The Kennedy dynasty

A new generation arrives on the public stage

MARCI McDONALD November 28 1988

The Kennedy dynasty

A new generation arrives on the public stage

MARCI McDONALD November 28 1988

The Kennedy dynasty



A new generation arrives on the public stage

The images are etched as indelibly in memory as they are on the grainy frames of an amateur’s historic home movie. Just past the corner of Dallas’s Elm and Houston streets, the big black Lincoln convertible inches toward an underpass. On the back seat, the boyish 46-year-old president raises his right hand to wave to the cheering noontime crowds lining his route. Suddenly, as the first shot rings out from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository behind him, he clutches his throat. Beside him, his stunning brunette wife in her trademark pillbox hat stares in disbelief as he crumples into her lap, bloodying the pink Chanel suit that she will later refuse to change all that day, saying fiercely, “Let them see what they’ve done.” Twenty-five years later, as those images of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination—taken by Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder—replay on television screens around the globe, they remain fresh with the horror and fascination of a collective nightmare. This week, in a deluge of commem-

orations, analysts are exploring not only the mysteries that continue to surround his death, but also the scars it inflicted on the American psyche. The recollections are all the more poignant coming two weeks after a presidential election in which politicians of every stripe, from Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis to President Ronald Reagan, claimed to be Kennedy’s rightful heir. But at the very moment when they were capitalizing on his memory, Kennedy’s own true heirs—daughter Caroline, son John and 26 nieces and nephews—have arrived on the public stage with such a show of force that commentators predict the emergence of an American political dynasty to hold the public imagination in thrall once more. Said David Powers, a former aide who heads Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library: “They represent as close to royalty as we have in this country.”

For some, a nostalgia for that brief, shining moment from 1961 to Nov. 22, 1963—which Jacqueline Kennedy had cannily christened Camelot—has been transformed into real hope

that history might be repeated. On the night of July 19, the toddler who had once broken a nation’s heart, standing in his short pants and blue coat on his third birthday to salute his father’s casket, strode onto the stage of the Democratic national convention in Atlanta, by then a 27-year-old New York University law student. Making his political debut, John-John, as his father had called him, introduced his uncle, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, with a deftness and assurance that won him a two-minute standing ovation.

People magazine promptly named him “this year’s Sexiest Man”—speculating on his chest measurements and adding: “But you’ve got to remember: He has a mind, too.” And among thousands of misty-eyed Democrats applauding on the floor—and still harboring reservations about the blandness of their 1988 presidential candidate—he kindled another emotion: the hope for a party reborn in his father’s mould. At a time when no figure had been able to hold together the fractured Democratic coalition—and Republicans had turned “liberal” into a derogatory term—many saw in him a symbol of both the party’s golden heyday and its retailored future. “The Kennedys represented a combination of liberalism and tough| ness,” said William Schneider of Washington’s £ nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute. I Now, said Schneider, Democrats “hope that ° maybe one of the younger Kennedys will be able to embody that package again.”

Buttressing that hope was the fact that, among John’s Atlanta audience, other young Kennedys also studded state delegations and organizational back rooms, all radiating the same glamor and promise. Beaming from the Massachusetts delegation was John’s 36-yearold cousin, congressman Joseph Patrick Kennedy II. Joseph is the eldest son of the family’s other martyr, Robert F. Kennedy, who was gunned down—outside a Los Angeles hotel kitchen 20 years ago—by assassin Sirhan Sirhan moments after Kennedy had won the California primary. After managing a nonprofit company he founded in 1979 to subsidize cheap heating oil for the poor, the handsome and boisterous Joe, as he prefers to call himself on Boston billboards, ran for office in 1986, winning the same congressional seat in Boston once held by his uncle, John F. Kennedy. This month, he was overwhelmingly re-elected with 80 per cent of the vote.

In the Maryland contingent, Joe’s elder sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a 37-yearold lawyer and mother of three who directs student volunteer programs for her state’s department of education, also sported a delegate’s badge. In 1986, she had lost her own bid for Congress in Maryland’s second district, criticized as a rich carpetbagger who had arrived in Baltimore only two years earlier. But since then she has built stronger ties in the community. Washington Monthly editor Charles Peters, founder of the so-called neoliberal movement, hails Kathleen as “the best and the brightest” of the young Kennedys—the one most likely to fulfil her father’s unfinished social missions. Kathleen has writ-

ten two articles for Peters’s magazine, both aimed at redefining Democratic values. “Jack could always think freshly,” said Peters. “And in some ways, Kathleen is like him.” Elsewhere at the Democratic convention were Edward Kennedy’s own three children. Kara, 28, and Edward, 27—known as Teddy Jr.—wore badges announcing them as cochairmen of their father’s Senate re-election campaign, a post both Joe and Kathleen had held before them. And in the Rhode Island delegation sat their younger brother, Patrick, a Providence College student, who, two months later at 21, would win a seat in the state assembly. As a sickly, asthmatic child traumatized by his uncles’ assassinations, Patrick had hated politics. He had hysterically begged his

father not to make his doomed 1980 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the senator had only reassured him by calling home every night to report his continued health.

