In the Arena

Who Plays…Who Pays.

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I’ve met Caroline Kennedy a few times and she seems like a good person. Compared to many children of the rich and famous, she has lived her life quietly, modestly, in exemplary fashion. She has worked hard for worthy causes; those who’ve worked with her say she is intelligent and self-effacing. Or was self-effacing. You can’t really say that she is now, having thrust herself into the midst of the selection process for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. By doing so, she has displayed an eminently New York quality: chutzpah.

Indeed, Kennedy’s play seems very much of a moment recently passed–the dynasty years of American politics, when Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes (and other, less obtrusive dynasties–Udalls, Cuomos) cluttered our public life. There is nothing new about this. We’ve had our Adamses and Roosevelts in epochs past. But the combination of dynasty and celebrity in a too-hot media age has proved a diversion from good governance. That was part of the message sent by Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the primaries–Clinton was, and is, a fine public servant, but she came attached to a moveable media carnival. There was, I think, a gnawing, somewhat subconscious sense that in this difficult time we needed to turn the page from the carnival years. The Era of Big Strange Political Families was over. (That goes for you, too, Jesse Jackson Jr.)

If nothing else, Barack Obama’s transition demonstrates his intent to launch an era of Real Serious Governance. He has chosen well outside the standard political fast-food menu in some cases–James (OOPs: Steven) Chu, the Secretary of Energy comes to mind. And I’d hope that Governor David Paterson might consider a similar sort of selection–an honorary, non-political (but Democratic) appointee, a person of real, world-class, distinction who would never normally serve in the Senate, to grace the seat until the next election–if he hasn’t already been bum-rushed into the Kennedy coronation. Certainly, New York State is filled with extraordinary people. Here are four:

–Dr. Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health, now director of the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer hospital. He could add real value to the Senate’s health insurance debate.

–Geoffrey Canada has spent his life doing extraordinary work with the young people, especially the young men, of Harlem. He would be a strong, African-American voice for the poor.

–Vishaka Desai, president of the Asia Society would be the first member of the Senate born in India. She would bring great knowledge about the world’s hottest hot-spot to the Senate, plus great expertise in the areas of education and culture.

–Judge Judith Kaye, the briliant chief justice of New York’s highest court, soon to retire.

There are dozens of others such. The point is, that the Blagojevich fiasco and now the Kennedy play have turned the selection of new Senators into a skeevy travesty. The best way to change the story would be go in the exact opposite direction–go completely high-minded.

Meanwhile, in a related area, Morton Abramowitz makes the excellent argument that it’s also time for Obama to move past the era of dispensing ambassadorships as baubles to high-rolling campaign contributors. That’s an another semi-corrupt anachronism we can no longer afford.