January
5th 2009
Kennedy and aristocracy, Palin and motherhood, and the “trashing” of Hillary Clinton

Posted under: American history, class, Gender, Intersectionality, nepotism, race, women's history

Speaking of American aristocracy and connections, go read Tina Brown on Caroline Kennedy.  “Why now?” seems to be the question everyone is asking, and Kennedy has been utterly ineffectual in answering that question with her Upper East Side-inflected, dispassionate Locust Valley Lockjaw.  It’s all about class, baby:

I  have my own theory of why Caroline wants it—or, at least, why she suddenly emerged from her Upper East Side walk-in closet after 51 years.

Her default state of mind is captured by that affectless voice we hear on the AP tape and its self-defeating y’knows—dozens of them in less than two and a half minutes. To a British ear, it’s the same low-energy stance of the younger generation of the Royal Family or the grander British aristocracy—which, in American terms, is exactly what she is.

Take a tour of a British stately home with the laid-back heir or heiress to all the Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses on the satin walls (“This is the Red Room, yah, where, y’know, the Duke of Marlborough was, I dunno, like arrested, we just roller skate here now”) and you will experience the same gusts of disinterest that Caroline [has displayed recently.]

Self-made woman Brown isn’t buying this:

Caroline’s whole demeanor, with its combination of slouchiness and snippiness (also very royal) when her rank is challenged (“Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?…I thought you were the crack political team here”), proclaims the sad truth of her life: that being the heir to a legacy fraught with so much tragedy is a heavy-hearted chore—especially when you have no real visceral feel for the spirit that forged it. All those meetings with the great and the good at the Kennedy Library. All those requests from new biographers for interviews to turn down. All those battening social climbers, from as early as kindergarten, when the play-dates were about the moms who wanted to meet Jackie. All the lies—or, worse, truths—written about your family. It was, y’know, draining.

What would bring her out of her role as the reluctant conservator of her father’s memory?  Why, Clinton Derangement Syndrome, of course, and the notion that the (supposedly) tacky and ambitious Clintons might cement their dominance of the Democratic Party!

But something happened last January as Caroline was pushed by her uncle Teddy to come out for Obama. The Kennedys, blindsided by the success of pea-picking, penny-ante, polyester-wearing provincials like the Carters and the Clintons, were never all that delighted when Bill Clinton’s wife commandeered RFK’s old Senate seat. Keeping Hillary out of the White House pulled Caroline off the sidelines as much as enthusiasm for Obama, who so shrewdly and assiduously courted the Kennedy blessing. Some of Caroline’s veiled dislike of Hillary was perhaps also vigor envy. No self-doubt in Hillary. No fear of the fight.

Strangely, Brown writes at the conclusion of her article that “I have to admit I’d love to see Princess Caroline get the seat just to watch that transformation. Perhaps that’s what the governor is betting on.”  Here, of course, I disagree.  For Brown, who is wealthy and has no social needs, the next U.S. Senator from New York can be just entertainment.  But for actual New Yorkers, most of whom who are not wealthy and many of whom have pressing needs for health care, day care, elder care, assistance with disabled children and adults, social security, AFDC, food stamps, assistance with their home heating, it will matter.  I just really, y’know hope that Governor Patterson keeps that, y’know, foremost in his mind when he, y’know makes up his mind.

Y’know?

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Wurtzel puts the smackdown on Kennedy and the comparison some have made of Kennedy and Sarah Palin.  Wurtzel also puts the kibosh on Lisa Belkin’s notion that Kennedy is just another mommy-tracker trying to opt back in

It is, simply, impossible to take a timeout to raise kids and still compete in a man’s world.

Palin, to her credit, understood this. After a couple of days of maternity leave when her special-needs baby was born last year, she was back in Anchorage, running Alaska. Powerful female friends of mine with kids who maintain a high position in a man’s world all did the same thing: brief leave and back to the grinder; they didn’t want office politics and the forward propulsion of time itself—time the avenger—to put them out to pasture. For all the crap talk of “choice feminism”—whatever the hell that means—we are never going to feminize the world. Women who want to succeed pretty much have to work as long and as hard as men typically do, and that’s that. What does Kennedy know of this hellishness? She hasn’t held a paid position since her children were born, nor did she have a proper job even before that.

