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The New Kennedys

24 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Washington

The rule used to be that as soon as someone named Kennedy let it be known that he was testing the political waters, they parted. The media anointed him the front runner, the competition scattered, and the campaign dollars rolled in. But last week the opposite happened. First, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that William Kennedy Smith was considering a run for Congress from a solidly Democratic North Chicago district; his consultants had been quietly assembling focus groups to determine whether voters would forgive or forget his 1991 trial on a rape charge, of which he was acquitted. But three days after the story broke, Smith backed out of the race, saying he still hoped “to have that honor and that experience at some point in my life.” For Smith even to think about running was a leap, given the notoriety of his Palm Beach trial–the first media frenzy of the cable-news era. That he did think about it proves that the Kennedy sense of entitlement is alive and well in 2001–and that the family business still beguiles and beckons those who grew up in it, lived with its ghosts, and were scorched by its relentless scrutiny and boundless expectations.

Running was too big a risk–for Smith and for the family’s aura of invincibility. (Only one family member, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has ever lost a general election.) Smith is the fifth member of the clan this year to float a trial balloon, then pop it. Almost as many have entered races to stay. Four Kennedys by birth or marriage are running–two for Governor, two for Congress. Should they all prevail, there will be five family members in federal or statewide office–the most ever–including patriarch Ted Kennedy, who won an easy re-election last year and is at the height of his power in the Senate. Not bad for a dynasty that enjoyed its heyday before most living Americans were born.

The 559,000 people who stood in line to see the Jacqueline Kennedy show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City testify to the enduring power of Kennedy nostalgia, and the flock of Kennedy books coming this fall (and they come every fall, as surely as touch football and Cape Cod rain) demonstrate the family’s enduring power in the marketplace (hot title: The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, by Caroline Kennedy). But that exhibit and those books summon the magic of departed Kennedys–J.F.K. and Jackie, R.F.K., J.F.K. Jr. The story of the new generation isn’t about magic; it is about making peace with a myth that can kill you if you let it. The Kennedys have been downsized, not only by their frailties but also by what politics has become. Most of the third-generation cousins do public-service work that doesn’t require voter approval. Tim Shriver runs the Special Olympics, Will Smith fights to ban land mines, and Rory Kennedy makes films about poverty, addiction and human rights. Robert Kennedy Jr. made headlines last month when he was jailed in Puerto Rico for breaking into a bombing range to protest U.S. military exercises on Vieques Island. While he was in prison, his wife Mary gave birth to their sixth child; they named him Aidan Caohman Vieques Kennedy. After Bobby returned home, he won a major battle in his long crusade to clean up the Hudson River. If such causes appear modest next to staring down the Russians, integrating the South or going to the moon, they are not. They are simply of their time.

The best place to see how the Kennedy past serves the Kennedy present may be the leafy Maryland estate of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, J.F.K.’s brother-in-law and sister. One recent summer Sunday afternoon found Arnold Schwarzenegger strolling across his in-laws’ park-size lawn in a lavender polo shirt and pondering the $28 cigar someone had handed him. “The most dangerous thing,” he chortled, “is Democrats with money.” Eunice and her television-star daughter Maria, Schwarzenegger’s wife, were working the driveway, where people were arriving by the hundreds. And over by the rented pony ride, a Today show camera crew was trailing Maria’s cousin, the woman everyone expects to be the next Governor of Maryland. “We really come from a wonderful family,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

That “family picnic” was the second fund raiser there in less than a week for Mark Kennedy Shriver, who is looking to step up to Congress from the Maryland state assembly. A month before, the $10-a-head “50th-birthday party” the Shrivers threw for Kathleen backed up traffic more than a mile as nearly 5,000 people showed up for R.F.K.’s eldest.

Is it any wonder that no credible opponent of either party has stepped forward to challenge her? “There is a classic Kennedy formula,” says Brown University political scientist Darrell West. “It’s based on media, money and scaring off the opposition.”

Counting the in-laws, the family has the potential to stretch its brand of celebrity politicians from coast to coast. Schwarzenegger, the clan’s lone Republican, took a pass on next year’s California Governor’s race but says he’ll probably run for something someday. Andrew Cuomo, who is married to R.F.K.’s daughter Kerry, has his own pedigree as the son of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, but in trying to avenge his dad’s gubernatorial loss to George Pataki, he’s relying almost as much on his Camelot connection. “Why do we love Andrew Cuomo?” TV’s Rosie O’Donnell asked 1,000 people at Cuomo’s $1.5 million fund raiser in Manhattan this summer. “He had the good sense to marry a Kennedy.”

