New York Governor David Paterson didn’t end the drama by appointing U.S. Representative Kirstin Gillibrand to the senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. He escalated it. Anyone familiar with four generations of Kennedys in politics knows that when Paterson rejected Caroline Kennedy, the New York governor transformed a major soap opera into a blockbuster one.
At a unity rally for Gillibrand on Friday, New York Democrats — with Caroline Kennedy conspicuously absent and former Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato bizarrely present — contended that Paterson had been blessed with a multitude of outstanding choices. Paterson, more than anyone, understands that for him there was no good choice.
If Paterson had appointed New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo, he risked offending feminists, who, after Clinton’s eight years in the Senate, view the seat as a no-males-need-apply set-aside. If Paterson had named someone other than Cuomo, he risked a gubernatorial primary challenge from the state’s attorney general. If he had appointed Kennedy, he risked backlash from upstate voters insulted by a ticket of Senators Chuck Schumer and Kennedy, and Governor Paterson — Gothamites all — on 2010’s ballot. And if he had awarded the seat to someone other than Caroline Kennedy — hell hath no fury like a Kennedy scorned.
Though Paterson fulfills the criteria outlined for the Profiles in Courage Award better than any other politician that comes to mind (“to choose principles over partisanship — to do what is right, rather than what is expedient”), the chances the Kennedys will recognize him for political bravery seem unlikely. If Kennedy family history is any indicator, rather than an award, dirty tricks, smear campaigns, and sub rosa support for his political opponents await the embattled governor.
The Kennedys have for decades engaged in self-serving party cannibalism, leaving a trail of Democratic political corpses. David Paterson may be the next victim.
In 1942, the Kennedys conspired to defeat Massachusetts’s Democratic nominee for governor because his election stood athwart the family’s interests. Joseph Kennedy feared that a win by the FDR-backed Joseph Casey would kill the gubernatorial aspirations he held for Joe Jr. in the next election. So, he enlisted his father-in-law, 79-year-old John Fitzgerald, to primary the Democratic favorite.
Honey Fitz, who had not held elective office since he was ejected from the House of Representatives in 1919, nevertheless put up a game challenge. Vanquished in the primary, Honey Fitz lived on in the general election — or at least recordings of his attacks on Casey did as part of the Republican incumbent’s radio advertisements. The Kennedy patriarch surreptitiously poured money into the Republican’s coffers helping to seal the Democrat’s defeat. Alas, Joe Jr., who had borne his father’s grudges against Roosevelt by serving as a Jim Farley delegate at the 1940 Democratic National Convention, heroically died in a World War II airplane explosion above the English Channel before he could realize Joe Sr.’s ambitions.
With Joe Jr. gone, Joe Sr. invested political hopes in second son John, who fell short of the Democratic vice presidential nomination by a few dozen votes in 1956. Like daughter Caroline more than a half-century later, he withdrew his name from consideration as Adlai Stevenson’s running-mate before he could be deemed a loser. The distaste in dealing with Stevenson spurred Robert Kennedy to cast his ballot for Dwight Eisenhower — or more accurately, against Stevenson.
John Kennedy failed to become a losing presidential candidate’s running mate in 1956 but succeeded in getting elected president in 1960. As would be the case the next time a sitting U.S. senator won the presidency, Kennedy’s Senate seat became the subject of intense controversy. Rather than resign and allow the process to take its course, as Barack Obama (perhaps to his regret) did, Kennedy refused to step down from the Senate until Massachusetts’s governor appointed the president-elect’s college roommate.
As Time magazine reported in its first issue of 1961, “Kennedy put it on the line to [Massachusetts Governor Foster] Furcolo: make the appointment or we’ll get Republican Governor-elect John Volpe to do it once he takes office.” Put another way, Kennedy threatened to allow a Republican to name his Senate successor unless the outgoing Democratic governor appointed a man who, according to Time, had “no demonstrable capacity to be an effective U.S. Senator.”
But Kennedy’s goal was not an “effective U.S. Senator,” but a placeholder who would step aside once kid brother Ted met the Constitution’s age requirement. Like appointing John Kennedy’s Harvard roommate, the idea of Ted Kennedy — expelled from Harvard for cheating, arrested for drunk driving, and holder of just one paying job (a two-year army stint) in his life — in the Senate struck many Bay State Democrats as preposterous.
When state attorney general Edward McCormick dared oppose Ted for the Senate seat, and ridiculed him as hopelessly unprepared, he subsequently felt the Kennedy wrath. Though still living, McCormick has been a political corpse since his 1962 defeat in the Democratic primary for senate. The rising-star McCormick’s sudden political demise stands as a cautionary tale to David Paterson or any Democrat who stands athwart the Kennedys.
Ted Kennedy prolonged his rule-or-ruin 1980 primary challenge of President Jimmy Carter all the way to the Democratic National Convention despite having less of a chance at victory than Hillary Clinton had at this past convention. He made support for the president conditional upon platform and fundraising concessions, delivered a self-serving speech before the delegates, and rebuffed attempts at a hand-raising unity moment at convention’s end.
As biographer Adam Clymer explained, Ted Kennedy “had practiced, with [Bob] Shrum playing Carter, the stereotypical convention unity picture of victor and vanquished, arms raised together. But on the podium, he never did it. He waved to the crowd, he shook hands with Carter and others, he chatted, but he never raised Carter’s arm. Kennedy was there for two minutes and sixteen seconds, but on television it seemed to go on much longer, a tableau of Democratic division.”
David Paterson may be right in assuming, as Eddie McCormick and Joseph Casey had been mistaken in assuming, that the Kennedy name is not as powerful as those bearing the name believe it to be. Uncle Ted’s Chappaquiddick and nephew Joseph’s daredevil-driving-induced paralysis of a teenaged girl, William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial and the statutory rape accusations leveled against Michael Kennedy, and the drug death of David Kennedy and the heroin arrest of Robert Kennedy Jr. have tarnished the family name. Has all that, in turn, diminished the family’s capacity for revenge? David Paterson, and his Senate appointment, will soon discover.