In the catacombs that connect the Longworth House Building and the Capitol, Joe Kennedy, his barrel chest nearly a stride ahead of the rest of his body, studies his 3 x 5 cards and tries to figure out what he’s about to vote on. A middle-aged man with a ferret face and an ill-fitting suit is walking in his direction. He’s a friend of Representative Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican whom Joe had sparred with earlier that morning on the D.C. Fox affiliate.
“Saw you on Fox, Joe. I didn’t agree with a word you said; but that animation, I loved it,” he comments as he passes by.
Kennedy smiles and keeps on walking. “Geez, that’s one of those freshman Republicans who lives in his office. Now that’s creepy. What’s his name?”
So goes Kennedy’s relationship with congressional Republicans. He can’t remember their names, and they see him as the ultimate caricature of the Democratic Party, so cartoonish that they let him pass with a chuckle.
“He came here as a dumb shit and got a little smarter,” says Joseph Ventrone, a Joe Pesci–like Capitol Hill character right down to the What the Fuck Do You Want? coffee cup. Ventrone serves as Republican staff director of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity that Kennedy sits on. “He struts around here, he’s transparent, and he’s arrogant. He yells and screams and then yuks it up off the mike.”
For Kennedy, now beginning his tenth year in Congress, this is a marked improvement. Ventrone’s opinions used to be held by members of his own party. Joe’s first years were humbling and humiliating, and it wasn’t just that he had one of the worst office assignments—in the “attic” of the Longworth Building.
“I didn’t know what a rules committee was,” admits Kennedy about one of the House’s most important bodies. “I didn’t know what a vote on a previous question was, I didn’t know what the five-minute rule was.”
Kennedy learned the hard way. Upon his arrival, he lobbied for a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Though he thought he had the necessary votes all lined up, he fell far short. Two years later, he challenged Chester Atkins—easily the least popular member of the Massachusetts delegation at the time—for a slot on the Appropriations Committee. Again, he was defeated after thinking he had sufficient support— this time by a single vote. He compounded matters by attempting to track down the lawmaker who double-crossed him.
In short, Mr. Kennedy—possessing a deadly combo of celebrity, no legislative experience, and no tact— went to Washington. And fell flat on his face.
“People expected me to just know that [congressional] stuff from osmosis because of my dad and uncle,” says Kennedy. “Obviously, in comparison with my uncles and my father, those are big shoes to fill. People looked at me and said, What the hell happened to that one?”
But eventually, Kennedy learned the ropes. “After a couple years, Joe began to cultivate individual relationships,” says a senior aide to another Massachusetts congressman. “That’s the only way you get things accomplished in a body with 433 members. Once he learned that he needed to combine his name with some people skills, he started to get things accomplished.”
Small legislative victories began piling up. In 1989 he proposed a bill requiring banks to reveal the race and gender of all loan applicants with the hope that disclosure would end discrimination in lending practices. After soundly losing in the Democrat-controlled committee, usually the end of the legislative line, Kennedy cajoled Moakley—chair of the Rules Committee—into allowing the bill to come to a vote on the floor of the House. Moakley reluctantly consented. Somehow, Kennedy cobbled together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans so that the bill passed by a comfortable margin.
Joe proved his political acumen again in 1990 when the banking-committee chairmanship of Henry Gonzalez, a political ally, was challenged. Kennedy organized the 74-year-old Texan’s supporters and the rebellion was crushed. Finally, in 1993, after three terms of dancing to the tune of others, Kennedy became chairman of the Banking Subcommittee on Consumer Credit and Insurance. It is only when you mention his rise to that chairmanship that Joe shows any enthusiasm in talking about his years in Congress.
“I could hire my own staff and decide what legislation to move and what we didn’t want to move,” says Kennedy with gee-whiz excitement. “I thought I could become a force in the Congress.”
He did. The only problem was that it lasted just two years. Before Kennedy could really get started, Newt and his friends ended the Democrats’ 40-year House party. After eight years spent convincing his colleagues he wasn’t an empty suit, Joe K. became a nobody.
