Caroline, or Change

Remember when "Caroline Kennedy" was "Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg"?

In yesterday’s front-page story exploring Caroline Kennedy’s name recognition in her bid for New York’s vacant Senate seat, The New York Times made an observation: “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.”

Too true. Yet one can’t help but pause for a moment, reading this meditation on the “enduring power” of Ms. Kennedy’s name, and remember that, until recently, “Ms. Kennedy” was, per the Times, not “Ms. Kennedy” at all, but “Ms. Schlossberg”—the married name by which, for the past twenty-odd years, the media have generally designated the princess of Camelot.

Now that said princess is making movements toward reclaiming her crown…the media seem to be having a bit of a vicarious identity crisis on her behalf. What should they call Caroline? Should what they call her really matter? (Insert your favorite what’s in a name? cliche here.) Technically, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy’s name is…Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, or “Caroline Kennedy” for short: When she married Edwin Schlossberg in 1986, Caroline didn’t become, strictly speaking, a Schlossberg. (“You don’t use the name Schlossberg, do you?” Larry King asked her in a 2002 interview. “I mean, you do and you don’t.” To which she responded, “Right. Well, I never really changed my name.”)

But Caroline’s own Kennedy-uber-alles attitude toward her surname didn’t stop the media from re-naming Jack and Jackie’s daughter on her behalf. Between 1986 and early 2008, according to Nexis and newspaper archive searches, most publications generally referred to Caroline as “Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.” As if to solidify the point, they generally shorthanded her subsequent references not to “Ms. Kennedy Schlossberg”—but simply to “Ms. Schlossberg.”

In answer to the what’s-in-a-name question, then, the media have been suggesting: Caroline’s a Kennedy, sure, but she’s something else, too. For better or for worse.

And yet, of late, “Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg”—the name that tacitly represented Caroline as more than the sum of her ribonucleic parts, as a person independent of her famous family—has lost a limb. Now that Caroline seems to be embracing her Kennedy side—which is to say, her political side—the media have been engaging in a bit of selective amnesia when it comes to that whole, politically inconvenient Schlossberg thing. (Schlossberg: not too sexy-sounding. Not too Christian-sounding. Not too Camelot-sounding.) In that, they’re showing Caroline de-facto favor: “Kennedy,” star power aside, connotes innate political ability, talent that exists regardless of political experience; “Schlossberg,” meanwhile, serves as a reminder of the largely apolitical existence Caroline has carved for herself for the past several decades. In hacking off the Schlossberg in their coverage of Caroline, the media are essentially giving her a free pass when it comes to the issue of her experiential preparedness to become a U.S. senator. Because, “let’s face it,” Amy Holmes declared on CNN the other day, discussing Caroline’s legislative aspirations. “If we were talking about Caroline Schlossberg, this conversation would be absurd.”

The media, perhaps aware of that fact, have occasionally come up with creative ways to dodge The Schlossberg Problem. To wit: the old Skirt The Issue With A Nickname trick (referring to her as “Princess Caroline” and the like); the Have It Both Ways approach (referring to her as “Caroline Kennedy” and “Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg” in the same article); the Parenthetical Compromise (referring to her as “Caroline Kennedy (Schlossberg)”); the Maiden Name Reversion (referring to her as “Caroline Bouvier Kennedy”). But for the most part, recent media coverage of the erstwhile “Ms. Schlossberg” has simply sawed off the inconvenient appendage with nary a nod to the phantom limb. (Caroline Kennedy…! Caroline Kennedy…! Caroline Kennedy…!)

For the record, Ms. Bouvier Kennedy Princess Camelot Mrs. Schlossberg Ms. Kennedy Caroline is still married to Edwin Schlossberg. Though the National Enquirer and other gossip sites have speculated about Caroline’s de facto separation from her husband, those rumors are unsubstantiated. And, anyway, it’s her political patrons who are compelling Caroline’s nominal reversion to Camelot. At her appearance at the Democratic National Convention this summer, Caroline, introducing “Uncle Teddy” to a boisterous crowd, spoke with a giant marquee—emblazoned with CAROLINE KENNEDY in an all-caps sans-serif—behind her. Compare that to her speech at 2000’s DNC, in which Caroline was deemed not “Caroline Kennedy,” nor even “Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg,” but rather “Caroline Schlossberg.”

“People call me whatever they call me,” Caroline told Time magazine in 2002 in response to a to-Schloss-or-not-to-Schloss query, her rhetorical shrug at once dismissing and enabling the media’s surnominal free-for-all.

To an extent, fair enough: Names shouldn’t really matter, after all; their value should be purely referential. And yet one doesn’t need to be Jhumpa Lahiri to know that, for better or for worse, we’re always judging people by their names, by those most personal of book covers. And the stakes of that judgment are particularly high in politics, where one’s good name, literally and figuratively, can be a strong asset (just ask the Bushes, the Clintons, the Cuomos, the Patersons, the Bidens, the Bayhs, the Daleys, the Gores, etc.)—and where one’s bad name can be a big liability (see Rod Blagojevich and the failed senatorial bid of Rep. Ima Commey).

If we can admit that names matter generally, we must also admit that names matter when it comes to Caroline Whatever-We-Call-Her…and that, furthermore, passively allowing for the streamlining of Caroline’s surname smacks of pro-Camelot, if not pro-Caroline, bias. It glosses over the choices Caroline has made over the past several decades—choices that have moved her farther away, not closer to, her political legacy—and suggests that, of all the things that are in a name, the first of them is entitlement. As the New York Post’s sports columnist, Hondo, declared late last week, “Caroline Kennedy might be the favorite to fill Hillary’s double-wide Senate seat, but she wouldn’t even be under consideration if her name were, say, Schlossberg.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.