Kennedy is entering the political fray under exceptional circumstances: she’s a former first daughter, and her family functions as American royalty. No other women with less blue blood could even attempt to get away with what she seems to in fact be getting away with. This is not sexism; this is reality.

Hillary Clinton, even with her upper middle-class Chicago childhood and her degrees from Wellesley and Yale, just doesn’t cut it as an aristocrat like to-the-mannermanor-born Kennedy.  Her ambition, her energy, her skills–how terribly middle class, or worse, grasping.  I’m reminded of a great essay by Ann DuCille in a collection called Birth of a Nation’hood:  Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case (1997).  In her essay, “The Unbearable Darkness of Being:  ‘Fresh’ Thoughts on Race, Sex, and the Simpsons,” DuCille writes about what she calls the “browning of [Simpson's] white ex-wife, Nicole:”

Like many who followed and commented on the trial, I have been known to speculate that had the murder victim been the black ex-wife instead of the white one, there would have been far less media attention and public fascination.  Here, I want to advance a rather different theory:  I want to argue the relative irrelevance of Nicole Simpson as a white woman.  I want to suggest that although her marriage to a black man in possession of a great fortune elevated her social and economic standing, it also blackened her and robbed her of any true claim to the cult of true white womanhood or to favorite-daughter status (p. 296).

Just as Nicole Simpson was “browned” by her marriage to O.J., perhaps Hillary Clinton was similarly (white) “trashed” by her marriage to Bill, the fatherless boy from Arkansas, and the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency elicited the same disgust the Villagers have for non-aristocrats who are nevertheless popular and successful.  (Especially if they’re popular and successful!)  Although Caroline Kennedy married a Member of the Tribe, her blood connections are overpoweringly dominant, and moreover are signaled by the fact that she never took her husband’s name.  Hillary Clinton–well, one of her big problems was always that she was a Clinton, right?  And what kind of North side of Chicago and Wellesley girl would let herself fall for trash like Bill Clinton?

(For some reason, I can’t find my copy of Birth of a Nation’hood–if any of you reading out there borrowed it from me, can I have it back, please?)

18 Comments »

18 Responses to “Kennedy and aristocracy, Palin and motherhood, and the “trashing” of Hillary Clinton”

  1. Knitting Clio on 05 Jan 2009 at 11:59 am #

    Actually, I found Belkin’s article very persuasive. Both Brown and Wurtzel, on the other hand, sound incredibly petty.

  2. New Kid on the Hallway on 05 Jan 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    I’m kind of permanently stuck in the past, I think (danger of being a historian!), because it’s so weird to think of the Kennedys as American royalty. I mean, I know they are, but I can’t help think back to the days of “no dogs or Irish.” I guess it doesn’t take that long to become royalty in the US.

    (It’s “to the manor born,” BTW.)

    What’s kind of interesting about this is that I don’t really think of Hillary as going by “Clinton” until Bill’s presidential run – she seems to have hung on to “Rodham” for a pretty long time. So the taking/not taking names thing, well, that’s complicated.

    I also wonder if this is necessarily an American aristocracy thing as much as it’s a NYC thing (or a mixture of both, I guess). I do get the sense sometimes that native NYC-ers are pretty exclusive and don’t like outsiders coming in to run things (this doesn’t function separately from class, of course, but I think it is distinct).

    (I should add that growing up in Massachusetts tends to cement a fondness for the Kennedys, although I do think Caroline appearing out of nowhere and being appointed senator would be…. odd.)

  3. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    Knitting Clio–you don’t think (with apologies to the late Ann Richards) that Caroline Kennedy was “born on third base” and is acting like she hit a triple? She’s never worked, so she never “opted out” of anything!

    New Kid–thanks for the correction (see above)–since American aristocrats don’t have manors proper, I must have been confused. (Most don’t have manners either, I suppose!) HRC was just HR until 1992, but she gradually seemed to drop the Rodham in the 1990s so that she was just “Hillary Clinton” by her Senate run in 2000. My main point is that she is strongly identified with her husband, whereas Kennedy is not (as she is strongly identified more as a Kennedy).