Is it noblesse oblige that propels some Kennedys toward elected office, or a sense of divine right? Do they represent the last gasp of an old order, or the first breath of a new one? “I definitely would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my family name and connections,” says Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, 34, who used that name and those connections to shatter fund-raising records last year as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I often joke that I’m the best example of why there should be campaign-finance reform.”

But the rules of the game have changed, even for the Kennedys. Patrick, Ted’s younger son, recalls Caroline’s reaction to the news that he was mentoring two cousins considering congressional races: “Mark and Max coming to you for advice? God help us.” But he says there are some insights that only a Kennedy can offer another Kennedy, and chief among them is this: “Disabuse yourself of the notion that there’s this machine out there that just kind of materializes when you say, ‘Yes–go!’ Growing up watching politics as my cousins and I did, you had this warped sense that that’s all you needed to do. That was the way it was for my father’s generation.”

That ol’ Kennedy invincibility is getting noticeably shopworn–even in Massachusetts, where Kennedys have been on the ballot 20 times and never defeated. Not next year. Two prospective candidates and sons of R.F.K.–former Congressman Joe Kennedy II and his younger brother Max–backed away from what could have been brutal races. (Both declined to be interviewed for this article.) “It’s not there for Joe and the others. There are too many problems,” says a Kennedy friend. “And they’re not prone to taking the kind of chances they would have at one time.”

Who can blame them? No one understands better than the Kennedys what it costs to go into politics. If they seize what has been held up as a birthright, they must also accept the diminishing, suffocating comparisons that come with walking in the footprints of giants. “They’re all competing with icons and legends,” says political consultant David Axelrod, who has worked with several of them. That is partly what is drawing them away from Massachusetts, where, as Patrick puts it, “whatever I did, I would be trampling on hallowed ground.” But that’s only the beginning of what it takes to be a Kennedy in politics today. For this generation, it is as much about carving out an identity as about cashing in on a legacy. And the first part is the hardest by far.


As a sweat-soaked Mark Kennedy Shriver trots up to yet another front porch in suburban Maryland, he admonishes a reporter not to step on the grass. When someone opens a door, he begins, “Sorry to bother you…” And when someone doesn’t open one, he scribbles a note on one of his campaign flyers: “Sorry to have missed you…” Mark has met lots of mean dogs this way, and one mean homeowner with a handgun. “You related to Maria Shriver?” the man demanded. Mark put his hands up and said, “Depends.”

Looking at Mark, it would be hard to mistake the features–hair, teeth, the whole Kennedy package. But the sunny Shrivers have always maintained a distance between their ambitions and the rest of the clan. When R.F.K. ran for President in 1968, Sargent Shriver refused to give up his post as L.B.J.’s ambassador to France to come home and campaign for him. Ted paid him back four years later by objecting to George McGovern’s choice of Shriver as a running mate. And when Shriver ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1976, Ted didn’t lift a finger for his brother-in-law.

Mark, however, is a polite, hard-working cousin who, in the view of the larger clan, has earned the right to enter the family business. He was raised in the district he seeks to represent, founded a widely praised program in Baltimore for inner-city youth and did his time in the state assembly.

Yet he has his own uneasy relationship with being a Kennedy. Mark bristles when it is suggested he is running on his name, but he hasn’t forged much of an individual identity. He’s against the death penalty, in favor of education spending–dependably Kennedyesque. The family has in fact been crucial to Mark in his bid to unseat popular Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella next year. Uncle Ted has given two fund raisers on his behalf so far. His campaign has appropriated two time-honored Kennedy themes: money and influence. Mark has outraised his three primary opponents combined, in a race that Democrats know will be expensive if they are to have a prayer of beating Morella.

Mark’s candidacy presents an excruciating dilemma for many Maryland Democrats. His primary opponent is State Senator Christopher Van Hollen, 42, a hero to environmentalists, education groups and gun-control advocates–the voters that Democrats will need to defeat Morella. There’s talk of a Solomonic solution: redistricting Montgomery County into two so that Van Hollen can run in the heavily Democratic parts and Shriver can vie with Morella for the rest. If that doesn’t happen, Kathleen could lend a hand by tapping Van Hollen for the second spot on her ticket. It helps to have friends–and especially family–in the right places.


