There’s something with Americans that makes us hate entitlement. We just can’t stand people who think they should get something just because it’s their prerogative, and naturally coupled with that is our love of underdogs. But there are problems that arise when we so easily generalize about who the good and bad guys are.

When I first heard that Caroline Kennedy might be appointed to fill the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, an almost embarrassing excitement overtook me. Always a pragmatic skeptic, I’m generally not easily bowled over. And yet here I was, swept away at the prospect of President John Kennedy’s daughter going to the Senate.

My excitement went beyond just the creepy fixation a lot of people have with the Kennedys. Caroline is a lawyer who has written books on civil liberties and the Constitution. To a law student like me, that counts for at least six years of political experience. That, along with the very personal endorsement she gave to Barack Obama and the vibrant (even if not prolific) voice she became on the campaign trail, seemed to make her one among many appropriate choices for New York Gov. David Paterson to consider.

And then came the backlash, mostly from those salt-o’-the-Earth New Yorkers (iced lattés and all) decrying what they saw as prissy entitlement: “Caroline Kennedy isn’t experienced enough. She isn’t enough of a New Yorker. She’s just a child of privilege blinded by vanity.”

Some of that criticism is true. Kennedy has never held political office, and the Senate is an assumptive place to start. Although she attended Columbia Law School and has lived in New York City most of her life, Kennedy hasn’t exactly had an ear pressed to the ground for news regarding the rest of the state. And while she appears to be a very grounded person, entertaining even the thought of being nominated to the Senate without any political experience does hint at a sense of entitlement.

But these are all little things. What politician doesn’t have a sense of entitlement? (Isn’t it a requirement, really?) At least Kennedy has lived in New York for most of her life, which is much more than could be said for Hillary Clinton. And after an election where New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported Obama, they hardly have the right to throw Kennedy’s lack of experience in her face.

Yet, while Kennedy did have a solid rank of supporters, the backlash steadily gained steam in recent weeks. Kennedy’s abrupt decision last week to withdraw herself from consideration for the seat was almost certainly a result of her seeing the writing on the wall.

For hardworking, everyday Americans, liking an affluent Kennedy is tough. It’s much easier to embrace an underdog because we like our heroes to rise from being face down in the streets, not from the laps of presidents (George W. Bush was an unfortunate aberration). We like someone we can point at as we tell our kids that they can do anything if they really try.

For example, let me describe to you the exact type of hero we like. Imagine a poor boy, a son of poor Serbian immigrants, living in a poor Chicago neighborhood. His father is a poor steel worker; his family is poor, so he works odd jobs to make some money. Somehow he rises from all that poorness to go to college, does well enough to transfer to Northwestern University and then goes on to get a law degree. Tearing up yet? Is this ultimate underdog overload or what? Wait, it actually gets better. Our poor immigrant boy goes into politics and becomes the governor of Illinois.

Yes, that’s the true story of Rod Blagojevich.

Obviously, not all underdogs are sleazy, and I’m certainly not saying that rich people should be handed everything in life. That would be an awful state of affairs where incompetent people would be in power just because of who their fathers were. But actively working to preclude people who may have had famous fathers is just as bad: They have the right to be considered just like any other qualified person. Kennedy is hardly the first to think she is entitled to a Senate seat, and she has plenty of reasons for thinking so. But why is she the only one who has to answer for her family, her name and her money?

While not nearly as harsh or destructive as racism or sexism, this obsession with the little guy and this vindictive hatred of those who may not have had to work seven jobs through high school really amounts to a prejudice (the same prejudice recently espoused in the jingoistic, “real America” stylings of Sarah Palin). And prejudices, no matter how well-meaning or minimal, always have nasty consequences.

Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at

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