Ron Rosenbaum

My Caroline Kennedy Theory: The Crowd at Sylvia's Got It Right

It’s worth reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s long thoughtful piece in The New Yorker about Caroline Kennedy and her Senatorial bid. It offers a complex portrait that doesn’t try to advance a single theory, but gives you a sense of the complexity of the person and the process and the mystery behind it.

And a clue to that mystery. While I had been inclined, as the author of The Shakespeare Wars to think of Coriolanus Shakespeare’s late play about an aristocrat who could not bear the humiliation of public exposure that striving for public office he thought he deserved required, I now think there was a moment Ms. MacFarquahar captures that may tell us the real story, a story even Ms. Kennedy may not be fully aware of.

The mystery is why Ms. Kennedy seemed to sabotage her bid so relentlessly, turning every advantage she had into a disadvantage, as if some submerged part of her was trying to subvert the part of her that wanted to do it, become a public servant, a senator like her father, JFK.

Ms. MacFarquhar’s sharp-eyed report of Al Sharpton’s remarks about the reaction of the crowd at Sylvia’s, landmark Harlem restaurant that political aspirants make ritual visits to is, is I think enormously relevant:

“Moreover, by endorsing Obama,” Ms. MacFarquahar writes, “at a time when it was not at all clear that he would win the primary, and from Hillary Clinton’s home state, Caroline Kennedy had won the allegiance of a younger constituency on her own behalf.” “This generation salutes her and Ted for what they did for Obama,” Al Sharpton said in early January. “I’ll give you an example. When she got out of the car in front of Sylvia’s, people in the streets were screaming ‘Caroline!’ ‘Caroline!’ ‘Senator!’ I was amazed. Young people. And when we walked in, the people in the restaurant stood up and started clapping. And let me tell you why I thought that was interesting: they didn’t react that way to Obama when I brought him there. When I brought Obama there, people were shaking his hand, but they weren’t standing up and applauding. I was like, Wow, what is this? I talked to them, and people said, ‘No, man, she risked a lot for us.’ And, see, when you did something for people that nobody does something for, and you didn’t have to do it, it hits an emotional thing with us.”

“Wow what is this?” Well I think it’s obvious what it was, it was the love, misplaced or not that JFK and Bobby Kennedy won for their civil rights efforts (I know, I know, Bobby tapped Martin Luther King’s phone and acceded to J.Edgar Hoover’s malign harassment of him; tell it to the crowd at Sylvia’s).

Anyway, reading that anecdote, it suddenly hit me: what she “risked” and why it might play a role in the mystery: this is a woman whose father was assassinated when she was a child because of the emotions he stirred up (whether you believe the lone assassin theory or a conspiracy, it was JFK’s dangerous charisma that certainly played a part in making him a target). And suddenly there it was. As a member of the crowd put it: “She risked a lot for us.”

Now you can argue how much she actually risked by campaigning for Obama, but you can’t argue the fact that some, such as that man in the crowd at Sylvia’s thought she had. A Kennedy making herself vulnerable to the public…

I personally have conflicted feelings about the Kennedys, from childhood hero worship, to disillusion learning about the Mob affiliations and the CIA/Mob assassination plots (“the Kennedy brothers were running a damned Murder incorporated in the Carribean,” LBJ has been quoted saying when he learned about the Castro assassination plotting). And I was one of the first to call attention in a national magazine (Esquire) to lingering doubts about the whole Chappaquiddick story by the locals who investigated it. Yada, yada yada. You know the whole endless Kennedy ball of wax.

But still… the assassination(s).. It had, still has, a powerful emotional effect on my life. Who can ever know what effect it had on a six [corrected]year old child to lose a father like that. And maybe a part of Caroline Kennedy that doesn’t even want to acknowledge itself consciously was reacting like the spectator at Sylvia’s: she’s risking something dangerous in emerging from the protective shell of privacy forever. Following in footsteps that led…Well you know where they led.

And maybe a part of her, almost unconsciously, said “oh no you’re not!” and proceeded to make sure through self-subversion, it wouldn’t happen. It’s not the only theory that could explain the mystery, but it makes more sense to me than some of the others.

What do you think?