The novelist, Richard Ford, once wrote, “Luck is infatuated with efficiency.” Against all odds, luck gets things done. (That’s, after all, what makes it luck.) Political appointments are a lot like luck. They, too, are efficient. They, too, get things done. As if by magic, shoulders get tapped, appointments are made, positions are filled, and life goes on.
Over and against luck and political power is the American Dream, essentially, an ideology which couples the work ethic and equal opportunity. Work hard, play by the rules, pay your dues, build up your qualifications, and, when an opportunity arises, your time will come. Are political appointments compatible with the American Dream? What do politicians mean when they say an aspiring appointee is qualified for a particular position? Where does loyalty fall in democratic theory? Appointments are the talk of the day in politics. We are devoting two posts, one looking at the national scene, and a second, at the local situation.
Nationally, we’ve seen Governor Blagojevich of Illinois arrested, in part, for the way he is allegedly handling the appointment of Barack Obama’s replacement in the U.S. Senate. As president-elect, Obama resigned his Senate seat in order to be inaugurated President, January 20, 2009. F.B.I. reports suggest what Blagojevich has in mind is for the seat to go to the highest bidder. The one most qualified would be the one who could do the most good for Blagojevich, whether that be campaign fund raising, appointments to positions, even possibly outright cash payments to the Governor, it has been suggested.
Facing criminal prosecution, and even impeachment, Blagojevich might well resign. Party leaders in the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois have hoped for that, and Obama has even called for it. However, in a surprise move, the Governor now says that he is hunkering down, that he is not resigning, and that he will fight the charges. He wants to subpoena Rahm Emanuel, a product of the Chicago machine now headed to the White House as Chief of Staff for the new president. Having had the whistle blown on him, perhaps Blagojevich is now the one blowing the whistle. Let the public hear what insiders have to say, under oath, about how all this works. What exactly was said about Obama’s personal preference for the post, Valerie Jarrett, or Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of civil rights icon Jess Jackson? Does any Chicago Land politician really want a trial with the whole world tuned in to the inner workings of the machine, even if Blagojevich is a renegade? If Blagojevich is guilty, then shame on him, but to the extent that he just carried ‘machine politics’ too far, then shame on the other cogs as well.
In another surprise move, Blagojevich, yesterday, announced the appointment of Roland Burris, former Illinois attorney general, to the seat. If the appointment holds, Burris would be the one and only African-American in the U.S. Senate. Disingenuous or not, this move, severely complicates the matter as critics of Blagojevich must now weigh the merits of the appointment, against the process tainted by various accusations of wrong doing on the part of the governor.
Back in New York State, with New York’s junior U.S. Senate seat likely to be vacated with the presumed confirmation of Hillary Clinton as U.S. Secretary of State, Governor Paterson is now pondering her successor. He, too, pundits advise, is weighing the personal and political benefits of the various prospects. Paterson, who was Lieutenant Governor, assumed the governorship upon the resignation of Eliot Spitzer earlier this year, has declared himself a candidate for re-election in 2011. He is looking for someone who can help his interests, including campaign fund raising and vote getting, for whoever he picks for the Senate seat would likely be on the ballot with him. We are in a strange moment: A governor not elected to that office would select a U.S. Senator who would not be elected to that office (at least temporarily, until November, when a special election to complete the remainder of the Clinton’s term would be held) and together the two incumbents would seek a proper election to his/her respective office. Paterson is also looking for a strong advocate for New York in Washington, D.C., who could help steer bailout funding our way.
Caroline Kennedy, 51, daughter of the late President John Kennedy, has made her interest in the post known, and has been actively seeking the appointment. She’s been the frontrunner for the non-election, but once she came out of seclusion and under the scrutiny of the press, her candidacy has lost some luster. She’s been questioned about her qualifications, and doubts about her have emerged.
In a series of media interviews over the past few days Kennedy answered questions, essentially for the first time. Turns out she doesn’t have much to say about herself and the great issues of the day. She has also been ridiculed for her frequent pauses in her speech. Public speaking experts say that her speech pattern is distracting and hurts her credibility, as if she needs time to search for what she wants to say. Overall, it’s as if she’s been not in a Kennedy spotlight, but a Kennedy fog all these years. It’s almost as if she is trying to portray herself as the sympathetic figure. “…I come into this thinking I have to work twice as hard as anyone else. Nobody’s entitled to anything, certainly not me. There are many qualified people in this. And so, I am an unconventional choice. I understand that I haven’t pursued the traditional path. But I think that in our public life today, we’re starting to see there are many ways into public life and public service. All our institutions are less hierarchical than they used to be.”
When asked about her qualifications, she lists her accomplishments as a writer, mother, and fundraiser. Now that her qualifications are better known, she appears less qualified. Kennedy has contributed heavily to various Democratic candidates. She gave $4,600 to Obama’s campaign; $1,000 to Christopher Dodd; $5,000 to Hillary’s Senate race, and $2,300 to Hillary’s presidential run. The Kennedy name is not about name recognition, as much as it is about a family network formed over a half century of political life at every level.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines qualification as “a quality, an ability, or an accomplishment that makes a person suitable for a particular position or task.” Suitable means “appropriate to a purpose or an occasion.” And appropriate means “suitable.” In an equal opportunity situation, qualifications for a post would be stated in advance, interested parties would come forward with credentials verifying their qualifications, and then the most qualified would be selected.
In the political realm, though, things are different. Qualifications for a position are usually not articulated, and when they are, hardly ever in advance. And no one ever argues that this particular person under consideration is most qualified. Merely qualified, which begs the question of how qualified, is good enough. And in the political realm, political qualifications count a great deal. Political weight can tip the scale in favor of an otherwise weak, but plausible candidate.
Presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, offered a sensational demonstration of these points. As governor of Alaska for a brief period and mayor and city councilor of a small Alaskan town for some years, political supporters said she was qualified, while her detractors said no, even though she had more years in office and more executive experience than Obama, and far more years in office than Hillary Clinton. Problem was, when she opened her mouth, it was clear that whatever experience she had had, it did not translate to knowledge, perspective, insight and understanding. Much the same is happening with Caroline Kennedy. On the other hand, whatever their experience, Obama and Hillary become more impressive when they speak; Clinton with her knowledge and Obama with his inspiration.
Blagojevich may survive as governor and Kennedy may well fail in her brief, shining moment of a run for the U.S. Senate. The scenarios may be on opposite ends of a continuum of how political appointments work, but both situations give us pause as we reflect on the meaning of qualifications in democracy, because they are not all that far apart in what they reveal about our political lives