Like Movies, Senate Appointments Full of Drama

Scandals! Kennedys! Who Needs More?

Posted January 5, 2009 at 6:37pm

It’s a season of political movies — “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” “W.,” and the forthcoming “Che.”

So it’s fitting that the four Senate vacancies created by the incoming Obama administration have already generated so much Hollywood-style drama, with the promise of more to come.

Scandals, Kennedys, family feuds and family legacies — the open Senate seat in Illinois and soon-to-be open seats in New York, Delaware and Colorado have produced all that intrigue and so much more.

It’s almost unthinkable that the prospect of Caroline Kennedy being appointed to the Senate could be eclipsed by anything. Yet thanks to embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), it has been.

Blagojevich’s apparent attempt to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat remains mind-blowing almost one month after the allegations first surfaced. And it’s hard to know who was more deluded — Blagojevich, for allegedly thinking he could enrich himself or his family, or the man he ultimately chose to replace Obama, former state Attorney General Roland Burris (D), who declared Monday that in every law book in the country he is the junior Senator from Illinois.

It may well be that Burris, who is 71, winds up in the Senate — perhaps as a care-taker, maybe even for the long term — and that his grasp at straws, last-ditch gambit to finally attain high office will actually pay off. But he’s been hard-pressed to explain why he would take the appointment when others have considered it tainted.

“Naturally, I did some checking around the nation and around the state,” he said when asked that very question last week on PBS.

Got that?

Cinematically, Blagojevich’s power play is reminiscent of the political bosses in the 1940 Preston Sturges classic, “The Great McGinty.” Or maybe it’s like Boss Tweed in “The Gangs of New York,” the Martin Scorsese epic.

As for Caroline Kennedy in the Senate? So many movie and TV show titles come to mind for so many different reasons: “Camelot,” “JFK,” “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” “The Greek Tycoon,” “The Missiles of October” — just to name a few.

In 2008, voters rejected the idea of having Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) follow George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush, in the White House. But Americans’ thirst for the Kennedy dynasty remains, at a certain level, unquenched, and Caroline Kennedy may soon be the beneficiary.

It should not be forgotten that the man who gets to name the next Empire State Senator, Gov. David Paterson (D), is himself the son of a famous politician, or that Caroline Kennedy’s main rival for the Senate appointment appears to be state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), another son of a famous politician. “Fathers & Sons,” anyone? “The Family Business”? “The Godfather”?

Remember also that the Clintons, who admired and even emulated the Kennedys, had a falling out with that family after Caroline and her uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), endorsed Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton for president. Screenwriters couldn’t possibly conjure up more intrigue.

There’s also an element of political royalty on display — though without the New York tabloids fanning the flames — in Delaware, where a family regent, Ted Kaufman (D), has been named as the appointee to replace Vice President-elect Joseph Biden in the Senate, presumably as a seat-warmer for Biden’s son, state Attorney General Beau Biden (D). Think, cinematically, about one of those dramas involving a medieval European kingdom, where the king dies but the prince is too young to succeed him. Meddling is sure to follow.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, the appointment of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet (D) to replace Sen. Ken Salazar (D) has echoes of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Although he has never held or sought elective office before, Bennet is not a complete political novice, and he’s proved himself in tough, politically charged situations before. But Republicans are sure to depict him as a lamb being led to political slaughter, just as Jefferson Smith’s opponents did in the Frank Capra classic — though the idealistic (if effective) naif that Robert Redford played in “The Candidate” may be a more apt comparison.

Bennet surely has the smarts and skills to be a Senator. But when it comes to the prodigious amount of fundraising he must do very quickly before the 2010 elections, he may find himself wondering, as Redford’s character Bill McKay does at the end of “The Candidate”: “What do we do now?”