Is Caroline Kennedy Ready for the Senate?

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Chitose Suzuki / AP

Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy once seemed to be just about the only member of the Kennedy clan who was immune to the lure of politics, choosing to make her mark instead by writing and through a number of charitable endeavors. But when I asked Kennedy last January about her surprising decision to publicly endorse Barack Obama after decades of guarding her private life, her answer hinted that President John F. Kennedy's daughter might be open to even bigger things ahead. "I really felt like it was a crucial moment, and if I had something that I believed in, then I really owed it to myself to express that," she told me. "I recently turned 50, so I figured, I'd better get going — what am I waiting for?" (See TIME's J.F.K. covers.)

The campaigning that she did on Obama's behalf must have agreed with her, because Caroline Kennedy is now letting it be known that she would like to be appointed to the New York Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton. According to the New York Times, which first reported Kennedy's decision, Kennedy has already hired a political consulting firm and has begun "reaching out" to key political figures in New York, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Behind the scenes, her uncle Ted, who has been a Senator from Massachusetts since 1963, has let it be known to senior Democratic officials that he is very interested in seeing his niece join him in the chamber. (See pictures of Robert F. Kennedy.)

Ultimately, however, the decision rests with New York Governor David Paterson. His reaction to Kennedy's decision was noncommittal, but one source close to the Kennedy family says Caroline believes Paterson is "on board with the idea." There indeed is much to recommend her; Kennedy's celebrity status and high name recognition would make it easy for her to raise money, which is an important consideration, because whoever is appointed to the seat will face a special election in 2010 and yet another campaign in 2012, when the seat's regular term expires.

However, should Paterson decide to appoint Kennedy, 51 — and it's possible he might feel that he has to now that Kennedy has thrown her hat into the ring — the move would not be without controversy. The state has no shortage of more seasoned politicians who are also interested in the job. Among those who are being mentioned as possible candidates are Kennedy's former cousin-in-law, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo; at least four current House members, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Carolyn Maloney, Brian Higgins and Steve Israel; Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown; and Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi. Last week, New York Congressman Gary Ackerman said he didn't know of any qualifications that Kennedy has, "except that she has name recognition — but so does J. Lo." (See other possible candidates for Clinton's Senate seat.)

Kennedy's decision mystifies some who know her. "I can't imagine she's going to like this," says one family friend. While Kennedy enjoyed giving speeches for Obama, as well as campaigning for her many relatives who have run for office, the friend said Kennedy may discover that she is not suited to the drudge work of campaigning for herself, which includes countless phone calls to donors, stumping through tiny hamlets and putting up with questions from the media. And because the Senate appointee would have to run in two elections, she would be in virtual campaign mode for her first four years in office.

The Senate is not to everyone's tastes either. One of those who discovered that it wasn't, ironically enough, was Robert F. Kennedy. When he held the very seat to which Caroline now aspires, R.F.K. bristled at its aggravatingly slow pace, as well as the reality that junior members, no matter how famous, are expected to wait their turn. That, Caroline Kennedy may discover, is the difference between running for the Senate and serving there.

See pictures of J.F.K.'s early years.

See pictures from the historic Election Day.