You can see the gold dome of the State House from the third-floor library of the Paulist Center, long a locus of Catholic activism. Today, however, Joe Kennedy, tapping his scuffed, ready-for-the-Salvation-Army black wingtips at a hummingbird pace, doesn’t have thoughts of grandeur, he’s just hoping to get out of the room alive. He’s meeting this morning with a coalition of peace activists seeking an update on his efforts to close down the School of the Americas military training center in Georgia. The school, run by the U.S. Army, has trained some of Latin America’s most dubious characters, including El Salvador death-squad honcho Roberto D’Aubuisson as well as Manuel Noriega and his Panamanian buddies. Efforts by Kennedy and other Democrats to have the school closed have always fallen many votes short of success, even in the good old days of Tom Foley.
Now, Joe must break it to the group that closing the facility altogether is politically unrealistic. He suggests an alternative proposal of having the school revamped into an army-run human-rights educational center. This doesn’t sit well with the granolas, who fear the training would continue. One nun fires at Kennedy with both barrels for softening his position.
Kennedy’s back stiffens, his jaw hangs ajar. He takes on the look of a wounded child, his eyes glisten, and the famous face reddens.
“Look, the difficulty is very simple—we have simply taken a tremendous hit in our numbers,” says Kennedy, glowering at the nun. “I’ve lost almost every vote I’ve cast this year so there’s no problem bringing it up again. In the old days we’d get a vote from Joe Moakley, the chair of the Rules Committee. I’d ask him for an amendment—he’d say sure. Now it’ll get killed in an Armed Services subcommittee that no reporter will ever cover. If the grassroots wants me to go and do that, I’ll go do that—I’ve tried very hard—and I take some offense…”
The mortified nun meekly pleads that she didn’t mean the criticism personally.
“I take it personally,” levels Kennedy.
And this is just the first stop of the day.
Later, Joe will open a job training center in Dorchester. On the way over, he will find out that all federal funding for the center has been cut out of next year’s budget. At noon, there’s a press conference at Cambridge Hospital with House minority leader Richard Gephardt bemoaning Republican-proposed Medicare and Medicaid funding cuts. In four hours, Kennedy has dealt with losses on the military, domestic, and health-care fronts.
“Kennedy’s like a square peg in a round hole,” says a top Republican congressional aide. “He’s a Kennedy in a time of tremendous government downsizing. We all joke: If Kennedy is opposing it, the cuts must be a good idea.”
Kennedy simultaneously admires and is alarmed by the House Republicans’ solidarity on budget cuts.
“When I was a freshman and Jim Wright asked me do something, if I agreed, I’d do it,” says Kennedy. “If not, I’d say fuck you. These freshmen, they never say fuck you to Newt.” (Later, Kennedy will ask me to clean up his language for the story.)
Joe doesn’t have it as bad as some. Gerry Studds not only lost his chairmanship, he saw his committee itself eliminated. Joe Moakley, besides confronting personal health problems, lost the chair of the prestigious Rules Committee, not to mention one of the nicer offices in the Capitol. But for impolitic Joe K., a man obnoxiously impatient in the majority, the present state of affairs is just about killing him. Like Barney Frank, Joe has tried to carve a role as a Democratic unabomber, blasting the GOP at every turn. However, Kennedy doesn’t have the collegial respect, knowledge of House roles, or wit that Frank possesses.
Despite the losing battles, Kennedy only grudgingly admits annoyance with a situation in which frustration might lead him to seek other employment. With nine years of seniority, he now has a comfortable-size office lined with memorabilia. Upon entering, visitors are met by three framed pictures, one of the Herald front page reading “K.O. for Joe K.” after his 1986 primary victory. Another shows him roping antelope for American Sportsman. The third is another front page, this one crying “Hijackers Free Kennedy.” Joe sits behind the desk used by his father as 64th attorney general, and idly tosses a football in the air. Photos of the twins surround him. A famous shot of his father walking in Oregon with family dog Freckles hangs on the opposite wall.
“There’s always been the question of whether I have the right makeup to be in the Congress,” concedes Kennedy. “I never came down here planning or promising to stay until I’m 60.”