Joe Kennedy III: The One We've Been Waiting For?

Joe Kennedy III at Newton Center - Day One

Joe Kennedy III took questions from the media at the Newton Center Green Line station on Thursday morning. (Photo by Barry Nolan)

When I first saw the pictures of a possible Congressional candidate named Joe Kennedy III, I thought he looked like a kid. “Too young,” I groused. “What are they thinking?” But when I saw him up close last week, well, he seemed different. Oh, he is young and so he darts about rather than ambles. He has that improbable kid’s shock of red hair, green eyes, and a face that is more angular and Irish Catholic looking than the photos tend to capture. And his voice is not what you expect. It is softer than that of most would-be politicians. “He is not the typical, back-slapping, hand-shaking pol. He’s different,” a bystander told me. That seems true enough.

After meeting and greeting commuters for a while, Kennedy made his way into the center of the press scrum to take questions. Members of the media had been standing quietly in the morning chill for at least half an hour. They were cold and tired of waiting. And Kennedy warmed them up. He began by using what Republican candidates have come to view as a four-letter word: Fair. Kennedy said things should be fair. The government should play a role in seeing that people are fair to each other and that people are fairly treated. In his soft voice — one that’s lacking the familiar Kennedy Bahston accent — he said he hoped that, if elected, he could contribute to a public dialogue that was less strident and less divisive. One newser challenged him on that, asking if he weren’t being just a bit naïve to even suggest such a thing. Kennedy pointed out that his Uncle Teddy, the great liberal lion of the Senate, was rightly famous for reaching across the aisle. He was, after all, good friends with Orrin Hatch, who is just to the right of Attila the Hun. Then, someone asked him what the commuters had been asking him about, and he said: “They wanted to know what all you guys were doing here.” And it drew a laugh. Five minutes into his campaign, and he was winning over the press.

I wondered if this could be the Kennedy people have been looking for. One with all the talents and none of the demons. One that has a rare talent in his DNA, a mind sharpened at Harvard, a soul softened by work in the Peace Corp, and his view of the real-life burdens people carry expanded by his work as a public defender and a public prosecutor. And he has no doubt already had his capacity tested around the family dining table for the sharp give-and-take sense of humor he will need. He seems to know the drill. He seems to be the real deal.

I began to think about what it was that had so many people eager to be there that morning — city and state pols, a ton of press, regular folks — some to prod him for weakness and take his measure, some just there to support him.

One of the things we dearly miss in public life is people who speak directly to the better angels of our nature. Not to our fear of others, not to our unseemly need to be told we are “exceptional — better than other people,” not to our greed and venality, not to our ready contempt of others or our petulance or our impatience. I miss having politicians who will speak to that which is noblest in humankind. To that which has lifted us up out of the mud to build great spires, make eternal art, go to the moon, cure disease, and give to others.

And over my lifetime, no one has captured that boundless capacity for human greatness in political oratory better than the Kennedys. Think of JFK’s inaugural speech. Or RFK’s speech to an all-black audience on the day MLK was assassinated. Or Teddy’s speech at Bobby’s funeral. They all spoke to something that is in us all and is both empowering and ennobling. And even though they were flawed men beyond question, what they sought was to lift us all. We are all imperfect. We all fall short. But through our work in civil rights, social justice, and equal opportunity, you shall know us, too. I miss that. I suspect we all miss that.

I do not know if Joe Kennedy III can really live up to the measure that’s been set by his family’s storied name. But I am pretty sure that he isn’t going to be like some in this current crop of characters on the national scene who have been ginning up hate, fanning the flames of intolerance, seeking division, and playing to people’s sense of greed. We can do better than that. I hope Kennedy and all his competitors will at least give it a try.