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Caroline Kennedy: The Accidental Senator Who Wasn’t

Ann Tyler, in her novel The Accidental Tourist, brought us the tale of Macon Leary. He was an author of travel literature who never risked engagement in the world he directed others to explore until acts of cruel chance thrust him into the game. Mr. Leary might have served as a suitable model in our consideration of former Senate contender Caroline Kennedy.

It is perhaps fitting that Ms. Kennedy was nearly hoisted aloft by David Paterson, a man surely as surprised as any at his own ascendance, and a product of the confluence of scandal and fate. While it would have been in defiance of all logic and expectations — most certainly my own — the Accidental Governor very nearly passed over a host of qualified and occasionally promising candidates to give us the Accidental Senator. The political voyeur in me would have enjoyed the spectacle, but that dream came crashing down on Wednesday evening when the Kennedy heiress removed herself from contention.

The process leading up to this surprising announcement was clearly a typical page out of the Hudson Valley, old money playbook. Upon hearing the news, I contacted a friend who works with Hillary Clinton’s Senate offices upstate. She opined that Governor Paterson was preparing to announce a choice other than Kennedy and this move was simply an escape hatch which would allow Caroline to save face.

It has the ring of truth, but stands in stark contrast to public statements from both Kennedy and the governor’s Albany office. Paterson was said to be “surprised” by her choice to demure, and friends of Ms. Kennedy told NBC News that she had been “going back and forth” on the decision for several days. Assuming we were to take them at their word, what does this say of Kennedy herself and of Paterson’s wisdom in deeming her a suitable contender for the seat? Was she so casually flippant about laying claim to a United States Senate seat that she could be laying the groundwork for her life’s legacy one day and then simply losing interest in it the next? What if Paterson had actually appointed her and she subsequently found it not to her liking after a few weeks in office?

The answer may be found in the notably unserious path Caroline has pursued thus far. She seemed to pass most of her adult life in an effort to avoid both confrontation and the family business, suddenly taking note of the need for an American system of government when Barack Obama launched a bid for the White House. Having spent her days in relative seclusion, seeking to ring no bell nor sound any alarm, she grew to be a rather unremarkable person. As Peggy Noonan recently put it, “she had her parents’ dignity, but not their dash. She radiates a certain clueless class.”

Caroline also never truly seemed to solve her “Utica Problem” over the course of her lobbying efforts to grab this particular brass ring, and Governor Paterson might have inherited a bit of that disorder himself had he chosen her. Upstate voters and their elected representatives were already weary of a New York government with a strictly Manhattan pedigree, and a consortium of Upstate newspaper editorial boards were invited to comment on the matter in hopes of enlightening the governor.

The Utica Observer-Dispatch was particularly blunt in their assessment of both Hillary Clinton and the prospect of Kennedy as her replacement. They discussed massive job losses, land and tax tussles with the Oneida Indian Nation, and other key issues which seemed to elicit no interest from either Clinton or Kennedy.

Hillary Clinton didn’t understand this. Nor was fixing New York her main mission. During her 2000 campaign, she pledged to help create 200,000 jobs upstate, but fell far short of that goal. We’ve actually lost jobs since.

We need a U.S. senator who clearly understands these issues — not someone born into the right political family or someone with mere name recognition. We need a senator who understands upstate is a beloved home to millions of people who have deep roots here, and who have grown tired of watching their children and grandchildren move away for lack of opportunity.

Responses from other newspapers fell along similar lines. In the end, I believe Paterson read the writing on both the walls and the op-ed pages, choosing a safer path both for the Democratic Party and his own political future. You can expect to see him name either a woman, such as Kirsten Gillibrand, or a popular minority figure. The governor interviewed Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown for three hours last week, so he may wind up getting the call. No matter who it is, though, the renewed story of Camelot inside the Beltway has been placed on hold yet again.