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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Of Sputnik babies, paratroopers, and senators: Why Caroline Kennedy's "qualifications" are a bad joke

The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched on October 4, 1957, and burned up upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere on January 4, 1958. About mid-way through its effective life, on November 26, 1957, my mom launched me in Lamesa, Texas. And on the very next day, in New York City, Jackie Kennedy launched her daughter, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy and I are thus "of an age" — meaning we're both now 51, and that we're both "of" the "Space Age." We're both tail-end Baby Boomers, but more specifically, we're "Sputnik babies" whose very pregnant mothers perhaps looked for that same unblinking point of light crossing the same night skies, albeit half a continent apart from one another.

Caroline_kennedyI remember watching Caroline Kennedy and her brother John-John on television at their father's funeral in November 1963. I remember being told that she and I were almost exactly the same age. I felt very sad for her, and I've been aware ever since that while her life has been filled with certain kinds of privileges, growing up with a daddy has not been one of them. I, by contrast, was able to celebrate my dad's 86th birthday with him this Christmas Eve just past — and I would not trade that, nor the years in between, for all of Caroline Kennedy's fortune and privilege. She seems like a nice person, and although my politics differ from hers as dramatically as the circumstances of our respective upbringings, on a personal level I wish her nothing but good things and happiness.

But I've been baffled and dismayed that she, or anyone else, has tried to make a serious argument that Caroline Kennedy is well qualified to become the next junior United States Senator from New York.

I will concede that she's minimally qualified — which is to say, per section 3 of Article I of the Constitution, she has indeed "attained ... the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States." I would also agree that the current junior U.S. Senator from New York was not much, if any, better qualified before she was elected to that office. And I will stipulate that from time to time throughout our history there have been many other U.S. Senators, from not just New York but every state at some time or another, whose qualifications were also objectively poor. Some of them nevertheless turned into adequate or even better legislators once in office. These things are not in dispute.

Yet as I've watched and listened to Ms. Kennedy discuss her purported qualifications to become Hillary Clinton's successor during press interviews, I've felt a mix of astonishment, amusement, and pity.

Ms. Kennedy says, for example, "I am a lawyer." That is true in exactly the same sense that I could say "I am a paratrooper."

I haven't actually ever been in the Army, you see. But I own a pair of camouflage pants, and I did take a weekend skydiving course and made — and survived! — one static-line jump from 2000 feet while I was in college!  Ms. Kennedy is, likewise, a law school graduate and a member of the bar in both New York State and the District of Columbia (I suspect at least one of those via reciprocity, rather than her having taken and passed both bar exams, but that's just a guess). But she's no more actually practiced law than I've secured the Arnhem bridge as part of Operation Market Garden. If both of us are being really honest in describing ourselves, I'd say I'm a lawyer, and she'd say she's an unemployed heiress.


In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, however, Lisa Belkin — described by the NYT as a "a contributing writer and author of the [NYT-hosted] Motherlode blog" — makes yet another serious effort to refute those who've questioned Ms. Kennedy's objective and non-dynastic qualifications. The only possible way to do that, however, is to either (a) change the definition of what it means to be "qualified," (b) expand the list of experience types which can lead to becoming "qualified," or (c) do both. Ms. Belkin ambitiously tries for option (c).

Ms. Belkin tries to persuade us that we ought to change our ideas about what it means to be "qualified" by trying to ridicule other purportedly unqualified people who've nevertheless gone to Congress: "Those who aspire to serve in Congress sometimes 'pay their dues' by playing for the N.B.A. or the N.F.L. or starring on 'The Love Boat,' which are all less relevant qualifications for the job than financing city schools."

But playing sports does involve teamwork and discipline, and acting involves communication skills — all qualities that Ms. Kennedy has yet to demonstrate that she possesses. Whether it was on the set of "The Love Boat" or the floor of the U.S. House, Fred Grandy certainly managed to speak without embarrassing tangles of "ya knows" and "umms." And does anyone who's heard them both speak doubt that former Congressman and Sooner QB J.C. Watts could eat Caroline Kennedy's lunch (and then drink her milkshake) in any kind of political debate?

