…But the Dream Should Die – Why Ted Kennedy Should be the Last Kennedy Ever Elected – Joe Keohane
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.