Joe Six-Pack

“Hey, just don’t screw me,” says Joe Kennedy, squinting his ice blue eyes as he throws a pillow at me. Kennedy’s linebacker frame is sprawled on a couch in the family room of his rambling two-story house in distinctly unhip Brighton. His wife, Beth, who is also his scheduler, gives him a cup of tea; she keeps a plate of doughnuts nearby to slake Joe’s endless appetite. A big-screen television is the room’s most prominent piece of furniture, and at its base sits a new Sega videogame system for his 15-year-old twin sons, Joseph and Matt. They live in Cambridge with Joe’s ex-wife, Sheila (who vehemently fought Joe’s attempt to annul their marriage), but spend most weekends with their dad.

“Just don’t turn this into a psychodrama,” pleads Kennedy.

Sorry, Joe, being a member of the Kennedy clan makes psychodrama a given. Case in point: Two days after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Joe is at a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Senator John Kerry and Mayor Tom Menino. After the festivities, Channel 7’s Byron Barnett ignores the more foreign-policy-inclined Kerry and sidles up to Joe to ask disingenuously if his own family experiences give him a special insight into the tragedy. Kennedy’s face tightens a bit before mumbling an answer.

While he understands that psychodrama is part of the Kennedy experience, Joe is either wholly uncooperative or supremely unreflective. Request the names of political mentors; a long pause is followed by a single word: Nobody. When he is asked about how hard it is to step out of his uncles’ and father’s shadows, Joe hems, haws, and spouts generalities.

Given the weight of that legacy, his evasiveness is not surprising. After all, he is the namesake of both the cunning patriarch of the Kennedy clan and the enigmatic first-born and first-dead uncle. The eldest grandson. With the exception of JFK Jr. and Caroline, Joe is probably the most scrutinized Kennedy of the younger generation. “Joe’s not big on introspection,” says his brother Michael, uttering a timeless understatement. “Joe thinks a lot of it [the media’s Kennedy hype] is BS. I’ve read a piece that said because we played touch football that we’re all latent homosexuals.”

In a way, it’s admirable that Joe doesn’t trivialize his father by spinning clever anecdotes for a magazine profile. But unfortunately for JPK, the psychobabble continues with or without his participation.

The second child of Robert F. Kennedy after Kathleen, who is now lieutenant governor of Maryland, Joe first made the Boston Globe in October 1952, when he was christened by Cardinal Cushing, with his beaming godfather, then Congressman John F. Kennedy, by the cardinal’s side. His childhood was spent shuttling between Hickory Hill, the family’s suburban Washington compound, and Hyannis. The Kennedys: An American Drama, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, the most reputable of the Kennedy tell-all books, describes Joe as the classic older sibling “who helped the younger kids put on their shoes, smoothed their hair for church, and also the one who beat them up.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Joe was 10, Dad, then attorney general in the JFK administration, didn’t spare the children any of the grim details about the possibility of impending nuclear doom.

“We almost left Washington,” Joe recalls. “But then we decided to stick it out. I didn’t get much sleep that night.”

Shortly after November 22, 1963, Joe’s father sent him a note on White House stationery. “You are the oldest of all the male grandchildren,” it said. “You have a special and particular responsibility now which I know you will fulfill.”

But Kennedy doesn’t like to discuss such matters “That’s a very personal letter between my father and myself,” he says. “I just generally don’t discuss it.”

During the sixties, Joe struggled as a mediocre student at a number of schools before ending up at Milton Academy. It was there that he found out that his father, after winning the 1968 California presidential primary, had been shot in Los Angeles. When his father died the next day, according to Collier and Horowitz, Joe broke the news to his brothers and sisters.

Then came the funeral train that took RFK’s body from New York City, where it had lain in state, to Washington, D.C., for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. As the train reached the end of the journey, Joe walked up and down the aisles with his mother, shaking hands and saying, “I’m Joe Kennedy, thank you for coming.” Ethel Kennedy later uttered the line that would dog Joe for years: “He’s got it.”

While it would take decades for Joe to figure out what it was, even his own family doesn’t downplay this moment of mythmaking.

“Joe’s always been a leader,” says his uncle Ted. “On that train with his father he grew immeasurably and began to bear that responsibility.”