Friday, January 2, 2009

Memo To Susan Dominus: Stop Writing Memos To Caroline Kennedy.

A little over a year ago, when Susan Dominus landed her "Big City" metro column in the Times, here's what she told the New York Observer she wanted to write about:

It's often said that a writer's voice is the key to a strong column, but what I hope my column becomes known for is capturing others' voices in all their idiosyncratic glory. How New Yorkers sound, how they live day to day, the choices they make to accommodate the great tradeoffs and pressures and rewards that come with life in New York — that's what I aspire to reflect in my column.

But in a column tinged with snark and sarcasm, Dominus forgot her own credo this morning and resorted to her own voice to lecture Caroline Kennedy on her life choices, her heritage and her experiences. In doing so, she took a tack that's sure to offend every woman in New York City who considers motherhood precisely the sort of "great tradeoff" Dominus finds so fascinating.

Dominus begins by lumping Caroline Kennedy in with the rest of the Kennedys as Massachusetts carpetbaggers: "The new Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, named for an admirable public servant who was nonetheless a carpetbagger, was bad enough," she writes. "Now the United States Senate seat, too?"

It might be worth remembering that this particular Kennedy was born in New York City, and has spent most of her life as a Manhattan resident.

Then Dominus proceeds to fantasize a better world in which John F. Kennedy Jr. didn't die, and assumed his more rightful role as the male heir to the Kennedy political fortune. In doing so she picks up on a recurrent theme in Times coverage of the Kennedy candidacy, that Caroline is simply not behaving sufficiently like a Kennedy:

A thought experiment: Imagine a happier alternative universe in which Ms. Kennedy’s brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., had not died in a plane crash, but ran a glossy political magazine for several years, actively raised some children, served on a bunch of boards and then decided, at age 50 or so, to seek public office. Wouldn’t his late-in-life turn to electoral politics seem like the natural order of things, a long-awaited but ultimately inevitable tour of duty that Democrats would universally embrace?

The hypothetical comparison, of course, goes only so far: John Jr. had not just the name of a celebrity, but the warmth and charisma of one. By contrast, Ms. Kennedy is said to have a sarcastic charm, but it eludes many in casual encounters. On a recent visit to the Montgomery County Democratic headquarters, a place so inclined to like her that its members had all but papered the walls of their conference room with photos of her family, she seemed more flummoxed by their enthusiasm than capable of turning it into a slam-dunk feel-good experience.

Why can't Caroline act the way we want her to? That seems to be the main message of Dominus and her Times colleagues, who keep bringing up her failure to react to family photos as a character flaw.

Next, Dominus reminds Kennedy that the personal choices she's made over the last 20 years -- to raise her three children instead of pursuing a political career -- have no place being mentioned in her campaign:

Note to Caroline: Go easy on “as a mother” when asked how you prepared for the job; can you imagine any male candidate citing fatherhood as résumé fodder for the Senate?

No, we can't, but are the inequities in child-rearing responsibilities really something for Dominus to crow about? It might be nice to hear a political columnist push a male candidate to the wall on the issue of time spent with his own children, rather than to reward him for day-and-night devotion to self.

Like her colleagues at the Times, Dominus can't seem to decide what she wants. Should Caroline be more like a Kennedy, or less? Should she be Jack or Jackie? These ridiculous options are keeping columnists busy as they badger Caroline to follow a narrative more to their liking.

Dominus appears to be especially conflicted.

"But if she is going to enter the fray, she would probably do well to show a little more Kennedy grit, a little less Bouvier gracious distance," Dominus declares at one point. "Not everyone is cut out to effuse, but she could start taking some risks to let the public know where she stands and where her thinking starts."

But by the end, Dominus has reached the opposite conclusion: "Show us a little more Triborough, a little less Kennedy, and Caroline might be on a bridge to somewhere," Dominus writes.

Okay, let's see: More Kennedy, less Kennedy, more Jack, less Jackie, more experience, less entitlement, more politics, less political, more grit, less grace.

Got that, Caroline?

UPDATE: As commenter "Nicki" noted last week, Dominus incorrectly placed Rochester in Monroe County. A correction appears in the January 8 edition:

The Big City column in some editions on Friday, about ways that Caroline Kennedy might respond to criticism of her quest for a United States Senate seat, misidentified the upstate New York county where Ms. Kennedy recently visited the Democratic headquarters. It is Monroe County, not Montgomery.


Anonymous said...

The paper seems to be letting everyone take a whack at the Kennedy pinata.
Next up will be Judith Warner, with a couple of thousand words on how she used to live in France and now lives in the burbs and Caroline lives in the city but has kids too and has surely been to France and isn't middle school a chore.
And so forth.

Anonymous said...

OMG. Judith Warner on Caroline Kennedy. I can't imagine anything I want to read less.

Anonymous said...

If talking about Kennedy Schlossberg's trip to Rochester, Ms. Dominus should get her facts straight. She, too, may need a trip outside NYC. Rochester - with its Kennedy named and decorated conference room - is in Monroe county.