I will grant that Caroline Kennedy is probably gangbusters at twisting arms or guilting vast numbers of rich friends, classmates, and wanna-be Kennedy groupies into donating lots and lots of money that they can well afford. But that's hardly the same thing as actually running even a single school, or a single classroom. Hell, nobody has ever doubted Rod Blagojevich's prowess as a fund-raiser. I'd be far more impressed with Caroline Kennedy if instead of an unpaid no-need-to-show-up fund-raising "job" for the New York schools, she'd actually spent even a few weeks substitute-teaching a seventh grade civics class.

To persuade us to ignore such traditional qualifications as prior public service in a lesser elected office, or military service, or executive service running a business, Ms. Belkin points out that Ms. Kennedy "has served on boards — those of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation — where those who worked with her agree that she was hands-on and not just window decoration." But did she have any qualification for any of those positions other than being a Kennedy? And even as a "hand-on" board member, did she ever do anything but attend meetings with other wealthy, famous board members, at which they all listened to reports and then cast mostly unanimous votes? If you told me she actually ran the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or that she had executive or operational experience of any sort in any of these organizations, then that might suggest that she had acquired some wisdom or skills which she could potentially use as a U.S. Senator. But with due respect to Ms. Belkin and to Ms. Kennedy, there ought to be something more required by way of qualifications for the U.S. Senate than a demonstrated ability to show up and vote "yay" or "nay" on other people's ideas and hard work.


So then Ms. Belkin approaches and perhaps crosses into a sexist argument. It's one that may be patronizing and offensive to women who've actually had both successful families and successful careers outside the home — a category of women which (were they still alive) would include both my own mother and Caroline Kennedy's:

[W]omen changed the culture of the workplace, not least when highly visible women began to leave it. The rhythm of office work — its hours, its demands, its life cycle — is designed for a man, ideally a man with a wife back home with the kids. Ever since the industrial age, career tracks have been built on the assumption that you can work around the clock in your 20s, shoulder increasing responsibility in your 30s and 40s and begin to ratchet down and move over for the next generation in your 50s and 60s.

That doesn’t work for many women, who are apt to want to pause, physically and emotionally, for children, maybe slow down in their 30s, when men are charging ahead, and come back with a new energy in their 50s, when men are slowing down. Someday, perhaps, work will become more a lattice than a ladder — a path that allows for moving up, stepping down a notch or two, taking a few large sideways strides, making your way upward but not necessarily at a sprint....

But this vision works only if experience — we’re back to that word again — is redefined. If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count — even if none of your activities take place in an office, where you enjoy a title and a salary....

I agree with part of this. I'm one of those people, for example, who thinks that Barack Obama's experience as a father is at least a small plus in his thin list of credentials. And I'm certainly one of those people who's impressed that Sarah Palin could address a governor's conference in Texas, fly back to Alaska to give birth to her fifth child, and then resume her work as a public servant after a break measured in hours instead of weeks or months.

I don't think you need to diminish those of either sex who have climbed ladders, however, by pretending that lattices are exactly the same. And I don't think we should pretend that presiding over a family dinner table is comparable to presiding over a presidential cabinet meeting either. But provided that we're still talking about identifying genuine excellence and extraordinary achievement of some sort, then I'm open to considering non-traditional categories in which that excellence and achievement can be manifested, and I'm also open to further consideration of why those categories ought be counted as senatorial qualifications. So let's take Ms. Belkin's prescription on its own terms:

Q: Whether in an office with a title and a salary or not, what precisely has Caroline Kennedy ever "done, thought, produced, or changed" that we should count as a sound qualification for her to become the next junior U.S. Senator from New York?

A: [For sound effects comprising answer, click here.]

I'm emphatically not insisting upon conventional achievements. If Caroline Kennedy's particular genius was that she figured out how to make one 20-count package of Pampers meet all of an infant's diapering needs for six full weeks, I'd be very impressed by that, even though she didn't have an office and wasn't a vice president of product research for Procter and Gamble. Or if she'd done some substitute teaching, for instance, and had gotten every single student in a seventh grade civics class to understand that Article I of the Constitution is about Congress — a datum which Joe Biden, the very Vice President-elect whom she helped Barack Obama select, hasn't quite managed to figure out despite his own law degree and years on the Senate Judiciary Committee — then point that out to me. Just show me something, anything, that she's done, thought, produced, or changed that is genuinely impressive. And then we can talk about whether it's the sort of "impressive" that ought to count as a legitimate senatorial qualification.

