But the Dream Should Die
David Kennedy was 12 was his father was murdered. He had been sitting in a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel with Diane Broughton, one of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign aides, watching his father on TV address the crowd after beating Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 California presidential primary. Suddenly, the tone of the coverage shifted. The commentators started talking about a shooting. Broughton turned up the sound. “What happened?” David asked. Broughton said nothing happened, but already David knew, and he sat there staring at the screen, shaking in his blue suit. Eventually Broughton wrapped him in a blanket and held him. Days later, on the train carrying Bobby’s body to Arlington National Cemetery, David spent much of the trip with his head hanging out the window, buffeted by the wind.
A precocious, athletic, and sensitive kid, David had a hard time coping with the twin tragedies that befell his family. By the time he followed his brother Bobby Jr. to Harvard in 1973, the pair were deep into drugs. The only difference was Bobby could keep it together, while David quickly came apart. A run-in with a dirty needle landed him in Mass General in 1976, and he dropped out of Harvard soon after. His family labored to keep his problems under wraps, frequently sending him abroad, institutionalizing him, and subjecting him to experimental treatments. But when David was robbed in a Harlem junkie hotel in 1979, the word got out.
The family expected him to turn up dead sooner or later, yet David managed to live longer than anyone thought possible. He attributed this longevity to being shorn of any illusions about what it meant to be a Kennedy. In reality, he merely traded a crushing public burden for a crushing private one. He carried himself as something of a Shakespearean fool, shambling about, dispensing cold little bits of truth amid the usual junkie perma-babble. “My Uncle Jack and my father always used to quote that Englishman, ‘Politics is the noblest profession,'” he said, not long before fatally overdosing in 1984. “To me, politics is crap. That’s the main thing, maybe the only thing, I’ve learned in my life. America needs a rest from the Kennedys, and vice versa.”
That passage comes from Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s The Kennedys, and the peculiar thing about reading it today is how liberating it feels. Not so much to hardened Kennedy haters, who probably would think David was being a little too charitable toward his family, and not to Kennedy lovers, who would run to the nearest confessional after so much as laying eyes on such an obscenity—but to the rest of us, the people who don’t have a dog in the fight, who are perhaps tired of the endless talk of who will step up as the patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty and help steer the commonwealth and the country through these trying times. Surely, the thinking goes, there must be another one to grab the fabled “fallen standard” that Ted picked up back in ’68. Otherwise it’ll just lie there on the ground like a forlorn rag.
Of course, any rational person should be able to see that, narrative-wise, the core Kennedy mystique, the sense of unfinished business that began with Joe Jr.’s death in World War II and ran through Jack and Bobby, ended with Ted. It was Ted who finally met the family’s political potential; who finally delivered on his brothers’ soaring rhetoric; who managed to become a fully realized public servant as well as a decent man. Undoubtedly, his concrete accomplishments over the course of his Senate career are what drew a lot of people to the streets of Boston to watch his hearse roll past. Yet you have to imagine that even more came to witness the denouement of the Kennedy story itself. And an amazing story it was, one deeply entwined with the fortunes of the country itself for a while there. But it’s over. That chapter is ended. Those days are done.
The turning point of the 2008 presidential campaign is often said to be Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama, but it was Caroline Kennedy’s earlier decision to uncharacteristically step into the spotlight and throw her support behind the candidate that really did it. What followed was a fascinating encapsulation of both the significance and the declining political aptitude of the Kennedy family. On one hand, Caroline’s endorsement was viewed as the Kennedys’ passing the standard to a new generation, finally moving to close the circle. On the other, Caroline seemed to mistake the weight people attached to her endorsement for real political support.
Were it only so. Last year, after Hillary Clinton was nominated to be secretary of state, Caroline ran an abysmal campaign for Clinton’s New York Senate seat. She came across as aloof and entitled, as if she shouldn’t have to work all that hard to qualify for the honor. Then she ran into hapless New York Governor David Paterson. The force of the collision created a black hole of political ineptitude that nearly consumed them both. That experience, says a longtime political adviser to the family, drove home the uncomfortable lesson that “just announcing doesn’t mean that people are going to put you on their shoulders and carry you around.”
The casualness with which the current crop of Kennedys mulls running for office isn’t confined to Caroline, and it should be offensive to anyone who places any stock in the value of a democratic society. By the looks of the family’s win-loss record, maybe it is. In Maryland, Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost a congressional bid in 1986 and the governor’s race in 2002, after winning lieutenant governor. Eunice Kennedy’s son Mark Shriver served two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates before losing a Democratic primary for a congressional seat. Michael Kennedy, son of Bobby, mulled and abandoned two congressional runs before being ensnared in a sex scandal involving his teenage babysitter. William Kennedy Smith, son of Jean Kennedy, had considered a run of his own, but a rape allegation from a decade earlier (of which he was acquitted) rendered him politically inviable.
