I don’t know what I think about Caroline Kennedy’s bid for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. That’s because I change my mind every five minutes and am getting a little tired of all the whiplash.
Because, of course, she deserves it. In the Senate, she’ll carry on her family’s long, proud tradition of liberalism and tireless work for the poor.
And because, of course, she doesn’t deserve it at all. Who does she think she is? Should a last name trump every other qualification?
Hell, I don’t know. The only thing I’m confident about is that the way people feel about Kennedy’s candidacy casts a bright, unforgiving light on their own backgrounds, their class and regional origins, their feelings about a meritocracy, their deepest opinions about whether everyone in this country gets a fair shake. Somehow, the Kennedys — who came to the national attention in the late 1950s — seem to arouse this kind of conflict and drama.
My father, who grew up dirt-poor and conservative in Oklahoma, loathed the Kennedys. They had money and Ivy League degrees and social graces, even if the old man was basically a bootlegger. The Kennedys didn’t understand what it was like to work for a living, Daddy would often sneer. They wanted to heavily tax the likes of him and give the money to the poor. They were snobs. They looked down on people like him who had struggled their way into a tenuous hold in the middle class.
If you were Texans, as my family was, you watched a national revulsion toward Lyndon Johnson and all things Texan after JFK’s assassination in Dallas. Johnson’s accent was mimicked, his lack of savoir-faire derided. I still believe he never got the credit he should have for the social policies and civil-rights legislation he managed to pass as part of his Great Society — programs like Headstart that changed the nation. Sure, much of that was because of Vietnam; but it was also because of how he assumed the presidency as an interloper and country buffoon in the ruins of Camelot. (That’s because the only group in America you can still safely make fun of are poor, rural Southerners — the hicks and hayseeds of the country.)
But I digress, as usual. It’s just that I’m convinced the Kennedys strike a raw nerve of class and regionalism in this country. They probably even speak French and windsurf, like John Kerry! The Bushes don’t arouse the same kind of resentment, because their disguise their origins (rich, entitled, New England aristocracy) by buying pig farms they call “ranches” and eating pork rinds and drawling more than anybody from Midland ever drawled, for God’s sake.
And, the fact is, many of us are skittish and sensitive about class, even though it kills us to admit it. “I believe your parents eat dinner early, don’t they?” an older woman once said to me. She knew damned well my parents ate dinner early, but this question wasn’t at all about serving a meal. It was all about class and everyone — even me, by then — knew it was gauche to eat dinner early. If you were going to rise in this world, you adjusted your dining time, your pronunciation of certain key words, your tastes in music and literature. You adjusted and you felt guilty for your disloyalty to your roots, but what choice did you have?
You adjusted and tried to forget you’d adjusted, pretended you’d always felt this way, had always dined at 7 or 8, had never really pronounced the word as BOW-teek, as someone once made fun of you for doing. (Like people in your family ever went around talking about boutiques, in the first place. What was wrong with Montgomery Ward’s?)
But you never quite shake who you once were. And then somebody like Caroline Kennedy comes along and reminds you of who you are and who you used to be. It’s not really about her, is it? It’s all about the rest of us.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)