Debate on the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington rarely does justice to the marble statues of Hammurabi, Blackstone, and Jefferson that hang above the chamber. This sleepy October afternoon is no different. The first bill introduced is a proposal by Shrewsbury Republican Peter Blute to kick alcoholics and drug addicts out of public housing. Kafka-esque logic at HUD had placed the disparate groups together. Kennedy, in full support of the bill, leads the Democrats. For the next half hour, a slew of anonymous congressmen of both parties get up and relate worst-case scenarios of senior residents in their districts being terrorized by crack-addled druggies. Inevitably, they mentioned their mother, great-aunt, or other relative living in elderly housing. It’s a veritable love fest.
Then Joe asks for two minutes.
“We cannot ignore the fact that while this is taking place on the House floor today this Congress, over the course of the last few months, has absolutely decimated the public-housing budget of this country,” shouts Kennedy, his neck threatening to burst out of his white shirt. In person, he looks pissed. On C-SPAN, he looks malevolent even when arguing for old people. His tone rises on the buzzwords. “The housing cuts have taken place under the leadership of Republicans who are now sanctimoniously standing up and looking like they are protecting the seniors of this country.” The finger points. “It is the height of hypocrisy to indicate that we are protecting seniors as we go about gutting the very projects they need while at the same time providing a tax cut to the rich.
Peace no longer prevails. William Goodling, a Republican from Pennsylvania, responds by reading a list of benefits for the elderly in the new Republican budget. But Joe keeps interrupting. The gavel is banged. Joe continues. Goodling shouts at the Speaker, “Sit him down, sit him down!”
After a while, calm is restored. However, a rare moment of bipartisanship has ended in acrimony because of Joe K.’s shoot-from-the-lip, ask-questions-later style. Nor is this an isolated incident of Kennedy’s histrionics overwhelming him in the Newt Era. Earlier in October, Joe and Barney Frank joined in a verbal mugging of Republican representative Rick Lazio of New York in a subcommittee hearing that was distinctly noncollegial. As a result, PBS viewers tuning in to “Inside the Republican Revolution,” a documentary on Gingrich’s first 100 days, witnessed Kennedy looking as if he wanted to punch out grandmotherly Representative Nancy Johnson of Connecticut after she questioned his budget numbers on the floor.
Kennedy’s volcanic personality isn’t confined to his House colleagues. In 1986, he lunged at New Republic owner Marty Peretz in Washington’s Fairfax Hotel after the magazine published a piece critical of Citizens Energy. The Boston Globe‘s Alex Beam recently described a feud between Joe Kennedy and pundit Lou DiNatale that deteriorated into punches. On a 1988 journey to Northern Ireland, Kennedy engaged in a shouting match with a British guard during a routine border check. While none of them will speak poorly of him, Joe has been through six administrative assistants in nine years and is known for driving his staff ragged with his mood swings and demands.
Even Bill Weld, the Sominex of American politics, is getting into the act. When reporters asked him about Kennedy’s attack on him for supporting the Republicans’ Medicare cuts, Weld said he was worried that Kennedy was getting “hysterical.” The reporter asked him if he meant upset. “No, hysterical,” and waved his hands around in the universal symbol of looniness.
It really boils down to two weaknesses. There’s the temper and then there’s the loose lips. The problem is, Joe has no seven-second delay. He doesn’t like to pack it in and live to fight another day. He has the frankness of a child who hasn’t quite learned not to always say what’s on his mind.
An example of Joespeak occurs in his Washington office during a stop-by of University of Massachusetts officials. Small talk is followed by Joe asking where UMass ranks in cost compared with other state schools. Somebody says UMass costs are third after California and Michigan. “Yeah, but those are much better schools,” blurts Joe. An uncomfortable silence follows.
Such outbursts sometimes have a political price. In December 1994, Kennedy learned that Boston had received a $25 million federal block grant, then burned up the phone lines telling reporters the good news. The only problems was that his uncle and Mayor Menino were still working to get a larger—$94 million—piece of the pie, and by going public Joe ended those chances. “He should be slapped,” was Menino’s response. Joe’s relationship with the mayor still hasn’t recovered.
A larger foot-in-mouth controversy erupted during Teddy’s 1994 campaign against Mitt Romney. In September, Joe went to breakfast with Herald political columnist Wayne Woodlief. During the course of the meal, Kennedy, under the mistaken impression that blacks could not be “priests” or full members of the Mormon faith, said that Romney, a Mormon, needed to address the poor treatment of African Americans by his church. When Woodlief published his column the next week, it was revealed that the Mormons had been granting full membership privileges to blacks for nearly 20 years. Furthermore, Romney himself had been active in recruiting blacks to the Mormon faith. In the context of the anti-Catholicism that John Kennedy faced in 1960, Joe looked especially callow.
“Kennedy’s attacks were among the lowest, sleaziest attacks I’ve ever seen in any election,” says Charles Manning, Romney’s usually mellow campaign consultant. “If he ever runs out of the safe cocoon of his congressional district, I hope voters across the state remember that Joe’s a hateful low-life bigot.”
And yet Kennedy’s gut reactions serve him well on some occasions. He was intuitively drawn to Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s mission. Joe was the only congressman to attend Aristide’s inauguration back in 1991 when the Bush administration was painting Aristide as some sort of Communist dupe. In November, during a Democratic congressional caucus with White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, Kennedy made an emotional, forceful argument for playing budget hardball with Gingrich that is partially credited with persuading Bill Clinton to—for once—hang tough.
And how does Joe answer the quick temper/quick trigger complaint?
“I’m not going to be going through a personality change to try to satisfy the pollsters or voters or anybody else,” says Kennedy. “I have a reasonably good sense of who I am, what I do, and what I think is right and what I think is wrong. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail. So I’m going to make some folks uneasy, and I’ll probably lose some people’s support because I might make them a little nervous.”
In the end, most people aren’t nervous about Joe, they’re drawn to him. Partially, because he does a mean impression of a rooster.
“Hey, remember last time I was here?” says Joe to an old woman at the Addison Adult Center in East Boston. “Remember? You and me, we did the chicken dance.” As he talks, he clucks and flaps, the sleeves of his suit sliding up to his elbows.
That woman, along with Mayor Menino and others in attendance, has no idea what Joe is talking about. Maybe he was here before and actually did the chicken dance with her. Maybe not. No matter, everyone laughs and smiles. An otherwise mundane grant announcement is livened to the point that even Menino can’t help but grin at goofy Joe.
He does have it. But for Joe, it isn’t some mythical messianic quality. What he has in an earthy, jockish charm that defies you not to like him. It’s not the intellectual attraction of Bill Weld, it’s the appeal of a big brother.
“I get a kick out of helping people,” says Joe Kennedy in a rare moment of reflection. “I like listening to people’s stories. I enjoy people.”
That’s why, in the end, no one will care about his malapropisms, tantrums, and loose tongue. Joe Kennedy doesn’t fog over when he meets strangers. He’ll listen to your corny stories and slap you too hard on the back. Not because he has to, but because then he can tell you his own corny little story.
You know he’s a bit of a dork and does a lot of stupid things. If he weren’t a Kennedy, would he be our next governor? Hell no, he’d probably be coaching CYO ball somewhere. But he’s a Kennedy, you’re not, and so it goes.
End of psychodrama.