Re: Who Plays…Who Pays.

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Good points all, Joe. (Though the fact that two of those Udalls were elected to the Senate this year suggests that we have not put dynastic politics entirely behind us). And I like your idea of thinking beyond political circles for these jobs. Another candidate I might add is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who has been one of the leading voices in this country speaking out on what she calls the “quiet crisis” — a gap between our need for scientists and engineers and the educational system’s ability to produce them.

But I also think it is worth looking at the Kennedys in particular, when you are considering the limits of dynastic politics. This generation (Caroline may prove to be the exception) has inherited the name, but not necessarily the political talent that goes with it. In 2001, there were Kennedy cousins making first-time bids for governor and the House in Maryland, and two more considering House races Illinois and Massachusetts. None of them made it to the finish line. I did a cover story on the phenomenon, and was struck by what Congressman Patrick Kennedy had to say at the time:

Is it noblesse oblige that propels some Kennedys toward elected office, or a sense of divine right? Do they represent the last gasp of an old order, or the first breath of a new one? “I definitely would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my family name and connections,” says Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, 34, who used that name and those connections to shatter fund-raising records last year as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I often joke that I’m the best example of why there should be campaign-finance reform.”

But the rules of the game have changed, even for the Kennedys. Patrick, Ted’s younger son, recalls Caroline’s reaction to the news that he was mentoring two cousins considering congressional races: “Mark and Max coming to you for advice? God help us.” But he says there are some insights that only a Kennedy can offer another Kennedy, and chief among them is this: “Disabuse yourself of the notion that there’s this machine out there that just kind of materializes when you say, ‘Yes–go!’ Growing up watching politics as my cousins and I did, you had this warped sense that that’s all you needed to do. That was the way it was for my father’s generation.”

That ol’ Kennedy invincibility is getting noticeably shopworn–even in Massachusetts, where Kennedys have been on the ballot 20 times and never defeated. Not next year. Two prospective candidates and sons of R.F.K.–former Congressman Joe Kennedy II and his younger brother Max–backed away from what could have been brutal races. (Both declined to be interviewed for this article.) “It’s not there for Joe and the others. There are too many problems,” says a Kennedy friend. “And they’re not prone to taking the kind of chances they would have at one time.”

Who can blame them? No one understands better than the Kennedys what it costs to go into politics. If they seize what has been held up as a birthright, they must also accept the diminishing, suffocating comparisons that come with walking in the footprints of giants. “They’re all competing with icons and legends,” says political consultant David Axelrod, who has worked with several of them. That is partly what is drawing them away from Massachusetts, where, as Patrick puts it, “whatever I did, I would be trampling on hallowed ground.” But that’s only the beginning of what it takes to be a Kennedy in politics today. For this generation, it is as much about carving out an identity as about cashing in on a legacy. And the first part is the hardest by far.