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The Zany Adventures of (Senator) Caroline Kennedy

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By 11 p.m., Kennedy had resolved to withdraw and called Paterson again. She hung up the phone newly perplexed: The governor, Kennedy said, insisted that she release a statement saying she’d changed her mind and was staying in the contest. “Paterson said, ‘You can’t withdraw, you gotta stay in this thing, and I’ll just not pick you,’ ” says one of her allies. “He seemed to think he was doing her a favor.” Not only would such a statement have made Kennedy look ridiculous, given the cascading media reports that she had already withdrawn, but it would have had the glaring weakness of being untrue.

A Paterson spokesman offers a diametrically opposed version of their last phone conversation. “At 11 p.m., she called back and apologized for being a recluse and told him she was definitely continuing with the race,” the spokesman says. “And we didn’t hear from her again until she put out a statement after midnight.”

Paterson awoke to the bad news and a shifting media wind: that even if Kennedy’s campaign had imploded on its own, Paterson had turned the selection process into a nightmare. Thursday quickly degenerated into open warfare between the governor and Kennedy. A Paterson spokesman claimed that the collapse of her campaign proved the wisdom of the governor’s decision to wait until Hillary Clinton had been confirmed as secretary of State before naming a replacement and that the vetting process had uncovered blemishes in Kennedy’s finances. The pushback soon went even further: Whether out of pure anger at her decision or a strategic need to shift blame, a “source close to Governor Paterson” trashed Kennedy, telling the Post’s Dicker that her personal problems were related to a nanny, unpaid taxes, and maybe even trouble in her marriage—and that the governor had “no intention” of picking Kennedy after her stumbling performance on the campaign trail.

Political operatives who have worked with him over the years say that the “source close to the governor” is often Paterson. An aide to the governor says he “seriously doubts” that Paterson was the source of the Post’s story. Regardless, Kennedy’s camp was furious. “We know there’s no vetting issue,” one of her allies says. “I know what’s in the disclosure form, and up through Wednesday at three o’clock, there had been no discussion of a vetting issue, no complaints from the governor’s counsel. And for him to include the idea of a marital issue is beneath contempt. There’s no marital issue!” Within hours, the governor’s office released a carefully worded statement disavowing the notion that his vetting process had anything to do with Kennedy’s withdrawing.

The next time Paterson was heard from publicly was in a press release declaring he was at last ready to end the whole Senate debacle: He would make his choice known to the world at noon on Friday. Paterson didn’t mention that he still hadn’t actually decided on the new senator. At 2 a.m. Friday, ten hours before he was scheduled to go public, Paterson sealed the deal with upstate congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand and offered her the seat.

There were plenty of smiles as she was introduced in Albany last week, but Gillibrand is widely disliked within New York’s congressional delegation for her bullying personality and unwillingness to wait her turn in the Washington seniority queue. Already Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, of Long Island, has vowed to challenge Gillibrand in a 2010 Democratic primary because of the new senator’s pro-gun stance. Paterson seems to believe that he has cauterized the intramural Democratic fighting. Instead, the elevation of Gillibrand has widened the wound. Last Thursday, one of the governor’s aides called Andrew Cuomo, asking the attorney general to attend Gillibrand’s unveiling. Cuomo, according to a friend, said he’d be busy reorganizing his sock drawer.

Plenty of people still don’t buy any of the complicated, self-serving explanations and rationales. “No matter what anyone says, I’ll think she stepped down because she wasn’t going to get it,” one state Democrat says. After-the-fact claims by Paterson’s camp that he’d never had any intention of choosing Kennedy after her rocky start only made him look worse: If that were even remotely true, Paterson’s allowing Kennedy to remain in the race bordered on cruelty and set her up to be humiliated.

In all the rubble and recrimination, though, there is one thing the antagonists agree on: Paterson never said the magic words to Kennedy. He never literally offered her the job as senator. Was her camp criminally guilty of wishful thinking? Was Paterson right to keep everyone guessing until he was good and ready to decide? Did Kennedy’s self-destruction vindicate his extending the process as long as possible? No one is telling the whole truth, so the picture only gets murkier the closer you look.

Especially at the very center. After tens of thousands of words and uncountable hours of TV time devoted to her over the past eight weeks, Caroline Kennedy ends the most voluntarily public period of her life even more of a mystery than she was at the outset. So what are the “personal reasons” that caused the crisis? Kennedy wouldn’t say. “Is there a part of me that thinks she just got cold feet?” says one frustrated friend. “Sure. But I didn’t see any evidence of it.”

“Most politicians will do anything to be elected and to be in office,” one adviser says. “Caroline, because of who she is and the life she’s led and the sorrows she’s seen, sees life in a different way. Whatever the problem was, it was enough for her to say it’s not worth it. But I think it was something that a normal politician wouldn’t have let stop them.”

The first time Kennedy took control of her campaign was when she ended it. She was never able to integrate her dominant instinct for privacy with her newfound willingness to live in public. There is no more personal issue than trying to transform yourself into a new person. And now Caroline Kennedy, back out of sight, doesn’t need to endure the hassle of trying.


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