Interview As Scene Building
I'm fairly lukewarm on Caroline Kennedy's Senate "campaign," which has consisted of her hiring insider consultants affiliated with Bloomberg and Lieberman and ringing up elites and putting pressure on the Governor to appoint her. But I have to say that I respect her a bit more after this interview with the New York Times, where she says something that probably most politicians have thought at one time or another.
With several weeks to go before Mr. Paterson makes his decision, she is doling out glimpses of her political beliefs and private life. But when asked Saturday morning to describe the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat, Ms. Kennedy seemed irritated by the question and said she couldn’t recall.
“Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?” she asked the reporters. “I thought you were the crack political team.”
If you read the transcript, you get a better sense of where that comes from. They were more than halfway through the interview at this point, and the whole thing had a certain People Magazine quality about it. The reporters asked Kennedy repeatedly about an imagined conversation they have in their heads, out of a bad biopic or something, a "moment of clarity" where she blurts out "I'm going to do this!" When Kennedy suggests that it didn't actually happen that way, because, um, life pretty much doesn't happen that way, they basically ask her to create a story where it does. That's when the woman's magazine crack comes in.
NC: So when in your own mind did it go from, ‘It’s kind of an interesting idea’ to ‘Maybe I should do this?’ (Pause) Or was that —
CK: Over the last couple weeks. (She chuckles.)
NC: Was there any moment where —
CK: No, I don’t think there was a moment, I mean, this kind of thing is too important for it to be, like, an on-off switch, right? This is a process, and as I became more serious about it, and talked to more people, you know, I thought — and then obviously I called the governor and expressed interest, and um, you know, so...
NC: The signs were on what day? Was it before you called the governor?
CK: The what? Oh yeah, that was a while ago.
NC: That was a while ago?
NC: So that was after Senator Clinton had announced — so it was after the vacancy became possible?
CK: Well, yeah. Obviously.
NC: OK. (CK laughs.) I just wanted to make sure of the chronology.
DH: We just don’t know if it was after we started writing about you or —
CK: No, you guys had nothing to do with it. (Laughs.)
DH: No, we didn’t mean that. The timing.
NC: Uh, so sometime before those stories about your discussion with the governor, sometime after Senator Clinton had been tapped for —
CK: Yeah — yeah [...]
NC: Was he the first person you told — do you know if you uttered the words, ‘I think I’m gonna go for this?’ Or, something like it?
CK: Well, I don’t know if I utter those kinds of words, but yes. You know, it was a mutual decision.
NC: Could you, for the sake of storytelling, could you tell us a little bit about that moment, like, where you were, what you said to him about your decision, how that played out?
CK: Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something? (Laughter)
DH: What do you have against women’s magazines?
CK: Nothing at all, but I thought you were the crack political team here. As I said, it was kind of over a period of time, you know, obviously we talked about politics, we talked about what’s going on, we’ve been watching the team that the president-elect is putting together — Hillary Clinton is going to be a spectacular part of that team, you know, then there was a vacancy here, you know, just like everybody else, you know: who’s going to fill it, isn’t that interesting, there’s a lot of great candidates, you know, obviously I have become much more politically involved than I have in the past, so you know, I figure, why not try, I really think I have something to offer.
NC: But there was no one moment you can draw on —
CK: I know I wish there was, I’ll think about it.
NC: If there isn’t, that’s what it was, that’s fine too. We’re not the crack political team, we’re always looking for good anecdotes and good stories.
CK: I know, and I understand. I’ll think about it a little more.
Kennedy's mistake is assuming that there's any kind of marker or dividing line between political media and magazine personality profile at all anymore. Sometimes those kind of profiles elicit vaguely interesting questions, but they sure have nothing to do with being a Senator. When they finally get to an issue, which they back into by asking Kennedy why she sent her children to private school and if she really should be credited with raising money for public schools, the entire thing is framed along whether or not she would break with a "conventional Democrat".
DH: Just to talk a little more about issues: a lot of your political positions seem pretty straight-up-the-middle, conventional for a Democrat.
CK: Does that surprise you?
DH: No. But I wonder, what are the biggest areas where you disagree with Democratic party orthodoxy? We want to know what sets you apart. You’ve cited a lot of examples and influences; what would be a subject that we would expect your position to be a real surprise on?
CK: Well, I think that there’s a range of views in the Democratic party. And you know, I am a proud Democrat, those are the values, you know — middle class tax relief, helping working families, fixing the health care system — those are the national priorities right now. So those are the issues that I would expect — I mean, I am a Democrat, that is, you know — I am trying to become a Democratic senator, so I don’t, um — I mean, there are issues along the way, that I’m sure that people have differences of opinion. There’s controversies in all these areas.
DH: One where you have a clear-eyed idea about where you stand on something that is diff —
CK: That is different from who? Anybody?
DH: The party platform. I mean, pick some standard. Just something that would surprise —
CK: I support gay marriage, I support, you know, I’ve had problems with Nafta, I mean, I don’t — if we’re not comparing it to anybody specifically it’s hard to say where I’m going to disagree.
NC: How about Governor Paterson?
CK: But I’m a traditional Democrat, so that’s what I want to fight for, those are the values I want to fight for.
NC: Is there any issue on which you and Governor Paterson disagree that you can think of?
CK: Well, I think Governor Paterson has — I can tell you two of the areas where I think he’s done great work. Which is, alternative energy —
NC: That wasn’t the question. Is there anything on which you two disagree?
CK: No, I’m not going to talk about my disagreements with Governor — I think he’s done a great job as a leadership, yeah, absolutely.
DH: Two powerful, respected people are allowed to differ.
CK: They are. They are.
DH: We just wonder where we’ll find out that you differ.
CK: Well, you’ll find out over time. You know, as issues come along.
It's a bizarre, accusatory tone, showing that typical reporter bias that the only way for a Democrat to show any integrity is to break with their own party. This fetish makes little sense to me, and the only explanation I have for it is that the reporters aren't well-versed enough on the issues to talk about them substantively, so they use the "how are you different" shorthand even though they have little sense of what the Democrat should be different from.
Of course, the only reason a possible Senate appointee is getting grilled in this fashion is because she's Caroline Kennedy, part of Camelot and American royalty and all that, and that belief that she sells papers, especially now that the narrative is set that she's flailing about, which this interview is clearly designed to elicit. There are at least a dozen aspirants nationwide for Senate appointments - in New York, Illinois, Colorado - but none of them are being exposed to confrontational interviews where they are subjected to endless variations of the question "What makes you so special?" My preference would be for NOBODY to get appointed to a Senate seat, and all of them decided by special election. But while I think a Kennedy appointment ought to be open to questioning, we'd have to find another media to conduct that questioning, if we want any insight other than how ridiculous 21st-century reporting has become.
Most fitting in all of this is the Politico's takeaway, as insubstantial as the interview itself:
One thing Caroline Kennedy would bring to Washington: A new, distinctive Kennedy verbal tic: She said "you know" 142 times in her Times interview.
Journalism par excellence.