For a decade, Patrick Kennedy’s career was set on fast forward. He had lived in Rhode Island just a year and was only a college sophomore when he decided to take on a 10-year incumbent for the state legislature in 1988. “Who’s Patrick Kennedy?” Jack Skeffington asked when he heard about his upstart primary opponent. “Is it a big deal?”

A very big deal, as it turned out. Ted detailed a top staff member to the campaign and called nearly every day to urge his son to work harder. Patrick knocked on 3,000 doors and spent an unheard-of $93,000–$73 for every vote he got–to win a $300-a-year job. On Election Day, Ted, Joan and John Jr. stationed themselves at polling places with hired photographers and Polaroid cameras, posing for souvenir snapshots with voters. Even Skeffington’s campaign manager had one taken. Patrick won in a landslide, and on election night Ted phoned Jackie and Rose to announce that it had been his “happiest election.”

Patrick was 26 the first time he was asked on television whether he would someday like to run for President, and he didn’t hedge: “Yes.” When he arrived in Washington as a freshman Congressman in 1995, the only question seemed to be when he would make his move for the Senate. Ted made no secret of his dream to see his son serve alongside him.

It wasn’t charisma that fueled the buzz. Speechmaking so terrified Patrick that colleagues recall seeing his hands shake from across the chamber. But he was determined to win their respect–and their gratitude. When Patrick took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1998, they all got to share in the fund-raising clout of the Kennedy name. Donors who gave the party $100,000 or more got a weekend at the family compound in Hyannis Port. And Patrick worked harder than anyone else ever had at the job, giving up his committee assignments, leaving leadership meetings early so he could go dial for dollars. “He was awesome,” says House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt. “Seven days a week, 18 hours a day.” The result: congressional Democrats raised more than $90 million–nearly triple what they ever had before.

But the effort kept Patrick away from his district for long stretches and took its toll on his popularity. Polls last winter showed his approval ratings in Rhode Island sliding below 50% after two angry incidents became public. In March 2000, he was videotaped shoving a Los Angeles airport security guard; in August, he had an argument with a girlfriend aboard a rented yacht that brought Coast Guard intervention.

As Patrick sees it now, he has a choice. “There’s no mortal blow here. It’s really a question of whether I react or I respond,” he told TIME. “One is steeped in self-appraisal and maturity, and one is kind of superficial and temporary. I’m responding; I’m not reacting.” He left the campaign committee, shook up his staff and brought back trusted family political advisers. He became a different kind of Congressman–one who acknowledged some frailties that made him seem more human, less like a Kennedy fund-raising machine. Having gone public with the fact that he has sought therapy and taken medication to combat depression, he champions legislation to improve mental-health services. He took back his Appropriations Committee seat, and he sends home regular reports about getting new buses for the Rhode Island transit authority, dock repairs for Prudence Island and fancy digital radios for the Pawtucket police.

As Patrick redoubled his fund-raising efforts to meet a possible 2002 challenge from term-limited G.O.P. Governor Lincoln Almond, the family pitched in. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were hosts for a concert at Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room that hauled in $100,000. A clambake at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port cleared $75,000. In March, Patrick made a surprise appearance onstage at the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies. Dressed in a sailor suit, he sang a rewrite of the Gilligan’s Island theme. (“I’d asked a gal whom I had met/To take an evening cruise./Little did I know that it/Would make the evening news./And boy did I get bruised.”) He joked that when he returned to Rhode Island after giving up the Democratic fund-raising job, he saw his own face on a milk carton.

Patrick’s friends say the setbacks have liberated him from the expectations that have defined his political career. “Not just the expectations of others,” says an adviser, “but the expectations of his own family.” Last year, for the first time in his life, Patrick passed up an advancement opportunity, opting not to run for the seat left open by Senator John Chafee’s death. For now, he says, “I’ve gotta be in my own skin.” He says he feels “free from having to cringe. There’s no sense hiding anything, because it’s all out there. It makes you honest about your frailties, because guess what? You’ve got to get to a place where you can deal with them. There’s no running away from them in this business.”


To be a successful Kennedy in public life, it helps to have already come to terms with what it means to be a Kennedy in private life. Both Joe II, the firstborn male of the third generation, and Max, the younger brother born too late to know his father as anything but an icon, seemed to feel entitled to hold office. But they learned the hard way that modern politics spits out Kennedys who don’t make the grade.

Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy was three when R.F.K. was assassinated. Born the ninth of 11 children, he grew up in the sad, chaotic shrine that was Hickory Hill. Ethel, Robert’s widow, was intent on keeping his memory alive through her children. “The R.F.K.s had a very different [experience],” William Kennedy Smith says of his cousins. “There is an enormous focus there on that legacy that perhaps other branches of the family don’t quite have to deal with as much.”

But it was the darker Kennedy storylines that Ethel’s unruly boys often followed, with their recklessness and substance abuse. There was a lost quality to affable, flaky Max. He told interviewer Matt Bai that in reading the 1958 psychoanalytical text The Quest for Identity, he saw himself.

Max’s quest drew him to Bobby. He became curator of R.F.K.’s papers and pored over his father’s book collection to see which parts had been underlined. Eventually, he compiled Bobby’s best speeches and favorite passages into a book, Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy. “Obviously, this project is an attempt to make whole a part of myself,” he told the Palm Beach Post. But Max insisted he was not interested in bearing the weight of his father’s legacy. “Carrying the torch?” he said. “That is so not me.”

At least not until Joe Moakley, South Boston’s beloved 15-term Congressman, announced last February that he was dying of leukemia. Max had bounced around the country from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, but in the carpetbagging Kennedy tradition, he suddenly bought a five-bedroom colonial in Moakley’s blue-collar district. Patrick arranged for his cousin to have an audience with Moakley. Max tapped the Kennedy union connections, fund-raising network and advisers. Almost overnight, he became the presumed front runner in a potential field that included at least half a dozen seasoned pols.

Then voters got a look at him. In his first big speech, at a May 17 breakfast honoring his father, Max dug at his ear and mumbled. He giggled and spaced out, and at a second event later that day, identified the long-retired Byron White as a current Justice of the Supreme Court. Columnists started calling him “Hey Dude” and “Rainman.”

Ted sensed a major problem. The Senator is a constant presence in the lives of his children, nieces and nephews, a mentor and a sounding board. He will let his staff sit in when another Senator calls–sometimes even when the President is on the line–but everyone in the office knows that “when any family member calls, you immediately get up and leave,” a former aide says. As chief protector of the Kennedy franchise, “Ted understands that every time there is a Kennedy name on the ballot, the stakes are high for the entire family,” says Brown University’s West, who wrote a biography of Patrick. By the time Moakley died, on Memorial Day, the Senator’s misgivings about Max were mounting. In an extraordinary breach of family secrecy, word leaked to the Boston Globe. Privately, Ted laid out the realities for Max as bluntly as he could, according to two sources familiar with the conversation. You can win and you have an advantage, he told his nephew. But it will take a lot more work–and it will get ugly.

Max got a taste of what Ted meant in mid-June, when the Boston Herald reported that Max and his first cousin Michael Skakel–now charged with a 25-year-old murder in Connecticut–were arrested in 1983 for assaulting a Harvard campus cop. Then came a Globe poll showing Max in a dead heat with state senator Stephen Lynch, an ex-ironworker who grew up in the blue-collar Southie neighborhood. That weekend, four days before Max was to announce his candidacy, his press spokesman, Scott Ferson, got a call from Hyannis Port. “I’m not going to do this,” Max told him.

The political world Max ducked out of was vastly different from the one big brother Joe sailed into in 1986. Joe’s gifts as a campaigner and the Kennedy machinery had propelled him to Congress, blowing away an 11-candidate Democratic field in his first run.

The problems started when he got there. Bobby’s eldest son picked fights with his colleagues, who conspicuously left committee hearings when his turn came to speak. A female lawmaker recalled that when Joe noticed her fiddling with a bra strap during a caucus meeting, he leaned over and whispered, “You need any help with that?” His fits of temper drove staff members away, but they saw a vulnerable, insecure side as well. “There was this huge fear of failure. His mother fueled that a lot,” recalls one. Ethel told Joe he would never be what his father was, that he was not as smart, not as talented. “When he would get off the phone with her,” the former aide recalls, “he would literally look deflated.”

When Joe finally buckled down, he made a Kennedyesque imprint on the Banking Committee, lending his star power to legislation that helped poor people get loans and housing. But he was acutely aware of the opportunity he had squandered. “You’ll do fine,” he advised Patrick when his younger cousin arrived in the House in 1994. “Just don’t do it the way I did it.”