Even the rare victories hardly hark back to the family’s glory days. Ted’s son Patrick, currently the longest-serving Kennedy, has held fast to his Rhode Island House seat despite substance-abuse problems and a social awkwardness that’s staggering to behold in a professional politician. (“He is one of the most uncomfortable-looking people I’ve ever seen in public,” a veteran Rhode Island Democratic strategist told me. “He shakes, his voice tremors, and you feel sort of bad for him.”) And, of course, there’s Joe Kennedy II. Despite his 12-year stint as a U.S. representative, he decided to opt out of running for Ted’s seat, content with helming his populist quasi-nonprofit, Citizens Energy (which enables him to earn more than half a million dollars while furnishing Hugo Chavez with a running PR victory).
For years, Kennedys have regarded running for office the same way other white, overeducated children of privilege regard grad school. It’s a fallback, the thing to do if you can’t do anything better. Fortunately, they have increasingly shown an affinity for something better. Joe II aside, the family these days is deeply involved in activities that can be seen to further the mission set forth by the previous generation of Kennedys. Bobby Jr. is a well-known environmental lawyer; Bobby’s daughter Rory Kennedy is an award-winning documentarian; her brother Max Kennedy is a renowned writer who cofounded the Urban Ecology Institute at BC; Bobby Shriver started the “Red” campaign with Bono to combat AIDS in Africa; Mark Shriver is the vice president and managing director of Save the Children; Tim Shriver became CEO of the Special Olympics after spending years working with poor youths; Caroline has worked on education issues in New York; Anthony Shriver founded Best Buddies; Mary Kerry Kennedy founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights; and so on. Collectively, they serve on too many boards to count.
The cynical view is that the children of the rich favor charity because giving out money is the one thing it’s impossible to fail at. But still, as a family, the Kennedys have a genuine knack for it. People tend to open their wallets for them, so this line of work allows them to at once serve and avail themselves of the family name, remaining in public life without diluting the brand with any more shoddy campaigns. It calls to mind something JFK Jr. told a friend in the ’90s, before he died. Echoing Lord Acton, wittingly or not, Kennedy said that after reading a lot of biographies, “it occurs to me that most of the great men I read about were not really good men. It would not be that difficult, given my circumstances, to become regarded as great, but I think a much more interesting challenge would be to be a good man.”
While the ruthless and single-minded Joe Sr. would undoubtedly pronounce this the talk of an irredeemable loser, it’s both a noble challenge and an admirable sentiment. Not something you’d expect to come from the Kennedys, after one generation of power-lust and another of scandal and dissipation. Of course, it isn’t the sort of thing the Kennedys’ legions of fawning supporters want to hear, either. Even now. What those people want to hear is that more Kennedys are running. The more the better. A whole galaxy of new Kennedys, lighting up an otherwise forbidding and starless sky.
If nothing else, this kind of slavering allegiance suggests a triumph of advertising the nation has seldom seen. In the early years, the family and its advisers smartly avoided selling the actuality—the personality disorders, the philandering and power-lust, the chronic sickness, spite, crudity, and carelessness with other human beings. Instead, the voters received an image of what they would like their lives to be like. The Kennedys were young, attractive, vivacious, stylish, smart, adventurous, and rich. Like a family of Eames chairs. And all this was bound up in a handy aspirational tale: going from immigrant dockworker to rich ambassador to president, in just three generations. Joe Kennedy Sr., whose ambitions were stoked almost entirely by his hatred of exclusive clubs, called his family “the most exclusive club in the world.” And we could be a part of it, for the mere price of a vote.
Later, as the ’60s played out, the brand changed, but if anything it became even more effective. There was a sense that if this family could keep pushing on toward the future in spite of a string of cruel tragedies that would have leveled other mortals, then so could America. After Bobby was killed, the early JFK romance mingled with deep regret, and the overarching sense of the epic unfinished made the whole package even more politically bankable.
Is it still? I asked Ted Sorensen, a top aide and speechwriter to JFK, whether Ted’s death would signal the beginning of a devaluation of the family’s political currency. He didn’t think so. “I think that for some years, maybe another 10 or 20, candidates will invoke the Kennedy name…and they will quote, if I may modestly say so, some of John F. Kennedy’s speeches.” (Only in Massachusetts do we continue to equate the quality of Jack’s speechmaking with a real ability to govern on the part of his relatives.)