But over the years, as Edward Kennedy included his children in policy briefings at their Virginia estate or took them on his travels to the black shantytowns of South Africa, Patrick lost his terror of public life. “They were never shooed away,” said Melody Miller, Kennedy’s longtime media aide. “If they were in the room, the senator would turn and say, ‘What do you think, Patrick?’ At some point, they got over their fear and spoke out.”

In fact, even those of the young Kennedys not openly pursuing politics—except to campaign for their cousins—have plunged into a variety of causes. Many have served as volunteers with the Peace Corps, founded by J.F.K. and his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver. Kerry, 29, the seventh child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11-member brood, now heads a human rights centre named after her father. Her younger brother, Douglas, 21, works for the homeless. And Teddy Jr., who at 12 lost part of his leg to a cancerous bone tumor,

founded a Boston-based lobby for the handicapped called Facing the Challenge. He testified before his father’s congressional committee last year on the need for greater access to public buildings. But his most effective testimony may be his own example as he fearlessly uses his artificial leg to ski or play touch football with his cousins.

Patrick once told an interviewer: “We’ve grown up with our last name being Kennedy, which means public service to a lot of people. It’s hard to ignore.” But to most Americans, the Kennedy name means politics—and it is no surprise that so many members of the new generation are going into the family business. Their fathers grew up under the stern eye of patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, a self-made mil-

lionaire banker and film mogul, who used to grill his nine offspring on current events nightly at the dinner table and admonish them: “We want winners. We don’t want losers around here.”

His own father, the son of an immigrant from Ireland’s County Wexford who arrived in Boston harbor in 1849 after the potato famine, was a saloonkeeper before turning state senator. And his wife, Rose, spent her youth campaigning for her father, Boston’s celebrated mayor John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald. To her children and grandchildren, she constantly quoted a verse from Luke 12:48: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Later, in a family in which one of their own was routinely referred to as “the President,” that sense of a calling pervaded their lives. As Christopher Lawford, the son of J.F.K.’s sister Patricia and actor Peter Lawford, once told a family biographer, “We were all, every one of us, raised to be president.”

They were also raised on the notion that they were a breed apart, the embodiment of a movement known as “Kennedy liberals.” Said longtime Kennedy aide and family friend Frank

Mankiewicz, with an evident dig at Dukakis: “They’re exemplars of a set of beliefs a lot of people share. People sense the Kennedys believe in things and won’t just do anything to get elected—and these days, that’s becoming rare.” At the family summer compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., they compete fiercely against each other. But they also campaign for each other. “And when one of them makes a speech,” said Melody Miller, “they’ll turn and say, ‘Wasn’t that great?’ They really are one another’s cheerleaders.” Agreed David Powers: “The Kennedys almost do not need anyone else. A Kennedy would rather have applause from another Kennedy than from the Pope or the President.”

But none of them came of age with a firmer sense of his destiny than Robert Kennedy’s eldest son, Joe. At age 11, on the day of his uncle’s shattering state funeral, he received a letter from his father on White House stationery. “Dear Joe,” it read. “You are the eldest of the male grandchildren. You have a special and particular responsibility now which I know you will fulfil. Remember all the things that Jack started—be kind to others that are less fortunate than we—and love our country. Love to you, Daddy.”

Five years later, when his father was slain, Joe appeared to have learned his lesson well. At 15, he made his way through the entire funeral train, shaking hands and gravely thanking the mourners for coming. Beside him, his pregnant mother, Ethel, beamed with pride. “He’s got it,” she said. “He’s got it.” No one doubted that she meant the Kennedy political instinct. In fact, so firm was Joe’s sense of destiny that, two years ago, when retiring House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s Boston seat became vacant, Joe Kennedy decided to go after it despite the opposition of his uncle, Edward. The senator had wanted it for his son, Teddy Jr., who eased the situation by bowing out of the contest.

But from their earliest memories, the young Kennedys also knew the terrible price that politics could exact. In the merciless public spotlight, they grew up hounded for autographs and photographs, their every move grist for the tabloid mill. To some, they seemed not private citizens but, as a journalist once dubbed them, “America’s children”—the offspring of a nation that had watched them so closely that it felt proprietary rights. Occasionally, they managed to capitalize on the public’s romance with them. When photographers’ lenses poked through the hedges of the Hyannis Port compound, they learned to answer queries on Jacqueline Kennedy’s menu for a quarter apiece. But they may also have felt like her daughter, Caroline, who once complained to a friend about the reporters dogging her. “Why?” she demanded. “I haven’t done anything. I’m just famous for my name, and they won’t leave me alone.”

For some, the weight of the name—and the legacy—proved too burdensome to bear: the first headlines the young generation earned on its own were tarnished by drug scandals and tragedy. In 1979, David—Robert Kennedy’s fourth-eldest child—was beaten and robbed in

a Harlem hotel known as a heroin shooting gallery, where a photo of his uncle, the former president, hung over the cashier’s bulletproof cage. The most sensitive and confused of the clan, he had begged his father not to run for president in 1968. Then, at 12, alone in his room at the Los Angeles hotel, he had watched on television as his father was assassinated outside the kitchen below. Permanently scarred, he was found dead from a drug overdose in a Palm Beach, Fla., hotel room at Easter, 1984.

