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External Flame

If Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg is crazy for Barack Obama, the guy must really be something special, right?

This, clearly, is the line of thinking Team Obama hopes voters will follow as it thrusts the lone surviving child of John F. Kennedy to the fore of its presidential effort. First there was Kennedy Schlossberg's endorsement of the candidate during the primaries, followed by her appearance in a campaign ad and at multiple rallies for him. Then, upon securing the nomination, Obama promptly tapped Kennedy Schlossberg for his vice-presidential selection committee.

Critics may deride Kennedy Schlossberg as an unqualified and twitty political dilettante, but it doesn't take a strategy expert to grasp why Obama has carved out such a prominent role for her. She is a Kennedy. She is a woman. Better still, up to this point she has largely steered clear of the unseemly business of electoral politics. Instead, she has nurtured the family legacy by quietly tending the memories of others: first dad, then mom, and even brother John. In a family full of paparazzi magnets, self-promoters, and aspiring political stars, Kennedy Schlossberg has long glowed softly in the minds of many as the Great Custodian--an eternally gracious, dignified, selfless link to a purer, more buoyant political age.

But this alliance may be an even shrewder move for Kennedy Schlossberg than for Obama. It's been 45 years since the fall of Camelot, and the family brand has begun to fade. A growing portion of the electorate was born after the deaths of John and Bobby and has a tough time relating to the Kennedy fixation of its elders. Under such conditions, what's a committed custodian of the family legacy to do? Hitch her clan's wagon to the hottest political star in decades. With a little luck, even as that old Camelot magic rubs off on Obama, the candidate's energy and relevance will help sustain the Kennedy brand for a little longer. If that means Kennedy Schlossberg must surrender her cherished privacy to suffer through unflattering media cycles and self-conscious stump speeches (memo to the campaign: urge her not to try a fist pump again--ever), then so be it. For JFK's daughter, preserving the family legacy has always come first. And, as the last few months have shown, she's pretty darn good at it--or, at least, better than her reputation as a political naif would suggest.

For Americans of a certain age, Caroline Kennedy will forever be the cherubic blonde tot riding her pony on the White House lawn--an image so heartwarming it spurred songwriter Neil Diamond to pen "Sweet Caroline." As an adult, much of her professional energy has been dedicated to restoring the spirit and ethos of that time. In 1989, she, her mother, and her brother founded the Profiles In Courage Award to honor public officials "whose actions best demonstrate the qualities of politically courageous leadership in the spirit of" JFK's 1957 Pulitzer-winning book by the same name. She serves as president of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and on the advisory board of Harvard's Institute of Politics, established by the family as a living tribute to the former president.

It is not only her father's legacy that she labors to uphold. Upon her mother's death in 1994, Kennedy Schlossberg became more visible in New York's philanthropic and cultural world. Most prominently, she took over Jackie's seat as honorary chair of American Ballet Theatre, presiding over the company's annual gala. (ABT's school was renamed after Jackie in 2004.) And, in the wake of her younger brother's tragic plane crash in 1999, Kennedy Schlossberg temporarily took on some of his duties. Among her first public appearances after John's death was to present the JFK "hero awards" bestowed by the Robin Hood Foundation, one of her brother's pet charities. At the time, she spoke to people of her desire to support the causes that John had cared about.

As for politics, Kennedy Schlossberg's involvement has typically been confined to the service of the family. During her undergraduate years at Harvard, she spent summers interning in "Uncle Teddy"'s Senate office to gain an appreciation of the family's history. In 1994, she stumped for both Ted's sixth Senate bid and cousin Patrick's House race in Rhode Island. She declined an invitation to chair the 1992 Democratic Convention but spoke briefly at the 2000 gathering, officially introducing her uncle.

None of this is to suggest that Kennedy Schlossberg has no identity beyond that of Kennedy custodian. An attorney by training, she has done extensive work with the New York City public schools and also lends her star power to the occasional crusade: In 1998, she came out against an anti-affirmative action initiative in Washington State and spoke at the United Nations urging the U.S. Senate to ratify an international treaty on children's rights.

But even some of her independent endeavors have an elegiac feel. Often identified as an author and editor, Kennedy Schlossberg has co-written two books on civil liberties. Of the books she is best-known for editing, however, most involve her famous family, including a collection of her mother's favorite poems, an update on her father's book (Profiles in Courage for Our Time), a collection of Christmas stories including personal writings from her family, and a collection of her favorite children's poems, knit together with anecdotes from her childhood. To some degree, she is less an editor than an anthologist of family memories.

Even now, as she makes the rare foray onto the trail on behalf of a non- relative, Kennedy Schlossberg invariably frames her support in terms of restoration rather than revolution--of how Obama is renewing our faith in the American Dream like no politician since JFK. Her official endorsement in the January 27 New York Times--headlined A PRESIDENT LIKE MY FATHER--began: "Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama." The TV spot she cut for the campaign, "Caroline," opens with grainy news footage of President Kennedy and of the moon walk.

This back-to-Camelot message carries obvious advantages for Obama, but also potential downsides. Some detractors have, for instance, pointed out that glomming on to the Kennedy mystique is a peculiar strategy for a man whose entire candidacy is predicated on shaking up the status quo and rewriting the rules of the game.

There are, however, fewer apparent negatives for the Kennedys, and therein lies the genius of what Caroline has done. In a lifetime of looking out for the Kennedy name, attaching herself to Obama could turn out to be her most important endeavor yet--allowing her to bolster the family brand in the minds of young voters and thus secure it a role in the party's future. Because, if Barack Obama is crazy for the Kennedys, they must really be something special, right?

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.