Saturday, January 24, 2009

Patterson did the right thing by resisting promoters of Caroline Kennedy

New York Gov. David Patterson is taking a lot of hits for how he handled what's being called the "fiasco" over his naming a successor to former senator Hillary Clinton, the Obama Administration's new Secretary of State. But in resisting intense pressure to name Caroline Kennedy, which included a last-minute inquiry by Kennedy about where she stood, Patterson was doing his job under extremely difficult conditions. Hurray for him.

Instead of being muddle-headed, as he's been portrayed in some media reports, Patterson looks to have shown tough resolve and a sharp sense of assessing the top senatorial candidates' political skills, as this New York Daily News piece shows. Key grafs:

"In meetings, the governor and his aides decided [Kennedy] had no political depth, the source said.

"She had no firmly held views and little idea about why she wanted the job, the source said."

So instead of caving to the pressure from the formidable Kennedy claque, Patterson named a relatively conservative upstate Democrat, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who had won her seat in 2006 by ousting a hitherto entrenched Republican.

While Gillibrand does not have the dynastic trappings of Kennedy, she comes from a politically active family, and, in contrast to Kennedy, enjoys the endless meet-and-greet chores that any politician must embrace. Those chores are often dismissed in the media, but they are a crucial part of the compact that politicians -- good ones -- make with the voting public. Eating a knish in Manhattan or milking a cow upstate does not a great elected leader make, but it tells the public that the candidate does not live in a self-created bubble.

Caroline Kennedy lives in a bubble of privacy. With her tragic family history, she's entitled to do so -- but not if she wants to be the junior senator from New York State. In her audition for that job, she seemed to want to keep her bubble mostly intact, deciding when and where she would occasionally step out of it. This is what turned off Patterson, it looks like. It seems not to have turned off the Kennedyites, including high-ranking politicians who could make life difficult for Patterson, especially if he decides to run, as he is expected to do, for a full term in 2010, beginning with a Democratic primary.

By the time Gillibrand is comfortable with her 99 colleagues in the Upper Chamber, I'll bet most of Patterson's critics will concede he did the right thing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Caroline Kennedy does the obvious thing

The New York Post, I'm sure, got it exactly right when it reported that Caroline Kennedy withdrew as a candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as junior senator from New York because she knew she was not Gov. David Patterson's choice.

The unsourced claims that Kennedy withdrew out of concern for her ailing uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, seems a pretty obvious cover story. Are we supposed to believe that the daughter of Jackie and John Kennedy was prepared to become Ted Kennedy's caretaker?

Throughout Thursday, there was a flurry of reports -- always citing sources "close to" somebody important, beginning with Patterson -- about Kennedy problems ranging from "tax issues" regarding a nanny to the state of her marriage to Edwin Schlossberg. I'm sure that there were all kinds of peripheral issues that could be brought to bear. But there's something far more important regarding the exit of Caroline Kennedy from electoral politics. The uncomfortable truth is that Kennedy, despite her estimable pedigree, showed no political skills or charm when she entered the selection race after Clinton was nominated by President-elect Obama for secretary of state last month. Polling in mid-January showed that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was preferred by more New York State voters than Kennedy. Patterson, who is an accomplished politician, had to wonder whether Kennedy could live up to the challenge of being a senator from New York (think Clinton, Daniel Moynihan and, of course, Kennedy's uncle, Robert).

Kennedy's several attempts to improve her very private, Upper East Side image (which included not voting in many elections) by glad handing with upstate politicos looked contrived. She was not in her element, and photographs that emphasized her strained public demeanor didn't help.

Many offspring of the three politically successful Kennedy brothers -- John, Robert and Ted -- have stumbled badly as they tried to keep the dynasty alive.

Right now it looks like that dynasty might end with the youngest of the brothers.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama's Inaugural Address climbed no peaks

President Obama's Inaugural Address will not likely be mentioned with Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural or John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural, much less Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It was poorly constructed and forced in its delivery. Worst of all, Obama missed his opportunity to embolden Americans to recapture their misplaced sense of national purpose.

Early in the speech, he said:

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.”

By saying, categorically, that the challenges “will be met,” Obama invites Americans to be complacent at one of the country’s most critical moments.

Later, he veers close to what we were led to believe would be the real message of his address – re-dedication to individual and collective responsibility. But he missed the mark with these anticlimactic words:

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

What a letdown! For Obama, the “work of remaking America” is nothing more heroic than building “roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines,” and improving health care.

These objectives are fine, but they don’t address Americans’ need to recover their sense of national purpose, of the kind of collective action that has continually breathed new life into the words of our country’s founding documents.

Obama seems to suggest we don’t need to do anything so basic:

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

But have Americans “chosen hope over fear”? All around us we see numerous examples that tell another, far more problematic story. It’s no so much that most of us are paralyzed with fear, but that we are doubtful – about our financial system, about our economy, about the ability of either the private or public sector to respond to crises that radiate throughout the U.S. and beyond to every section of the globe. We are sometimes even doubtful about ourselves, wondering if we have distracted ourselves from purposeful civic action by clinging to a distorted sense of national exceptionalism, consumerism and perhaps excessive attention to our personal and family lives.

Actually, it was invocation speaker Rick Warren who ventured into this sensitive zone, imploring:

“Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.”

Warren’s message was that Americans must get back on the path to accountability. He didn't match Moses admonishing the idol-enamored Israelis, but he was not mealy mouthed. In contrast, Obama said all we had to do was, in effect, pour concrete, pound nails and computerize medical records.

The 44th President's Inaugural Address didn't reach toward greatness. But Obama will, in the weeks and months ahead, sure have more opportunities to inspire Americans to reclaim the true greatness of their country. I am sure the new President, a quick learner, will seize them.