Class in a Class-Free Society

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)

7 comments… add one
  • I know exactly what you mean by this. At first I was very excited about the possibility of her replacing Hillary, but then I started thinking about why I was so thrilled about Obama’s win. I truly feel that he was elected based on merit–he worked his way up from the lowest denominator, as did Bill Clinton, but this would be a free pass for Kennedy. On the other hand, she could be a fantastic leader. I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.

  • I wish I were making the decision. I’d put her in there in a heartbeat. What she would do in the position is so much more important than who she is. We need more senators with her political sophistication. I hope Paterson has the courage to buck the naysayers and do it.

  • I am so totally with you on this one. I just don’t know how I feel abut Caroline Kennedy’s bid. If what I read is true, most of her life experiences have concerned philanthropic efforts. I certainly don’t mean to denigrate that – it is important work. But is this the kind of experience that will prepare someone for one of the most important jobs in the country? On the other hand, how can I possibly judge her competence or leadership ability when I know none of the specifics of the work she has done. Has she rolled up her sleeves and actually taken on the work of charitable organizations, or has she just served as a figurehead, using her wealth and contacts to raise money? Heavy sigh. I simply don’t have the time to conduct the necessary research that would allow me to make an informed decision, and I shudder at the thought of basing an opinion on what I learn from the media.

  • I’m not sure whether she has the chops to be senator and you make an excellent point Ruth. This post is fascinating. I’ve been in Texas more than 25 years and I still get culture shocked sometimes. Oddly, it never really occurred to me that people today feel any ambivalence about Jackie, John and Caroline Kennedy. They have never made a misstep in my eyes. To me, they were/are elegant and I sincerely admire them.

    I guess I think Caroline Kennedy’s experience is comparable to Obama’s but in different venues.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Never underestimate a Texan’s underlying sense of inferiority, Sophie. That’s why we can be so insufferable.

    Don’t see how you can compare Obama’s and Kennedy’s experience, though. She’s the ultimate insider, he — poor, from a broken home, with mixed-race parentage — is the ultimate outsider.

  • I was thinking more professional experience. And even so, being “ultimate” in either direction carries similar weight to me. Being an insider is being an outsider, in a way. They’re both outliers.

  • I’m intrigued by the way people are yelping about Caroline Kennedy’s lack of experience. What experience did Hilary Clinton have? Does ‘wife of’ trump ‘daughter and niece of’? I believe she would make a fine Senator, and I hope she would carry on her uncle’s legacy of trying to ensure that those less fortunate don’t get left behind.

    I think history will judge Lyndon Johnson kindly, as one of the most effective modern presidents.

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