It’s not easy to jump into the public leadership game. It’s arguably even harder for women and other “diverse” leaders, or for anyone carrying the burden of a spotlight they didn’t earn. Most political children go quietly into the political night, despite our fixation on the high-profile exceptions. The easy choice for Caroline Kennedy was to continue to live the relatively safe and private life she had created for herself.
But instead she’s going for it. She’s ready to risk the “dust and sweat and blood” that Teddy Roosevelt so admired, even as the wealth and prestige of his own family kept his political bloodletting to a minimum. She’s ready to rumble, to demand attention in a macho culture of ruthless self-promotion — and has staked out a platform that includes marriage equality, to boot.
I should be cheering her on, I tell myself, and yet I’m overwhelmed by ambivalence. Maureen Dowd challenged us to own the double standard this week (we could stomach W, but not a W who is also “smart, cultivated, serious”?) and lose the fantasy that the U.S. Congress has ever been a meritocracy. Her points are fair, and my ambivalence grows.
Part of it is this moment, certainly, where competence should be king. We may have pulled off the American experiment to date without tapping the best public servants in the land, but the complexity of our current challenges suggests it’s time for a new HR strategy. We can’t afford to give anyone extra points for celebrity (paging Dr. Gupta). Not anymore. We need public leaders with the capacity to lead.
But there’s something else going on for me. Aspiring politicians climb into Teddy’s dusty arena every day, bringing enormous differences in fair and “unfair” advantages. I’m at peace with it. We have revealed little interest as a society in trying to even this playing field. Public financing of elections, for example, is unlikely to ever happen, even though it means that Steve Forbes gets to run for any office he chooses. If you want to play this game and weren’t born into a family with enough political and financial capital, you have to figure it out. No one really holds it against John McCain that he married into the chance to become a Congressman. It’s certainly the path of least resistance.
The difference is this: whatever advantages these competitors brought to the game, at some point they had to play it. They had to find a way to win hearts and minds and votes — and, yes, sometimes glad-hand, backstab and logroll along the way. But Caroline is not asking to play. She’s asking to win without playing. And it means that other dust-covered and bloodied public servants will not have this chance to use their substantial political skill for greater impact. I understand why it makes sense for Caroline and why it may make sense for the state of New York, but I’m finding it hard to get the pom-poms out.