The royal families in our political midst

The possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat in the U.S. Senate has sparked a debate about how democratic our political system really is. The question is whether we actually have a “nobility” that easily ascends to power while Jane and Joe Sixpack have little to no chance of competing for high office, regardless of their merit.

Kennedy is chiefly known as the daughter of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, president and first lady during (fittingly enough for this discussion) The Reign of Camelot, those thousand days in the early ’60s when he tried to rule the world in a truly facist style while she ruled Washington’s social circles.

Many media pictures of their photogenic kids, Caroline and her brother John-John, charmed the nation as they gamboled around the White House, and the most memorable photos of the assassinated president’s funeral featured them as well. She is only the latest in a extremely wealthy clan that includes the notorious Teddy, the martyred John and Robert, the congressmen Patrick and Joe Jr., the environmentalist Robert Jr. and so on.

Critics of Caroline’s possible elevation to the world’s most exclusive club point out that she has no political experience, and, minus name recognition, few qualifications for the job. During last year’s Democratic primaries, however, she did make several public appearances to endorse Barack Obama, who was running against . . . Hillary, and she can therefore be presumed to be a favorite of the President-elect.

So far she’s shown a marked ineptness in dealing with the media and answering legitimate questions about her positions on key issues. When confronted, she’s ducked, or given lame and vague responses like saying she is “a Kennedy Democrat, a Clinton Democrat and an Obama Democrat.” (Well, that certainly covers it all.) When she recently did consent to give a sit-down interview, she flubbed it in a fashion reminiscent of Sen. Ted’s infamous interview with Roger Mudd when he was running for the presidential nomination a few decades ago. She couldn’t plainly say why she wanted to be a senator other than her family has traditionally been involved in public service. Her awkward and inarticulate answer was fraught with hesitations and “you know’s.” Representing the country’s second most populous state would seem to be too important a role to award it on the sole basis of reflected fame, and New York Gov. David Paterson seems to be leaning in another direction.

But whether or not she gets chosen over more-qualified people under consideration — Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario, for instance — there is a history of political dynasties in this country, perhaps a vestigial yearning for the days when common people were ruled by the so-called Divine Right of royalty.

For instance, the Bush family has been politically prominent since the days of Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, through George the First, Jeb the Governor right down to President Shrub, who was as unqualified as could be imagined and proved it for the past eight years with the help of a gullible electorate and a spineless Congress. Historically there were the Adamses, the Roosevelts and several sons of senators serving in their fathers’ footprints.

Not to mention the celebrities who used their fame to gain office: B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, who parlayed hosting “Death Valley Days” on TV to California governor and then president; song-and-dance man George Murphy, elected to the senate from California over Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, who himself was appointed to the seat; and of course, the Terminator, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, steroid king of Muscle Beach in his weight-lifting days.

What all these people have in common is that they already have lots of money or can easily attract it for their political campaigns (assuming they aren’t appointed to office, thus gaining the advantage of incumbency). And campaigns cost obscene amounts these days, especially in the largest media markets. After Obama’s extraordinary success raising dough on the Internet, no presidential candidate will agree to accept matching federal funds, since this puts a limit on private contributions.

So regardless of how well-qualified ordinary citizens might be for political office, they are at great disadvantage long before any issues are outlined or positions taken — no one’s ever heard of them and they have scant ability to attract large sums of cash.

The answer to this dilemma seems obvious if we want a truly democratic government: modest public financing of political campaign advertising and free and equal amounts of TV and radio time for candidates who qualify for them through some reasonable weeding-out process. (No need to cater to every tinfoil-hat-wearing UFO believer who wants to save the world from space aliens.) No private contributions would be allowed, of course, but all candidates would have a chance for the same level of exposure to present their ideas and philosophy. After all, we already pay for political campaigns even if we don’t personally contribute.

Donations from corporate sources and the wealthy come from the profits made on you and me, and from fat government contracts paid for with our tax dollars. Additionally, huge amounts of money are made by companies leasing the public airwaves, and requiring them to give all legitimate candidates a free and equal voice would only be fair.

Famous and rich people would probably still have an advantage, but they would also have a bigger chance to blow it, as the latest in a string of Kennedys seems to be doing.

David Grant Long writes from Cortez, Colo.

From David Long, January 2009.