Say the name Caroline Kennedy to Jensie Farrar, and she turns almost maternally protective. Ms. Farrar was married in Albany on Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the passage of 45 years has done little to dull her shock or to alter her image of the president’s only girl.
Say “Caroline Kennedy” to Bess Goden, 23, and she pauses, working quietly to exactly place it.
“I’m like, ‘Is she a Kennedy Kennedy, or is this one of the cousins?’ ” Ms. Goden, an aspiring actress, asked while taking a cigarette break from her job at the Borders bookstore cafe on West 34th Street. “She’s the one with the brother who died in the plane?”
Ms. Kennedy, who declared last week that she would like to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the junior senator from New York, is in many ways embarking on a test of the enduring power of her politically royal name.
Interviews with about 50 New Yorkers — people from upstate and across town, people of all ages and races and political persuasions — suggest that the Kennedy brand is rich with resonance. But it also provokes resentment and puzzlement, especially among younger voters, who are suspicious of dynastic politics as the Bush era ends, and are uncertain of where in the famous family tree she falls.
“I don’t know who her father is, but if you told me, I bet I would know,” said Michelle Kuhns, 21, a senior at St. John’s University in Queens who was working during her holiday break at a bagel shop on Long Island. “I’ve heard the name, yes. But that’s it.”
New York’s connection to the Kennedys is long and illustrious. President Kennedy and his brother Robert, who once held the Senate seat that Ms. Kennedy is seeking, spent childhood years in Riverdale in the Bronx and Bronxville in Westchester. Her father carried the state in 1960; her uncle was elected senator in 1964.
But Ms. Kennedy’s relationship with New York has been a quiet one. Until she became a fund-raiser for the city’s public schools in 2002, she had been largely overshadowed by her brother, John Jr., who was called People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1988 and founded George, a political magazine, in 1995.
Now people here are taking her measure.
“THE KENNEDYS…I THINK THEY RUINED THE COUNTRY!”
“The Kennedys — don’t get me started,” said Tom Gorey, 60, who was Christmas shopping on Long Island. “I think they ruined the country.”
Skeptics questioned whether Ms. Kennedy knows about places like Buffalo, Utica, or Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, and the pressures on working people in hard times. “What I want is someone who is going to cut spending and cut taxes,” said Jim Nowicki, 47, an insurance company employee in Buffalo, “someone who can bring business back here.”
But by far the largest gap between those stirred by the Kennedy mystique and those unmoved is time.
People who knew the name of the pony she rode when she lived at the White House (Macaroni), or remembered where they were when the president was shot, or recalled her uncle’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral expressed an affection for the family and interest in her bid for senator.
Michael Petagina, 52, who owns a hobby shop in White Plains, suggested that Ms. Kennedy would be excellent in the Senate — and beyond.
“She’s for truth, justice and the American way,” Mr. Petagina said. “She did the right thing staying out of politics to raise her family, and now I think she’ll be the next president of the United States.”
Doreen Horrigan, a Buffalo businesswoman in her 40s, said she had always hoped that John F. Kennedy Jr., who was killed with his wife and sister-in-law in a plane crash in 1999, would have sought public office. “I was looking forward to him,” she said. “His passing was tragic.”
Among those born after 1970, the Kennedy story seems to have a different cast of players. Outside Madison Square Garden, Chiara Veltri, 27, who was asked about Ms. Kennedy’s political ambition, responded with a rumination about “John Kennedy,” which unspooled for several minutes before it became clear that she was not talking about the 35th president, but his son.
“When I was a kid, I really loved him,” said Ms. Veltri, an assistant bank manager. “He had such charisma, and you could tell he was a nice guy.” As it turned out, she had seen him once on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Whether the Kennedy mystique applies to Ms. Kennedy, people were not sure. “Caroline Kennedy has great intentions. She comes from a great, wonderful family, but I just don’t know enough about her,” Ms. Horrigan said.
Many residents interviewed last week, as Ms. Kennedy began a series of meetings with political leaders around the state, spoke of her apparent reserve: Ms. Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama for president in January marked her first venture into electoral politics. Her phone call this month to Gov. David A. Paterson, who will make the Senate appointment, was her second.
Yvonne DeWitt, 51, who was waiting for a bus in downtown Albany, said she viewed Ms. Kennedy’s earlier reticence as evidence of character. “You can tell in the way she speaks. She’s not about herself,” Ms. DeWitt said. “She’s a very spiritual and beautiful woman, in her heart.”
The same quality came across differently to Joseph Scali, a Middletown lawyer. “I’m troubled by the arrogance — the idea that she feels she can purposely remain inactive in the political arena and then assume a sense of entitlement,” he said in White Plains.
Elmer A. DeLeon, 23, manager of a hip-hop group called Solar, said he was familiar with Ms. Kennedy but dismissed her bid for public office. “I don’t think she’s qualified,” he said, “She’s using her name to get into office. The way this country is going, we need people who are going to do their job.”
The public sentiments are unlikely to have any immediate weight on Ms. Kennedy’s candidacy because voters have no say in whether she gets the seat. Mr. Paterson will appoint a candidate of his choosing. About a dozen candidates have been mentioned, including Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan and Queens, and the state attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo. The seat will be in play in the 2010 election and again in 2012.
Ciro Mele, 63, who was interviewed at the Off-Track Betting parlor on Canal Street in Manhattan, suggested that New Yorkers should not waste a minute worrying about Ms. Kennedy’s qualifications or whether she was leapfrogging over hard-working public servants. The state can learn from California’s experience, he said.
Just look what her family did for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he said. Offering a rendition of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s signature line, “I’ll be back,” as several buddies chuckled from their plastic chairs, he said the former actor improved his social standing when he wed Maria Shriver.
“Now he’s married to a Kennedy, and he says things like ‘I ascertained such and such,’ ” Mr. Mele said.
He is confident New York will be equally enhanced if it takes a chance on Caroline Kennedy.
“She’ll be good,” said Mr. Mele, a retiree. “It’s in her blood.”