    Interesting thoughts on New York–although I don’t get the sense that CK is really thought of as an “insider.” But–anything can happen, right? (Look at the clown they foisted on us in my state!)

  4. cgeye on 05 Jan 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    Y’know, Historiann, ain’t it peculiar that I had to hear from you that Senator Bennet was the son of a NPR chief… especially when I had KCFR on *all frakking weekend*.

    Don’t reporters need to signal that potential conflict-of-interest anymore? Sheesh.

    We will be blessed if the Blue Dogs postpone their spine-ectomy of Bennet until he’s made one or two good votes for Coloradans, but I’m not holding my breath….

  5. ej on 05 Jan 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    While I’m sure most people would have acknowledged that CK wouldn’t be in the position that she is (as a potential appointee) without the family name, I do think they would have been inclined towards benevolent acceptance if she had performed better in the past few weeks (right or wrong). I think the You Tube stuff is a bit mean spirited, but she needs to be prepared for more of the same if she’s going to run in 2010. The media has been very kind to her so far, but I wonder if she’s really capable of running a successful campaign when so far, she’s been fairly uninspiring.

    I think HRC (or HC) changed a lot of minds because she had to win that seat, in spite of the odds against her. She not only earned the respect of those who voted for her, but that of the other members of the Senate as well, which must be key to having any impact once you’re in office. I wonder what the reception for CK will be?

  6. Emma on 05 Jan 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    “I wonder what the reception for CK will be?”

    Avuncular paternalism.

  7. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 4:03 pm #

    Good instincts, Emma. ej’s right about her abysmal performance, so it doesn’t seem to me that she’d deserve much more. (She of course will be the beneficiary of tremendous good will from other Senators, but that’s not the same as taking her seriously, so again, I’m completely mystified by the argument that she’ll be so incredibly connected and that that’s what the people of New York need.)

    I don’t think the YouTube video buzzing her every time she said “y’know” is “mean spirited”–they’re mocking something stupid she actually said (over and over again), they’re not manufacturing ridiculousness like the so-called “Dean Scream” by playing it over and over again. The video also does not attack her for her wardrobe, wrinkles, legs, clevage, children, tone of voice, marriage, etc. Those kind of attacks would be mean-spirited, while mocking the “y’knows” is fair game, especially because New Yorkers might rightfully believe that as the scion of a political family she should have learned to present herself more thoughtfully and in a fashion worthy of representing NY in the U.S. Senate if that’s the job she wants.

    cgeye–I didn’t realize you might be a fellow Centennial Stater! I got the NPR intel from the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post linked articles–it was widely publicized there, although not noted by the NPR affiliates. (I don’t think it was noted up here at KUNC in Potterville, but then, they do much less local news & have very little original reporting going on. I can’t recall that they mentioned Bennet at all.)

  8. cgeye on 05 Jan 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    KUNC’s not part of the Colorado Public Radio useless behemoth? Who knew?

    Let’s see, both channels now on FM, and I *still* can’t listen to any music made in the late 20th century? No NEW SOUNDS, to see what the youth are up to? Balderdash, I say.

  9. bruce nahin on 05 Jan 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    So how does CK’s supporters reconcile their support for her and her lack of experience with their vitrolic attacks on a sitting governor and former mayor and their contention that she lacked experience

  10. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 6:20 pm #

    cgeye–KUNC is its own animal–it was rescued from oblivion when Hank Brown (as President of UNC) decided that it wasn’t cost effective to help subsidize the station. A bunch of sugar mommies and daddies rescued it back in early 2001–it’s a good station. (I remember this vividly, because I listened to their frantic pleas for salvation while I was on my job interview at Baa Ram U. now nearly 8 years ago.) If you want modern music (at least the middle-aged friendly version–lots of Wilco, the Shins, and retro punk/new age acts from the 1980s), they play David Dye’s World Cafe every weeknight from 8-10 p.m. (91.5 FM). They’re also on-line.

