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Caroline Kennedy Meets the Press and Soars above the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Russerts

By Cheryl Seal

Caroline Kennedy (Schlossberg) must have felt like she'd wandered into a seedy bar when she appeared on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert and Bob Woodward on May 12. Kennedy was part of a "round table" discussion that was supposed to be devoted to a new version of "Profiles in Courage for Our Time" (the original was, of course, by JFK) which she helped to edit. That she would agree to go onto the same stage with Tim Russert shows incredible optimism... or a strong stomach... or amazing stamina...or perhaps all of the above.

What a contrast! The classy, self-possessed and unpretentious Caroline on one hand, the pontificating, outrageously self-important and belligerent Russert on the other. Russert, whose face seems to balloon more each week, while his beetly brow grows more beetley, acted like some old barfly trying to bait the other, less soused patrons of the joint into an argument or reduce them to tears. Bob Woodward, off on the sidelines, reminded me of some washed up has-been you find hiding in a dark corner of a bar, looking hunted and guilty, lamenting his finer days and proferring lame excuses to those near and dear as he sniffles into his beer. Alas, the guy who exposed Watergate now he seems more interested in keeping buffoons like Russert appeased than offering anything of worth to the field of journalism. Albert Hunt of the "Wall Street Journal" was also there, but behaved himself reasonably well, even admitting that as a young man, he had voted for JFK.

Russert, on the other hand, behaved the only way he knows how: badly. He tried hard to torpedo Caroline, though in a snotty, passive-aggressive, sneaky fashion. I bet everyone sees through this act, though - afterall, we all have at least one dreaded relative who systematically sets out to ruin family occasions in much the same way. He asked Kennedy about one of the people she had selected for a special award - one Dean Coldenhaven, the mayor of Palos Heights, Illinois, who defended the right of Muslims to build a mosque in his town. When she mentioned that Coldenhaven had, in consequence, eventually lost his bid for reelection, Russert broke in with snide satisfaction, "Not only defeated, he came in a distant third. And then he was sued by the Muslims, the very people he tried to help. " We can almost hear Russert's thought: "Yeah, what a sucker - nice guys finish last!"

The discussion, of course, was supposed to be about the "Profiles in Courage" concept - Kennedy's concept...but Russert kept babbling on about Nixon, as if by shoving Nixon into Kennedy's limelight he could somehow plump up the Crook's image. At one point, Russert commented that from early on in his career, "so much of his political coverage had been fixated on..." There's a slight pause, and of course everyone - the audience, Caroline, probably even the cameramen - all think he's going to say Kennedy, because, Russert WAS a liberal Democrat back before he discovered he liked money more than principles (one of Russert's actual statements was "Integrity is for paupers!"). But it's a set up - Russert instead says "John Kennedy AND Richard Nixon." Equal billing for the leader and the loser. The idea being, of course, to see Caroline's face fall and hear her stammer a confused reply. But nope, Caroline remained collected throughout the ordeal, like Alice at the Mad Hatter's teaparty - even when Russert said, with old barfly cruelty, "So, Caroline, now that your father's gone, your uncle's gone, your mother's gone, and now your brother's gone, are you going to carry on the family torch?" With his tone, he may as well have said "So, honey, now that your whole family is DEAD, all of them DEAD, how does it feel?"

But Caroline seemed prepared for anything - who wouldn't be, knowing anything about Russert, who is a step below Rush Limbaugh on the protozoan food chain (at least Limbaugh doesn't pretend to be anything other than a pontificating old rightwing windbag on the take from corpolitical patrons). So, even when Russert brutally showed a photo of Jackie Kennedy taken during her last year when illness had clearly taken its toll - a gesture that seemed to stretch for some Kennedy bashing impact on the public or at least to wring a few tears from his guest - Caroline remained poised and in doing so make Russert's buffoonery stand out in stark relief.

Instead of taking the Kennedys down a notch, as he so clearly was trying to do, Russert succeeded only in making the viewer realize just how many painful miles lie between Camelot and Crawford.

Reflections on Camelot (reader response to above rant)

Terrific Woman:

I just read today's rant, and I want to make one observation: Kennedy worship is no better than Bushie mania. While I respect any woman who can sit in the hot seat and take that kind of abuse, I also think it serves no one to perpetuate the myth that the Kennedy family is somehow better, more special, or otherwise above the rest of humanity. As I understand things, the Kennedys have just as many hypocritical contradictions in their collective past as the Bush family, and I suspect that you too would argue against an aristocracy ruling this nation as much as I would, even if that aristocracy sounded more "liberal" in public discourse. Lauding one of them for basically acting like a normal human being only contributes to the falsehood that the Kennedys deserve less criticism than other political groups, which is exactly what the nation does not need at this crucial moment in history. Love your work, keep it up!

Michelle Mustonen

Dear Michelle,

Thanks for your kind words and your poignant, thought-provoking letter. Ironically, the reason the Kennedy-Russert interaction struck me as good material for a rant is because RUSSERT was trying to negatively exploit the Kennedy "mystique", by seeking an opportunity to deflate it. That's the current trick of the rightwingers now - systematically trying to tear down anything associated with liberal ideals, history, lore, and yep, even myths, while whitewashing their own far darker landscape, past and present. The folks at the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, et al. would love to rewrite all our history books according to the white patriarchal model, while rightwing pundits like Limbaugh and others would love to convince us that the likes of Nixon, Kissinger, and God help us all, Joe McCarthy were actually "great Americans."

The fact that Caroline was a Kennedy was not as striking to me as the fact that she was a poised woman who refused to be rattled by an asshole. And the difference between "Camelot and Crawford" for me is not a matter of Kennedys vs Bushes - it is the difference in the nature of liberal versus rightwing mythology. While Camelot was an ideal of service - defending the helpless, promoting civil rights, reaching for a spiritually finer society (the quest for the "grail"), Crawford represents phony materialism, "strategy not substance," "church every Sunday, but no real morality," and corporate toadyism. Don't know if you saw the piece I did a while back on the Bush ranch, but the Camelot to Crawford thing was meant, in light of that article (http://democrats.com/view.cfm?id=6687), to have a special irony: Yep, though the "Camelot" ideal many saw embodied by Kennedy may have proven mythical, it was born of naive but honest idealism. Crawford, on the other hand, is equally mythical, but born of a slick PR strategy that created a physical set for a pretend cowboy! No honest, naivity or real ideals here!

Thanks mucho for the input - I think your point, separate from what I was trying to do in the rant, is very important and well-taken.

All the best,