Why, after a lifetime of privacy and relative normalcy, would Caroline Kennedy want to jump with both feet into the family business? In one respect, Kennedy’s flirtation with the Senate isn’t totally out of character: Relatives say she’s always been politically astute and competitive, just quietly, and that she greatly enjoyed her campaign trips for Barack Obama. It’s also true that Caroline’s curiosity has been piqued by the decline of her Uncle Teddy, but not in the way conventional wisdom has rendered it. Yes, the man who became the closest thing to a father figure after JFK’s death is nearing the end of his days in office, but Caroline isn’t interested in a Senate seat because she thinks it is a family heirloom. She genuinely, cornily, wants to advance the ideas the family cares about, and she knows better than most that only so much can be accomplished through symbolism. An actual seat at the bargaining table is still more valuable. This is also the way in which her choice makes the most sense for New York, and elevates her candidacy beyond her thin résumé and mere sentiment: Kennedy’s Democratic patrician values and her power-elite connections are not negligible assets. And of course, there are all the sword-in-the-stone connotations, the political magic (fantasy?) that a new Kennedy in the Senate conjures.
But the plot has some weaknesses. Perhaps it’s still possible to be a different kind of senator, in the Paul Simon–Pat Moynihan mold: a legislator-intellectual, above and in the fray at the same time, who leaves office with his good name intact. Caroline Kennedy’s desire to deploy her brains and her celebrity on a grander stage, primarily in service of public education, is admirable. But even if her motives are pure, and even if she’s able to navigate the swamp of modern politics, there’d be something sad about seeing her subjected to all the grubby gossiping and money-hustling that the job inevitably entails. We’d be gaining a senator, possibly even a good one. But we’d be losing an icon.