    (For those of you who don’t live in Colorado, I apologize for the radio station information!)

    And, bruce–I don’t think they can reconcile both attitudes, but I don’t know exactly who was extremely anti-Palin who is now extremely pro-Kennedy. (I’m not saying they’re not out there–I just haven’t read too many pundits I can classify this way.) If you’ve got any examples, I’d love to see them. Your question brings up another point: why haven’t major pundits weighed in on the CK nomination? Are they chicken$hit to say what they really think, so they’re chosing silence and hoping no one will notice?

  11. ej on 05 Jan 2009 at 7:22 pm #

    From what I’ve heard from the pundits, they are giving her more than the benefit of the doubt. Instead of criticizing her unwillingness to talk to the press, they excused her by saying that she was in a tricky position. Since she wasn’t actually running for office, she couldn’t really campaign. Or so they claimed. I guess they were interpreting answering questions from the press as campaigning.

    Not all of them were quite that benign, but she’s definitely getting better treatment than any of the other recent high profile female candidates-from either party.

  12. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 8:24 pm #

    Well, ej, that just proves my point (after Tina B.) about class. You must be talking about TV pundits–I’m totally checked out of that universe.

    Just because there’s only one voter doesn’t mean she’s not campaigning. (See the class bias there? Campaigning = meeting and talking to the hoi polloi, and how degrading is that? Actually behaving as though one is a citizen of a Democratic republic? How middle class!)

    What a bunch of toadying dirtbags.

  13. Indyanna on 05 Jan 2009 at 8:58 pm #

    If she couldn’t really campaign, she *shouldn’t* campaign. Just notify the guv’nor of her interest and stay by the phone. Just like applications in this business. Going on a low-key but well-publicized “listening tour” of the nether ends of the campus would be not only counterproductive, but a little bit goofy, wouldn’t it?

    ….David Dye, the old ‘MMR guy from Philly? Is World Cafe a WXPN-originated thing? If so, I can see their night lights from my back window. (Sorry if this is becoming a braided politics and radio thread).

  14. Historiann on 05 Jan 2009 at 9:36 pm #

    Yes, Indyanna–she could have jus stayed quiet and she’d be in a better place now.

    Yes, DD is from the old WXPN. In fact, I think his show is still out of ‘XPN, and broadcast nationally. I remember listening to that guy back in 1990-91, and thinking at the time how middle-aged he seemed. Now, his show seems just about right for me!

  15. Indyanna on 06 Jan 2009 at 11:31 am #

    ‘XPN was a feeder-school for WMMR for a generation, and ‘MMR practically invented “album-oriented rock” way back in, well, a long time ago. Now ‘XPN has moved to a bigger building closer to the downtown and become a hot national property. I can see the actual “World Cafe” windows even as I type (well, I could if I had wireless!)

    Maybe a well-publicized, Twitter-fed “listening tour” of a campus you didn’t get a conventional interview at WOULD be a way of shaking the process up. Get the u-grad techno-elite fired up about who might be coming to teach there and undercut the landline set on the search committee? Couldn’t be worse than waiting ’til March for a letter about the “hard decisions” that had to be made, and how excited they are that ‘Zo-Shmo accepted their offer!

  16. Isabelle on 11 Jan 2009 at 4:50 pm #

    Historiann, I have to say I largely agree with you – Caroline really doesen’t seem to particularly want the job, which suggests some sense of family duty and obligation went into this. I predict that if Paterson does not choose her, we will not see her running again. However, I think you are far too hard on American aristocrats – why would you say that none have manners? Also, if we’re going to be really snooty/sociological here – the Kennedys are only aristocratic in the political sense, but not old money in the really old money sense. They aren’t Forbes, if you see what I mean.

  17. Historiann on 11 Jan 2009 at 5:16 pm #

    Isabelle–good points. The Kennedys are parvenus, compared to really, really old Boston and Knickerbocker money, at least by American standards. (But I have to be snooty about aristocratic manners: if I didn’t oppose them, I’d have absolutely no manners a’tall!)

  18. We love the 90s? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 26 Oct 2009 at 6:46 am #

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