Timothy Noah opens his Ted Kennedy profile on this note: “Talk about inauspicious beginnings. At the tender age of 30, the youngest sibling of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy seemed pathetically unqualified to enter the U.S. Senate.”
The point is to highlight the irony that Ted went on to become the greatest of the Kennedy brothers. But it’s worth being clear about the fact that he had such an impressive career in part precisely because he initially got a job he wasn’t qualified for. The Senate operates largely on the basis of seniority. A guy who can enter his fifth term and only be 54 years old is a guy who’s going to be able to wield some major influence for a long time. And yet Massachusetts must have had many better-qualified potential senators who, had they gotten the gig, never would have acquired Kennedy’s legacy not just because they would have lacked Kennedy’s skills but because they would have been too young.
This winds up having some odd systematic effects. It’s nice, for example, to see a veteran progressive legislator like Bernie Sanders get a “promotion” up the Senate. But the man’s 67 years old, so he’s never going to amass tons of seniority and we’re never going to hear about “powerful Energy Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont.” And yet Vermont is a reliably liberal state. If some other, equally progressive but much-less-qualified man had won that Senate seat instead, the cause of progressive politics might have been much better served in the long run. In large part, I think this is just one of several reasons why both houses of congress ought to reduce the significance of seniority (and also of committee chairmen) but given the system we have in place it’s something savvy political activists should keep in mind. When you’re looking at a fairly safe seat, it’s very good to find a young candidate.