Clift: Another Kennedy in the Senate?

It's hard to imagine the very private and shy Caroline Kennedy running for public office like any other ambitious politician if she is the designated candidate to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat in New York. Then again, it's equally hard to imagine anyone running against her. She's such an icon of Camelot, the little girl with the pony named Macaroni, now 51 years old and ready to claim her father's legacy. Politics being the contact sport it is, it didn't take long for Rep. Peter King, a pugnacious and popular Republican with a regular-guy presence on cable TV's political shows, to announce his intention to run for Hillary's Senate seat in two years even if—and maybe especially if—Kennedy is the interim senator.

Sitting in the MSNBC green room when the news of Caroline's interest in going political first made the rounds, a young, journalist floated the idea that she would be a good vice president for Barack Obama in his second term. "He'll have to get rid of Biden; he'll be a septuagenarian by then," he opined. His fellow pundits were skeptical, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Positioning a successor is what a president is supposed to do in his second term. Still, President Kennedy in 2016? We're getting ahead of ourselves. Joe Biden hasn't even been sworn in. Let's not rush history.

At the risk of sounding crass given the uproar over the auctioning of the vacant Obama Senate seat in Illinois, the key to Hillary's replacement is who best serves New York Governor David Paterson. He will be running in 2010 and because he is a fill-in himself; having assumed the office earlier this year after Eliot Spitzer resigned in the wake of revelations about his involvement with a prostitute, his prospects are uncertain. Before Caroline surfaced as a possible candidate, the buzz was that Paterson, who is African-American, needed a white ethnic to balance the ticket and attract votes in the more conservative suburbs and upstate New York.

Besides being a Kennedy and all that implies, Caroline fits the bill as an Irish-Catholic. Her chief competition within the Democratic Party is another white ethnic with a famous last name: Andrew Cuomo, currently New York's Attorney General. A Marist poll finds each has the support of 25 percent of registered voters, with 26 percent of voters saying they aren't sure who should get the job. Each also enjoys high approval ratings, over 60 percent, and low negatives (18 percent for Cuomo; 9 percent for Kennedy).

Paterson brought the house down at a supposedly off-the-record Gridiron dinner with journalists last weekend when he brought out his cell phone to reveal a series of messages relating to the Senate seat. There was Chuck Schumer, New York's senior senator, known for his oversized ego, saying he'd like a devout evangelical because "that way there would be no competition for Sunday press conferences." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called to ask if it's true there are no term-limits in the Senate. Hillary herself (this was no impersonation) passed along a message from Schumer wondering why New York needs two senators anyway. "I know it's a stretch, but I promised him I'd ask you," she says. A call from Caroline cuts off with a loud beep just as she's about to recommend the one candidate with the perfect intelligence, integrity and passion. Then finally a voice chides, "This is David, appoint yourself," as Paterson plays the message he left for himself. "What could be a cushier job than sitting around and listening to speeches all day and voting on stuff. I can't believe you're not thinking about this. I know I am."

Joking aside, if Caroline wants Hillary's seat, it's probably hers. She is a serious person who's been inching out into the wider world, working on school reform in New York City, and coauthoring worthy books—the latest entitled "The Right to Privacy," a subject she knows intimately—and overseeing Obama's vice-presidential search, along with Eric Holder, now the president-elect's pick for attorney general. Her endorsement of Obama, in conjunction with her Uncle Ted, came at a critical moment in the campaign, legitimizing the Democratic Party's shift away from Clinton toward Obama. She shed her lifelong resistance to campaign for anybody outside of immediate family. "She worked rope lines and spoke at campaign stops for Obama and was not turned off by that," says a family friend. "In fact, she enjoyed herself."

There's been a Kennedy in the U.S. Senate since 1952; when John F. Kennedy won the presidency, a placeholder named Ben Smith held the seat until Ted Kennedy could run to replace his brother. Seeing Caroline take over the seat and continue the tradition of progressive policy making the Kennedy family embodies is understandably one of Kennedy's wishes as he battles terminal brain cancer. Her biggest hurdle, according to the family friend, would be giving up the private life she cherishes. However, she might be ready for it. It would allow her the "fullest use of her abilities along the lines of excellence in an area affording them scope," which was the Greeks' definition of happiness cited by her father when he was president.