But after working up all that righteous indignation (and going out of her way to insult poor Fred Grandy), Ms. Belkin utterly fails to make any persuasive showing that Caroline Kennedy is qualified even under her (Ms. Belkin's) expanded and re-defined terms. Indeed, with this sentence at the beginning of her concluding paragraph, Ms. Belkin practically flees the debate hall: "None of this is to say that Caroline Kennedy deserves to be senator, or that she wouldn’t be better off being elected to the post rather than appointed to it." Well, duh. If that's not a grand-scale cop-out, I guess it's just a wild coincidence that the first eight paragraphs of the op-ed were about Caroline Kennedy at all then, huh?


Let's grant Ms. Belkin's point, gentle readers, that some types of "untraditional [experience should] count" at least some times and in some ways. But let's grant, too, what's obvious even so to anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty:

Whether appointed, elected, or otherwise anointed, and whether based on conventional or unconventional standards of achievement and experience, Caroline Kennedy does not deserve, and is not well qualified, to be a U.S. Senator — no more than either she or I deserve or are well qualified to be paratroopers. An accident of both our births made us Sputnik babies, and an accident of her birth, combined with her family's tragic fate, made her into a sadly beloved American princess. Grown-up princesses who actually govern, however, are only for fairy-tales, and the accident of Caroline Kennedy's birth ought not make her into a United States Senator.

Posted by Beldar at 03:42 AM in Congress, Current Affairs, Family | Permalink


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(1) Xrlq made the following comment | Jan 4, 2009 8:05:12 AM | Permalink

(I suspect at least one of those via reciprocity, rather than her having taken and passed both bar exams, but that's just a guess).

If the guess is correct, it would be interesting to know which one she passed and which one she waived into. If she took and passed the NY bar first, that actually means something. Not much, mind you (I've passed two bars myself, at least one of which is harder than NY's; can I be a Senator, too?), but at least it means something. But if all she did was pass the easiest bar exam in the country, and then get admitted on motion to NY, that's almost no accomplishment at all. [Note that I did say "almost." Hillary Clinton proved that it is possible, albeit not easy, to flunk the DC bar exam.]

(2) Paul_In_Houston made the following comment | Jan 4, 2009 10:08:51 AM | Permalink

Perhaps Iowahawk can persuade you...

Senora Kennedy Is Make Very Good Senator


(3) chuckR made the following comment | Jan 4, 2009 3:10:15 PM | Permalink

The New York governor will not appoint anyone whose politics you find congenial. Caroline Kennedy will probably be ineffectual and that may be your only consolation.

(4) The Ancient Mariner made the following comment | Jan 4, 2009 3:14:19 PM | Permalink

That the very same liberals can argue that Caroline Kennedy is qualified to be a senator who relentlessly mocked, ridiculed, derided and just flat lied about Sarah Palin in an effort to convince people that she *wasn't* qualified to be VP . . . well, that has to be one of the most dishonorable ironies our politics has produced in recent memory.

(5) Donna B. made the following comment | Jan 4, 2009 5:48:42 PM | Permalink

Ditto what The Ancient Mariner, but...

If I've learned anything since I started paying attention to politics, it's that competence, experience, good judgment, honesty, and other good qualities seem to be disqualifiers for being a "good" politician.

Sarah Palin proved herself as incorruptible and seems to be quite honest about how she governs ie, her personal beliefs don't take over her logic in governing.

So while I will admit that Caroline Kennedy does not have the experience most of our politicians do, I don't see that as a problem. She seems to be honest and due to her own wealth, probably not too corruptible.

At worst, she's merely naive and would likely overcome that in a short period of time in DC.

(6) reader_iam made the following comment | Jan 5, 2009 1:29:42 AM | Permalink

Fun facts:

Fred Grandy was also an aide/ political speech writer prior to his acting fame, and before THAT, even, he was David Eisenhower's roommate (he went on to be best man at Eisenhower's wedding to Julie Nixon). He was connected himself, one could say.

Also, he speaks, or at least spoke, Arabic and once co-wrote a play with Jane Curtin, way back when.