By the looks of it, though, buyers will keep buying what the family has been peddling, at least in this state. For two major reasons: There’s an ever-present desire to replicate that old feeling JFK gave the country, to bring back the days when it seemed as if America could stride boldly into the future without suffering a total emotional breakdown, the way it always seems to. Second, the fruits of democracy, while occasionally miraculous, are more often too goddamn banal to be endured. Peanut farmers and haberdashers and vulgar oil men rising to the Oval Office is all well and good, but at least once in a while it would be nice to have someone who satisfies our vestigial longing for royalty, while allowing us to be a part of it through the magic of the democratic process. Hence why Joe II’s demurral shocked the royal subjects, like a king voluntarily abdicating a perfectly good throne. Is that it? Is it over? O the starless sky!
Perish the thought! That’s why, after Ted died, his second wife, Vicki, was pressured to take the seat. She’s an impressive woman, but the notion of her in the Senate was revoltingly monarchical (perhaps why she had the sense to refuse the offer). And so the conversation shifted to Joe Kennedy II. It was said that all other local politicians gave Joe the right of first refusal. The polls showed he could have walked away with it, too, but after undergoing a period of what the Globe called “anguished deliberation,” he of course decided against it. Yet even after that, 59 percent of Massachusetts residents polled still said they’d vote for him. Days later, when the time came to appoint an interim replacement for Ted’s seat, Mike Dukakis’s name was bandied about, but in the end Deval Patrick fell hard for the Kennedys’ pageantry. He appointed Paul Kirk—former Ted Kennedy staffer, board chairman of the JFK Library Foundation, and unofficial spokesman for the family. Better a proxy than nothing.
And still the speculation continues as to which obscure Kennedy will next inherit the family firm. Teddy Jr., maybe. He was good giving the eulogy at his father’s funeral. Even Teddy Jr.’s son was approached by reporters and asked if he’d someday consider running for his grandfather’s seat (he said he will when he’s 45). There was more talk of Max Kennedy giving it another go, or Chris Shriver, or Caroline again.
Just like that, throughout the land, myriad heirs are studied for signs of promise, practically down to the phrenological level (“This Shriver baby’s cranial ridge suggests she would be an excellent chair for the Senate military appropriations subcommittee…”). It’s akin to an aging baseball fan’s going to see Ted Williams’s son, John Henry, play in the minors, in the hopes that just maybe, if the light hits him a certain way, or if he stands just so, he’ll help you feel the way you used to.
In 1968, on the funeral train carrying Bobby’s body to Arlington, as David hung his head out the window, Joe II was working the aisles. He walked up and back, telling the other passengers, “I’m Joe Kennedy, thank you for coming.” He was so natural that his mother, Ethel, would later say, “He’s got it! He’s got it!”
As it turned out, Joe didn’t have it. He had considerable talents, brains, a measure of drive. But as for it—he didn’t. And neither did any of the others. Michael Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy Jr., JFK Jr., Teddy Jr., everyone in the family who has shown so much as a knack for public speaking has been scrutinized for signs of it, but it has never returned.
It’s either a sign of blind hopefulness or evidence of a hopeless lack of imagination that we compulsively continue searching as well. But we do, and the more we clamor for a restoration of the dynasty, the more susceptible we will be to the Kennedy brand. Maybe the family feels the same way. In any event, we’re so far into the era of diminished returns that both parties should know better. But they don’t. The people raise a great cry; the Kennedys issue a new candidate. When that Kennedy loses or steps down, a new cry is raised. No one learns anything.
A few things could break the cycle. Young people who are terminally sick of hearing the previous generation talk about the ’60s, argue about the ’60s, condemn and apotheosize the ’60s, are likely to be immune to the Kennedy mystique, the promise of the it. Second, Barack Obama has usurped JFK as the epitome of the cool, collected, reasonably glamorous commander in chief. Finally, there’s the matter of real political power. The Kennedys have been prodigious fundraisers, but a good deal of that was a result of Ted’s omnipotence. One family friend told me that giving money to a Kennedy or a Kennedy cause was always attractive because “if you needed something later, you had a chit to get through to Ted Kennedy.”
The Kennedys are well aware of the threat of their political currency deflating with Ted gone, and they will no doubt launch a renewed bid to reestablish their dominance in American government. This will involve selling that old tonic, pushing new candidates out onto that stage, assuming they can rely upon that Pavlovian response by the voters. This is as much of an indictment of us as them. Enough is enough. All political dynasties rely on a certain thoughtless devotion to one surname or another, but that devotion can be undone simply by asking ourselves why we keep voting for these people. If we do that, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s only one way to really honor that old mystique: Allow it to end.