Well, not exactly. In fact, Joe avoided responsibility for nearly a decade after his father’s death. He dropped out of Milton Academy and finally graduated from the Manor Hall Tutoring School, in Cambridge, an academic triage center for wayward rich kids. Then he wandered from MIT to UC-Berkeley, before ending up at UMass/Boston. He held odd jobs ranging from lobsterman to working briefly as an aide to the mayor of San Francisco. In his free time, he traveled extensively through Africa, filming two specials for the American Sportsman television program, one about corralling endangered antelopes, the other about capturing giraffes.
At times, however, Joe seemed to become a magnet for chaos and mayhem—very much in the Kennedy tradition. In February 1972 he was a passenger on a hijacked Lufthansa flight and was held hostage for 18 hours by Palestinian terrorists. In 1973, just four years after Chappaquiddick, a jeep he was driving on Nantucket overturned, leaving an 18-year-old family friend partially paralyzed. Kennedy got off with a fine.
“There was a long period of time there where I didn’t know—it was very difficult to find which way was up,” says Kennedy. “There was a very long, confusing set of events both on the national political level as well as on a very personal level that took place that were very, very disruptive and tended to make not just me but I think almost a whole generation of Americans wander around trying to make some sense out of our lives.”
In 1976, Joe managed his uncle’s cakewalk of a Senate campaign, and others began noticing the same thing his mother had: Joe could work a room. But he was still looking for a niche. After a frustrating stint in Washington at the Community Services Administration, an antipoverty organization that grew out of the Kennedy presidency, Joe returned to Boston. In the winter of 1978-79, during the throes of the energy and heating-oil crisis that hit New England particularly hard, Joe was watching the news and saw a story about people freezing to death followed by a report on oil-company profits. Family friend Dick Goodwin suggested starting up an energy company that would buy crude oil wholesale and sell it to the poor at cost. The Citizens Energy Corporation was the result, and his work with that organization is the one job during this era that clearly engages—make that obsesses— Kennedy.
“It just seemed there was an idea there,” says Kennedy. “If you could start a nonprofit that would take all those profits that they were banking and give it back to poor people in reducing the cost of home heating oil, you could maybe save a hell of a lot of people a lot of money and do some good at the same time.”
In October 1979, Joe finally emerged in the political arena. At the opening of the JFK Library, Joe, in a speech Harvard professor Robert Coles helped prepare, ripped attendee Jimmy Carter for his energy-related economic policies. Teddy and the other luminaries were mortified, but the younger Kennedy crowd was rapturous.
Meanwhile, Joe continued to hone his political skills. In his uncle’s chaotic 1980 presidential campaign, he worked 16-hour days in Iowa, but his advice to revamp campaign strategy was largely ignored by Ted’s political cronies. “Joe was the only one who said we should treat the Iowa caucus just like a primary,” recalls Ted Kennedy. “He turned out to be absolutely correct.”
After the Iowa loss, Joe trudged through the rest of the campaign. Disillusioned by the experience, he put political ambitions on hold for the first half of the eighties. Then, when Tip O’Neill announced he was retiring in 1986, the old Kennedy gang came a-calling. But Joe, who was still happily ensconced at Citizens, balked.
“You’ve got to recognize I’d been through a fair amount of kind of wrenching experiences,” says Kennedy. “In the end, I decided I could have more impact from within the process than out of it.”
Once he got into the race, Kennedy was attacked by the other candidates and the press for his inexperience and muddled syntax. As the primary date drew close, his main adversary, state senator George Bachrach, needed to deliver a body blow. It was rumored that Bachrach had dirt on Joe and would unveil it during a Channel 7 minidebate. Consultants settled into bars across Boston to catch the action.
Bachrach charged that Kennedy’s Citizens Energy had ties to banking interests in Khadafy’s Libya. Joe paused for a moment. His eyes steeled. Then he lit into Bachrach for suggesting that he would have business ties with a leader who offered sanctuary to the man who killed his father. It was the high point of his entire campaign. Cynics recall that rebuke as playing the Kennedy death card—something Teddy did in his debates with Mitt Romney—but no matter, it worked.
“I never saw a man disappear on a TV screen like Bachrach did,” says a political consultant for another candidate. “It was like Joe vaporized him.”
Kennedy went on to win the primary by 22 points. The elusive it was there when he needed it.