"Go-ed" for a lot, did Gopher, in his life and for making it interesting, now didn't he?

(7) Neo made the following comment | Jan 5, 2009 11:19:38 AM | Permalink

You know, I kinda think, you know, that Jackie Jr. .. err .. Caroline would, you know, be a great asset to this country, you know. For sure .. totally .. gag me with a spoon.

(8) steve sturm made the following comment | Jan 5, 2009 1:48:36 PM | Permalink

B: You're putting the cart before the horse, only by first determining what we want from a Senator can we be in a position to determine the requirements for the job (to illustrate, paratroopers are expected to do more than just jump from a plane, and that is what renders you unqualified).

And since I expect very little from my elected officials, I think she is well qualified to do just that.

Seriously, what does one want from a Senator? Do we want them all to be experts on each and every aspect of what affects us, from the economy to foreign policy to health care? If so, I'd agree she isn't well qualified, just as nobody currently in the Senate would be.

Or do they even need to be expert in any particular field? Can they simply be supporters of a particular political philosophy, even if they're simply followers and not leaders of the fight or particularly well equipped to hold their own in a debate? If so, she can probably do an effective job of showing up and voting the liberal line.

(9) notaclue made the following comment | Jan 5, 2009 3:39:24 PM | Permalink

What happened to the old ideal of a citizen legislator, called from his farm or business, reluctantly traveling to the capitol to conduct the nation's business for a few years before gladly going home? Maybe I'm dreaming of a pristine time that never was, but it seems to me that political professionalism has created some of our present problems.

That said, the citizen legislator approach would make more sense in the lower House than in the Senate. However, I speak as a Tennessean who helped elect Sen. Bob Corker, a businessman and mayor. He has not followed a purely political career path, but he seems to have done well so far.

(10) Beldar made the following comment | Jan 5, 2009 4:00:00 PM | Permalink

Notaclue (#9), I heartily agree that "citizen legislators" are good candidates for public office, even in the U.S. Senate.

But bring me one who has a track record of some sort as a citizen. Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg, to pick a couple of names from the northeast, had exceptional success in the private sphere before going into politics. Caroline Kennedy's fortune is entirely inherited, and she hasn't excelled at anything except, perhaps, avoiding the sort of scandals that many of her family members have wandered into. And despite her family's involvement in politics, she has obviously not been a student of them or of government in general, as evidenced by the fact that she's frequently not bothered to vote in New York primary elections (which effectively decide many of the races in her state).

(11) rls made the following comment | Jan 5, 2009 7:42:29 PM | Permalink

Qualifications...bah!!! You don't need no stinking qualifications to be a Senator!! She's just following on the coattails of Stuart Smalley!

"Because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!"

(12) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Jan 5, 2009 10:34:12 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: I'm obliged to you for this post. It's had the salutary effect of flushing out Steve Sturm, a 200 proof supporter of The One, with no compunctions about swallowing larger and larger doses of LSD as The One's lurid fantasies come closer to being reality for the next four years. His prose is a fine sample of the mirth the next four years will provide.

You are quite wrong, though, to say Caroline Schlossberg isn't qualified to be appointed US Senator. Here are her qualifications:

a) the seat being vacated is Hillary Clinton's. While not a native New Yorker, she has worked up a following, a following strong enough to run fro PrezNighStays, a gross act of impertinence.
b) because said impertinence can't be punished by the firing squad (but they've got Larry Tribe working on that, dangling John Paul Stevens's seat in front of him to get the creative juices flowing) the Clinton menace to The One must be removed some other way. Ah, appoint her as Secretary of State. This is in harmony with The One’s idiotic boredom with foreign affairs, and show the world his contempt for Hillary by appointing her. Why she accepted is a great mystery.
c) With Hillary gone from the Senate, her replacement must be loyal to The One. Schlossberg’s warm kiss of The One is sufficient proof of that. So there’s one qualification right there.
d) The nomination must be popular. Here I am a bit puzzled. Schlossberg seems to have a great deal of name recognition with the American public. Why, I can’t tell you. But the popularity is there and is real.
e) The next qualification is from Grubenor Paterson. Making the appointment of Sclossberg will not raise the ability quotient of the Senate, but The One will be in Paterson’s debt. Given the sizable budget shortfall New York State faces, the Grubenor wants all the IOUs The One will give him. This political IOU will be cashed in to cover New York’s deficit without any painful spending cuts or state tax increases.