Only the year before, his elder brother, Robert Jr., had passed out in the washroom of an airplane on the way to Rapid City, S.D. Police had arrested him after they opened his flight bag and discovered heroin. Given a twoyear suspended sentence, he went to work as an environmental lawyer for the National Resources Defence Council—a key lobbying group for action against acid rain. Once the leader of a teenage family gang that called itself the Hyannis Port Terrors, Bobby Jr., as he was known, had dressed in black, carried his pet hawk everywhere in one gloved hand and boasted to friends that the White House was his “destiny.” But now, married with a son, Robert III, he goes to regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and declines interviews.

Still, he was only one of the troubled members of a family that seemed at times under, as his uncle, Edward, put it in 1969, “some awful curse.” Edward Kennedy made that statement five days after his car had been discovered underwater near Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, off Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard, with the body of one of his brother Robert’s former campaign workers, Mary Jo Kopechne, dead inside. That scandal—and his own self-confessed “indefensible” behavior in failing to report the accident for nine hours— has hampered any of his own political ambitions. And his children, nieces and nephews watched in anguish as the man they called Super Daddy dragged himself through his 1980 presidential bid in vain, pursued by questions about his moral judgment and his reputation for philandering. His foundering marriage to Joan, who had repeatedly tried to cure her admitted alcoholism, ended in divorce. But after devastating portrayals of both of them, some longtime friends believe that their youngest son, Patrick, decided to enter politics this year in part to salvage the tarnished family reputation.

Now that the senator is no longer considered a presidential contender-in-waiting, observers say that he seems liberated, able to bask in the recognition that he has at last become a substantial political figure—the leading voice of liberalism in the Senate with an impressive legislative legacy of his own. As his “Where

was George?” speech—mocking Vice-President George Bush at the Democratic convention—showed, he remains a charismatic figure. But even he seemed pleased to be upstaged by another charismatic Kennedy who introduced him as a man to whom “I owe a special debt.”

In his speech, John Kennedy Jr. had claimed, “I’m not a political leader, but I can speak for those of my age.” And he has repeatedly dismissed questions about his political ambi-

tions, saying, “I’m completely busy and consumed by what I’m doing right now.” In fact, he once wanted to be an actor, starring in a play at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Centre called Winners—a name that ironically symbolized the

overriding ethos of his father’s family. But his mother tried to discourage him. She sent him on an Outward Bound survival course off the coast of Maine, then to help earthquake victims in Guatemala with the Peace Corps.

In 1981, on summer vacation from Brown University in Providence, R.I., he served as

one of four interns at Washington’s Centre for National Policy, a Democratic think-tank. His supervisor, Albert Eisele, found him “a very bright, impressive young man” who wore his famous name easily. “It wasn’t glamorous work,” said Eisele. “He was just running errands, copying, that sort of thing. But he was a very down-to-earth guy. There wasn’t a sense he was a special person.” He showed off his wit when a reporter asked him if he minded still being known as John-John.“No-no,” he replied, deadpan.

Kennedy told Eisele that, unlike his sister, Caroline, he had no memory of his father. Now 30, married two years ago to museum designer, poet and artist Edwin Schlossberg and the mother of five-month-old baby Rose, Caroline was just days shy of her sixth birthday when her father was killed. And she once obsessively collected commemorative stamps and coins bearing his likeness. But John only remembered I playing under his father’s > desk in the Oval Office and I the marine helicopters land? ing on the White House lawn. 5 Biographers have since reported that John grew so attached to the Secret Service agent he called Daddy that his mother had to order him transferred. And later, her son startled a male visitor by asking, “Are you a daddy?” When told that he was, John asked, “Then will you throw me up in the air?”

But his search for his father has also led him on a course that seems a perfect apprenticeship for politics—interning with the civil rights division of Reagan’s justice department “to see the other side,” and working at a respected Los Angeles law firm. Most recently, he campaigned for Dukakis through the depressed working-class towns of central Pennsylvania. And family confidant Gerard Doherty hints that John may be making his political bid soon. “This is his advent,” said Doherty. “He’s preparing it.” Agreed Mankiewicz: “Nobody speaks at a national political convention if they don’t have political ambitions.”

As the nation commemorates its slain 35th president this week, his family has asked that in the future they mark his May 29 birthday, not his assassination. Said Edward Kennedy: “We want to remember his life, not relive his death.” Still, it is not yet clear if the longing for a revival of the Kennedy political magic is merely a yearning for a simpler time—“the last time,” as Charles Peters puts it, “when America was loved around the world.” Nor is it clear which of the Kennedy heirs will grasp the torch of which J.F.K. once spoke. “It’s more than a little premature to make that judgment now,” said Adam Walinsky, a longtime Kennedy aide. “You write the history after the life.”

MARCI McDONALD in Washington