Entry from December 18, 2008

In Favor of Senator Caroline. . . Look, folks, we’re going to get someone not to our conservative liking anyway. Isn’t it better, then, to get someone who is less likely to be an effective legislator, such as Caroline Kennedy, formerly Caroline Schlossberg, than someone who is more likely to be one, such as her fellow “legacy,” Andrew Cuomo? On the one hand, such a lightweight in office might in 2010 or 2012 present the first New York senatorial opportunity to Republicans since Alphonse D’Amato. On the other hand, if celebrity trumps all and Mrs Schlossberg is able to trade electorally on her (other) name instead of just influencing the Democratic establishment with it, we can expect her to be a senatorial cipher and non-entity for years, perhaps decades to come. If we have to have blue states, this is how we ought to hope that they are always represented.

But there is another reason why I think putting this Kennedy in the Senate would be a good idea. For it would be in keeping with a trend already evident in the electoral culture for celebrities and would be celebrities to seek elective office as a means not of doing anything in particular but of burnishing their celebrity credentials. The senate has so far not been all that attractive to the Venturas and the Schwarzeneggers, but it is arguably a much more suitable place for them than governors’ mansions. Jesse Jackson Jr. may have missed his chance, but we still have the prospective election of Al Franken from Minnesota and the presumptive Biden legacy in Delaware, now on the celebrity track too, to look forward to. We even hear that John Elway, the former Denver Broncos quarterback, is thinking about running for the soon-to-be-vacated seat of Ken Salazar in Colorado. It begins to seem as if celebrity senators are the coming thing.

Well, let it come. It makes a lot of sense to turn the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body into a locus for the celebrification of American politics that has already received such a fillup from the election of that original Senatorial celebrity, Barack Obama, as our president. Like celebrities, Senators are way better at striking attitudes and speechifying in sonorous sounding platitudes than they are at anything practical. Like celebrities, too, they prefer a moralized politics to one that is for use — and there are lots of signs that we are beginning to prefer them to be that way too. Just look at Hendrik Hertzberg in the current number of The New Yorker, who writes wistfully about all the other celebrities he can imagine being awarded the New York senate seat

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thoughtful and scholarly, would give the new President someone to shoot hoops with. Christiane Amanpour would be a slam dunk for the Foreign Relations Committee. The impossibly distinguished Vartan Gregorian is a one-man academy of arts, letters, and the humanities. Bill T. Jones, who doesn’t need words to make a speech, would make C-SPAN 2 worth watching. A non-dynastic Kennedy, the novelist William, would give upstate New York representation of the first order. Paul Krugman. . .

You get the picture. The point is that Mr Hertzberg already sees the Senate as nothing but a platform for celebrity-style pontificating (“Toni Morrison’s majestic voice would warm the Senate chamber,” he says) and not a legislative body at all. What I want to suggest is that this is not necessarily a bad thing. As political questions become moralized on the model of Global Warming, about which it is no longer possible, in political decency, to hold more than one opinion, it makes more and more sense for the sort of amateur moralizing that goes with celebrity to be given its own privileged forum within the government — to get it out of the way.

Let’s not forget that Hillary Clinton was herself a celebrity senator and only failed to be the celebrity nominee for President because an even bigger celebrity beat her out for it. Now, at least, she will get to be — if she wants to be — a celebrity Secretary of State. Of course she might want to be a real Secretary of State, just as she became a real senator, in spite of her unpromising beginnings in the job. This will not be true of most celebrities. One thing that marks out the celebrity-politician is the emphasis on feelings. Mrs Schlossberg, now Ms Kennedy, citing as her reason for endorsing Obama, also gave a clue as to her reasons for wanting the seat. “I’ve been deeply moved by the people who told me growing up all my life that they wished that they could feel the same sense of hope and inspiration that Americans felt when my father was president,” she said. What harm can she do, I ask you, if she sticks to hope and inspiration and feeling good?

This quasi-constitutional development also has to do with the electoral one of the division of the country into red and blue states. It’s true that this, as President-elect Obama showed during the campaign, is itself one of the things celebrities can moralize about (shame on you red-state “partisans” out there!), but it remains the fact. And it is presumably becoming as much the case in red states as in blue that there are no genuinely political differences but only what all decent people think. It’s just that the decent people there are Republicans rather than Democrats. Thus, we could have red state celebrities like Mr Elway as well as blue state celebrities such as those on Mr Hertzberg’s list. As a side benefit, the House of Representatives might then become known as “the working chamber” and once again resume the centrality in our system of government that the Founders intended for it.


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