So there are your qualifications:

1. Loyalty to The One.
2. Plenty of dough to New York State

Those who object to these qualifications are reading more into the word than is actually there. They are reading “qualifications to conduct the public business” or “qualifications that raise the ability or intellectual levels of the Senate” where the word “qualifications” is printed. I read it as, “Looking to promote The One, without actually doing much of anything.” Cynical? You bet. But cynicism is the order of the day, today. It would be less needed if the press was less reverent and devout to The One, a reverence and devoutness that is noticeably absent from other pols. The real objection is to The One’s hollowness and laziness. What, exactly, does The One propose to do after strapping on the sword of George Washington? He seems to have a vision of some utopia, but no one knows what it is. Andrew Sullivan thought it would be a land where gay marriage is legal everywhere. Lots of bitter pills in store for Andrew. It’s hard to say what will be more amusing, the expression on Andrew’s face as The One crams pill after pill down, in the manner of a poodle being wormed, or the frantic bawling that he knew the pills were coming all along, and he warned us all that they would be bitter medicine for true conservatives. Kos imagines a world in which Iraq is abandoned and overrun as expiation for the sins of Geo.W. while Boss Dick & Co. are locked in a pillory and tortured, a production in which Kos will gladly play any role save that of a mute. He too, is going to be disappointed, a cataclysm that can be described as a national tragedy, if the nation is Liechtenstein.
We better get all the laughs we can out of this. The One’s native laziness and ineptitude are going to cause the nation dreadful grief. In the end, he’ll be chucked out as a false Messiah. He got in this year as the candidate who was the best anti-Bush, aided by the inept McC campaign. So why not let him surround himself with his motley gang? Let the nation get a bellyful of The One. Let Schlossberg (and Paterson) run in 2010. The plain people of all stripes will then get to judge the elite judgment. My own bet is that Schlossberg and Paterson will be canned at the polls, which will lead to all kinds of hooey about bitter upstaters clinging to whatever social issue is on The One’s mind at the moment.
I repeat, bring on the show. Tragedy is much more likely from The One’s administration than not. There is precious little the GOP or conservatives can do now. So take the amusement. Better that than Sullivan’s Little Bitter Pills.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(13) steve sturm made the following comment | Jan 6, 2009 7:44:58 AM | Permalink

Mr Koster: out of respect for our host, I'll politely suggest that your credibility would be enhanced if you didn't express as fact beliefs that have no basis in reality. Does all it takes for you to call someone an Obama supporter is their refusal to swear fealty to the current Administration?

(14) Dai Alanye made the following comment | Jan 6, 2009 1:51:31 PM | Permalink

As steve sturm so eloquently points out, in the day of Franken and Obama—not to mention H Clinton—Caroline is at least marginally qualified for any office the nation has to offer.

(15) rfy made the following comment | Jan 6, 2009 3:45:53 PM | Permalink

Another enlightening fact I've gained from reading your blog - I'm in the Sputnik Baby club too (but I never heard the term before). Three whole days older than you. I remember the Kennedy funeral too. Big effect on a 6 year old trying to have a happy birthday.

(16) hunter made the following comment | Jan 6, 2009 5:04:23 PM | Permalink

Camelot Barbie wants her seat, and she wants it *now*!
So shutup, you peons and let her in.

(17) Couvade made the following comment | Jan 7, 2009 8:16:40 AM | Permalink

Excellent - I completely agree. The "entitled feminists" of today are unwilling to make sacrifices or tradeoffs. As one NYT commenter noted, powerful women refuse to marry down. They also refuse to accept professional and status cuts that come with decade-long hiatuses from the traditional workforce.

(18) yonason made the following comment | Jan 18, 2009 7:51:39 PM | Permalink

".. gag me with a spoon." -- (7) Neo | Jan 5, 2009 11:19:38 AM

Plastic? ...or Sterling?

(19) HasItBeen4YearsYet? made the following comment | Jan 20, 2009 1:44:54 AM | Permalink

That's a whole lot of words just to say "She's a 'SPACE CADET'," don't you think?

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