Word leaked a week ago: Caroline Kennedy may want Hillary Clinton's seat in the U.S. Senate. Fifty-one years old, the smart and sophisticated only daughter of a president slain 45 years ago—and heiress to one of the most potent political names in U.S. history—had tended to be public-spirited but famously private, preferring the sidelines of the political world, at least up until early this year.
That she voiced support for Barack Obama, stumped vigorously for him, and became his friend, did, associates say, leave her energized at the middle stage of life just as her children are leaving the nest.
The bottom line: She may be casting about for a second act, especially during a time marked, not insignificantly, by the grave illness of her beloved surrogate father, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Thus it could be that Obama's surprise selection of Clinton for his Secretary of State—a choice that stands to create a Senate vacancy soon after Inauguration Day—could trigger another stunner: the appointment of the first Kennedy woman to the U.S. Senate. The chamber has seen three Kennedy brothers serve dating back to 1952, when her father was elected a senator.
That Caroline Bouvier Kennedy Schlossberg wants the title of senator is by no means certain, and, publicly she's been silent as the Sphinx.
And it is by no means clear that New York's Democratic Gov. David Paterson will choose to appoint her. According to an aide, the two spoke by phone December 3, and with more than a dozen contenders for the job, Paterson this week told reporters: "I wouldn't be able to remember all of them if I tried." Among those waiting in the wings are Andrew Cuomo, the state's attorney general who is divorced from a cousin of Caroline Kennedy's, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney.
That Caroline Kennedy would embrace the rough-and-tumble demands of two back-to-back, high-dollar campaigns—if she were chosen and wanted to stay on, she'd be required to run both in 2010 and 2012—is by no means assured.
Her silence, though, speaks volumes. She's media savvy-enough to quash the speculation, now reverberating around the Big Apple and the world, with a single phone call. The fact that she hasn't prompts one Kennedy source to explain: "She hasn't made a decision. She's committed to the people of New York and is intrigued by the prospect of serving in the Senate, given her family's history there. But my understanding is, there has been no final decision."
As for her uncle, Ted Kennedy, who is suffering from brain cancer, he's not pushing her toward the Senate, merely "providing counsel" as she "works through whether she should do this," according to this source, who, like others close to the family, would not speak for attribution. From a family friend: "If she is comfortable doing it, then he would be thrilled."
Others point out that her silence is not only good manners—the job is not technically open, after all—but good politics. There's even talk that she is being coached not to come across as too eager, letting the suspense inch upward. "I'd be surprised if she didn't do it, " says biographer Christopher Andersen, who penned Sweet Caroline: Last Child of Camelot. "I think all the planets are aligned for the possibility of a political future for Caroline." He reasons that she has a name that is pure gold, an army of Kennedy kin prepared to help, and, importantly, the guiding light of her life, the image of her late father, who proclaimed at his inaugural that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans.
Now the torch could be hers—and in Andersen's mind, she could well be studying the job description, surveying the field, and concluding: "Hell, I can do that." On the other hand, he's not sure "she has the stomach for the nitty-gritty of politics."
A lawyer, bestselling author, and champion fundraiser, Kennedy could have asked Obama to name her ambassador to France or to the U.K. (the latter a post held by her paternal grandfather), Andersen adds. But he observes that there is more to her than meets the camera lens capturing her handing out a "Profile in Courage" award in memory of her father or dazzling the crowd at an American Ballet Theatre gala. "She's a tremendous worker. She has tremendous stamina. In the way that Hillary is kind of a policy wonk, she is kind of a nonprofit wonk." She has helped to raise $350 million for New York Schools, among other causes.
At New York University, professor Mitchell Moss, who teaches urban policy, falls into the opposite camp. He calls Kennedy an attractive woman with brains—she's no Sarah Palin, he quips—and a New York icon. But he can't see this habitué of the Upper East Side taking on two grueling campaigns that would require her to press the flesh in the state's 62 counties, not to mention tasting corn and talking agricultural policy at county fairs, summer after summer. "Getting selected is up to one man," he says, "but getting elected is up to millions of people."
"And being a senator in New York takes an enormous willingness to give up your life. You'd be in D.C. for four days and around the state the other three."
A acquaintance of hers, Bill Cunningham, a former aide to New York Mayor Bloomberg and the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan, remarks: "This would be a totally different stage for her. Of all the Kennedys, she's perhaps been the least political up until this presidential election. You have to give up your private life to some extent to serve, and that [privacy] has been very important to her."
Cunningham points out that the faltering economy makes serving now a particular challenge, and her marquee name guarantees that she would be asked by any number of Democrats to help raise campaign dollars for them. "The state is short of cash. The economy is struggling. Your job in Washington would be to carry the torch for New York and its needs, while there are national issues involving healthcare and the federal budget, and because of who you are, you'd be asked to help other senators. You are really putting yourself into the maelstrom."
But the Kennedy friend counters that if anyone can handle a maelstrom, it's Caroline Kennedy, who has endured high-profile family tragedies and, this friend says, remained grounded, beloved, and a "class act." "Despite being at the center of attention for her entire life—she's grown up under klieg lights—she has never become a diva. She is a warm and caring and thoughtful and nice, nice person."
As for shouldering the weight of family legacy, the friend observes that Senate service, while it might seem like the family business, is far from her only avenue for service. With a 24-karat name and sterling reputation, she can pick up the phone and make big things happen.
The country's democratic traditions notwithstanding, dynasties aren't unique in American politics or the Senate. But while joining the world's most exclusive club is surely a temptation, particularly with a pal in the White House and an uncle poised to tutor her, she'll remain a citizen of the world, whatever she decides.