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Susan Estrich: Kennedy Takes the Wrong Exit

Whatever her imperfections, a generation of girls has lost an inspirational role model.

I do not know what ultimately persuaded Caroline Kennedy to withdraw her name from consideration for the Senate. Maybe it was something about taxes or a housekeeper, the two rumors that seem to have the most “juice” as I write this. To be honest, I don’t care. All I know is that it’s too bad. I believe she would have been a wonderful senator — committed, compassionate and inspirational. I believe we desperately need more women like her, women of stature, women who command attention, who could do and be anything in the world, but choose public service.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich
I am certain she isn’t perfect. I am certain that if you dig long and hard enough, you would find mistakes of some sort.

The sad part is that it should, would, did disqualify her from doing what she might have done to help people and to inspire a generation of women — girls today — to walk in her footsteps.

I do not begrudge her the decision she made. At a time when the process of “vetting” people for public office has mushroomed into 100-page questionnaires that few people who have lived outside a convent could pass, it never surprises me when high-profile people take their names out of contention. What is surprising, in a way, is when they don’t.

Treasury Secretary-designate Tim Geithner has some unpaid tax problems, as well. He is, presumably, something of an expert in tax matters. There is an even better case, as to him, that he should have known better. I have no doubt his taxes will be paid — they already have been — and that the “delinquency,” if that’s what it was, will have absolutely no impact on his fulfillment of his official responsibilities. But I have to wonder whether he would have been picked in the first place if the tax problems had been known then. Somehow I doubt it. Too bad.

I don’t think I know anybody who has never done anything wrong. I don’t think I know anyone who has never made a mistake, had one made as to them or trusted someone they shouldn’t have. Some of these people, luckily for them and us, go on to become president. Some of them are forced to give up their dreams. Usually, it has more to do with how they “handle” the mistake — whether they succeed in getting out front of it and spinning it away before it blows up in their faces.

Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama became president notwithstanding admissions of drug and alcohol use. Doug Ginsburg was denied a seat on the Supreme Court because he was witnessed smoking marijuana at a party. Zoë Baird was denied the attorney general’s job because she didn’t pay Social Security for her housekeeper. Kimba Wood was denied the same seat even though she did — as a matter of fact, she was the one who taught me how to do it and explained to me why it would be so important to the recipient in the future to have the Social Security paid in. My housekeeper will be retiring in a few years, and she can thank Wood for the fact that she will receive full benefits. But somehow, it cost Wood the job lawyers spend a lifetime dreaming of. I can’t even remember why.

Kennedy will be just fine. She will go on to work for the causes she cares about, to be a loving wife and mother and cousin and aunt to her family. But when a little girl walks into the gallery of the Senate, she will have a hard time recognizing anyone who looks like her as she looks down on the assembled senators. There are strong and smart women there, but none who would inspire in that little girl the same dream Kennedy could inspire, none who will make her feel, as Obama today makes countless young blacks feel, that they can do anything, and that nothing they could do matters more than serving their fellow Americans.

I wanted Kennedy to serve in the Senate not because she deserves the job more than any other contender — doubtless, there are others who have worked harder to be there — or because she knows the issues better. I wanted her to serve because her very presence on that floor, the presence of a woman who has throughout my life been larger than life, might inspire so many other girls to dream the sort of dream that our country’s future depends upon.

Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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