruitful terms. Moynihan's retirement in 2000 led to another dynastic symbol, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

All four senators were serving in their first public office and had no record of serving in local offices. If some New Yorkers prefer the local train to the express, their golden age was the senatorial career of Alfonse Marcello D'Amato. Public administrator of Nassau County, tax assessor in Hempstead, town supervisor in Hempstead, presiding supervisor in Hempstead, and vice chairman of Nassau County Board of Supervisors, D'Amato was proud to be called "Senator Pothole."

If Gov. Paterson appoints her, what political skills might Caroline Kennedy bring to the Senate? She writes books, which give a clue about her seriousness. In 1995, she co-authored with Ellen Alderman "The Right to Privacy." Although the candidate's interest in the subject derives from a childhood spent in the full flashing glare of paparazzi, the book's hefty chapter on "Privacy and the Press" shows no sign of repealing the First Amendment. She also compiled "A Patriot's Handbook," a collection of poems and speeches about America. Listening to the audio version, I was impressed with her second and fifth selections, John McCain praising a fellow prisoner of war and Ronald Reagan's 1989 farewell address. Anyone who shows that kind of political judgment is ready for a post-partisan America.

As for a work ethic, it is useful to recall how much gumption infests the gene pool. In 1914, Joseph P. Kennedy, 25, became the youngest bank president in America. He went on to make so many millions that his children and grandchildren didn't have to work. His descendants so far have focused on public service, not polo ponies.

If old Joe's granddaughter isn't chosen, she'll still have a life and the equanimity to live it. Diligence and ruthless determination were Joe Kennedy's notable traits. He told his sons to compete at the highest level, but also to keep perspective. "Fight like hell to win," he said, "but if you don't win, forget about it."