If New York Gov. David Paterson wants to appoint a senator distinguished by global star appeal, a long family tradition of public service, royal bloodlines and obvious availability, it's easy to think of the perfect candidate. Caroline Kennedy? That's setting his sights too low. If I were him, I'd put in a call to the Prince of Wales.
Really, what assets does Jack Kennedy's daughter have that the son of Elizabeth II doesn't? Both owe their prominence entirely to their ancestry. Both are immensely rich thanks to the sacrifices and achievements of people who went before.
Both have often represented their families at the funerals of prominent people. Neither has ever had to stress about finding a job, meeting a payroll or keeping government functions going during a budget crisis.
And here's the most newsworthy similarity: Both expect to attain a high office without the bother of having to submit themselves to the voters. And both will probably get their way.
Kennedy is a well-spoken, pleasant woman who is indistinguishable from many other rich folks who would never be considered for a seat in the nation's highest elected body. Indistinguishable, that is, except for her name, which in some minds confers magical powers denied to ordinary mortals.
If she had been born Caroline Kelly, no one would indulge her expressed desire to become a United States senator. But because of her pedigree, Paterson appears to think she's doing him a favor instead of the other way around.
Kennedy is the latest example of the rise of "branding" in American politics -- in which merely coming from a particular family is taken as a qualification for office. For most of his life, George W. Bush was famous mostly for his meager accomplishments. But because his father was president, he was able to get himself elected governor of Texas and then president as well.
A lot of people assumed he would have some of his father's better traits: a habit of hiring smart people, a measure of humility and the good judgment not to occupy Iraq. Instead, the younger Bush seemed to spend his presidency trying to show how different he was from the old man. Mission accomplished.
That experience should prove that political brands are not comparable to automobile brands. If you buy one model of Toyota rather than another, you can be confident it will live up to the maker's reputation for quality and durability. But just because a family produced a president and a couple of senators, all reasonably well-regarded, doesn't mean other members of the clan will do well.