Joe had all but announced that he was running for Governor in 1997 when he was hit by two scandals: his ex-wife’s devastating book detailing the breakup of their marriage, and the disclosure that his brother and campaign manager, Michael, had been having an affair with a teenage babysitter. His cousin John Jr. wrote that Joe and Michael were “poster boys for bad behavior,” and Joe’s lead in the polls evaporated. He withdrew from the primary and, after Michael was killed in a skiing accident the following New Year’s Eve, from politics entirely. He again came close to running for Governor last spring, then backed away, fueling speculation that he might be holding out for Ted’s Senate seat, should his uncle, who turns 70 next year, hang it up in 2006. But a friend who has seen him lately is not so sure. Joe is making money, giving speeches and sitting on boards while he runs his nonprofit energy company, and doing what he wants with his weekends. “He really is, for the first time, as much at peace as he can be,” the friend says. “He’s a lot wiser than he was 15 years ago. He knows himself pretty well, and he just wants to be happy.”


When Joe was sweeping the field in Massachusetts in 1986, his elder sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then 35, was racing around blue-collar neighborhoods outside Baltimore, her slip showing and her hair a mess. She had moved to Maryland two years before to be near her husband’s family. Ignoring the Kennedy precept that home is where the opportunity is, she had bought a house just outside a reliably Democratic district. So when she decided to run for Congress, she found herself up against a nearly unbeatable Republican Congresswoman. Kathleen seemed unsure how–or whether–to capitalize on her biggest political asset: her maiden name. The name explained why national reporters were trailing her quixotic campaign, but she didn’t use it on her bumper stickers and declared that she was running “as my own person.”

Big mistake. By Election Day, the party had written her off, removing her name from its list of priority candidates. She lost by 18 percentage points–the only Kennedy ever to lose a general election. What she needed to learn was how to break the Kennedy mold without destroying its value.

If she was ambivalent, Parris Glendening wasn’t. Glendening, who barely knew her, put her on his gubernatorial ticket in 1994 primarily for the Kennedy name. But part of the deal was that the traditionally invisible Lieutenant Governor’s office would get a portfolio that included criminal justice and economic development. When they nearly lost their re-election bid in 1998, a last-minute ad campaign starring Kathleen saved them. Internal polls saw their numbers jump 12 points when her name was mentioned.

Today the Lieutenant Governor sits in a Maryland statehouse office once occupied by Thomas Jefferson, in a chair her father used as U.S. Attorney General. If she wins next year’s Governor’s race, as expected, it seems only a matter of time before she ends up on a national ticket.

It is a place, she says, where she never imagined she would be. Kathleen once considered becoming a nun and spent time planting pistachio trees on a New Mexico reservation. When she got married, her bridesmaids gave her a potter’s wheel. “I didn’t think I’d run for political office,” she told TIME. “I grew up in a family that loved politics, but it was for the men, not the women.” The women, she said, were “supposed to work hard.” And unlike the boys, to toe the line. Her letters to her grandmother Rose came back full of corrections, written in red.

But with the women’s movement, Kathleen says, came an awareness of “strengths in me I hadn’t recognized.” She is not always the steadiest politician–she is known for mangling the language in a way that seems more genetically Bush than Kennedy, with coinages such as “Hispanish”–but she has shaken off most of the doubts that Maryland’s political elite once had about her. And no Kennedy of her generation has been as skillful as Kathleen at enjoying the benefits of being American royalty without being swallowed by them. Kathleen “lobbied the hell out of us” to nail down a prime-time speaking slot at last year’s Democratic National Convention, says a former Gore-campaign official. (But she lost the high-profile gig to her cousin Caroline, the princess of Camelot.)

In a family that stands for liberalism, Kathleen maintains an ideological separation. She is a stalwart of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, an organization Patrick once blasted for “jeopardizing our values.” And she supports the death penalty not because it is a deterrent, she explains, but because there are “awful people” who don’t “have a right to live.”

Her uncle Ted once told the Washington Post that if you took a secret ballot of the family, Kathleen would be voted most responsible. It’s one comparison she doesn’t mind. “The Democratic Party got away from believing personal responsibility was part of our agenda,” she says. “But I’ve always believed it was part of mine.” For the Kennedy who is trying to getting it right, that’s not a bad place to start.

–With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington

For a Kennedy family tree, photo album and past Kennedy covers of TIME, go to time.com/kennedy

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