Patrick Kennedy: Last of Political Dynasty
February 13, 2010
by Andrea Stone
Patrick Kennedy's announcement that he would not run for re-election to Congress was almost anticlimactic.
Untold tomes were written last summer about the end of the Kennedy dynasty upon the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the last brother of the fabled political clan. That his youngest son, the Rhode Island congressman, would cite the loss of his "most cherished mentor and confidante, my ultimate source of spirit and strength," in a video to his constituents, was a reminder that America may never again see another Kennedy the likes of John, Bobby and Ted.
"The younger generation did not have the fire in the belly of their parents' generation," said Laurence Leamer, author of three books on the Kennedys, including "Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty." "They were brought up with the expectation that they would become important figures in American political life. Many have a sense of entitlement, that they have special rights."
Being the progeny of political royalty has never been just a Kennedy problem, of course.
"It's always very difficult for the children of famous people to mark out a path that resembles the achievements of the earlier generation," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. He noted that the children of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt "never really measured up" against their parents.
Yet in recent history, until the Bush family came along, the Kennedy saga has been embedded in the country's political DNA. Come January, though, when Rep. Kennedy leaves office, it will mark the first time since 1962 that a member of the family is not serving in Congress.
Of all the Kennedys, Patrick may be "the saddest," said Leamer. Elected to the Rhode Island legislature at age 21 and a congressman since 1995, he has fought depression and substance abuse for years. At 42, he has never married. Unlike his father, who has been called one of the nation's greatest senators, Patrick will "be a footnote in history," Dallek said, fading into obscurity like most who serve in Congress.
"He never really had a life of his own. He was a sickly, quite unhappy young man, struggling to find some purpose in his life, and he grasped on to politics," Leamer said of Patrick Kennedy. "It could be a new beginning for him. He was living his father's life, and perhaps now he will be able to live his own life."
Living a life of one's own has never been easy for the Kennedy cousins. Some have embraced the call to public office, while others have found more private ways to serve. Many have led troubled lives -- more than half of the male Kennedy cousins abused drugs and alcohol. Sen. Robert Kennedy's son, David, died of a cocaine overdose at age 28.
Despite personal odds and the "Kennedy curse," the family has long provided its own quorum of public servants:
Joseph Kennedy II came to regret his decision not to run for his uncle Ted's Senate seat after Republican Scott Brown's victory last month. The eldest son of Robert Kennedy, Joe served six terms in Congress from Massachusetts' 8th District, the House seat once held by his uncle John. But, in a scenario similar to his cousin Patrick's, he left Congress after a run of bad headlines citing the death of a relative, his younger brother Michael, in a skiing accident.
These days, Joe is most often seen in TV ads for Citizens Energy Corp., his nonprofit that provides heating oil to low-income families. The company relies almost exclusively on oil from Venezuela, whose leader Hugo Chavez is an outspoken critic of the United States. That connection would have caused campaign problems for someone already "ambivalent about public life," Leamer said.
Joe's older sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, served as lieutenant governor of Maryland for eight years. In a family where sons were groomed for public office and daughters "to go to church and pray," as Leamer states, she rose higher on her own than any other Kennedy woman. Yet when the Democrat ran for the top job in 2002 -- in a state that hadn't elected a Republican governor in nearly 40 years -- she lost after a botched campaign that doomed what had been a potential career on the national stage.
Caroline Kennedy would never have considered a public life had her brother John Kennedy Jr. not died in a plane crash in 1999, Leamer said. Perhaps the most promising political heir of his generation, John was "too much the gentleman" to challenge first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton when she made clear her intention to run for the U.S. Senate in New York.
When President Barack Obama tapped Clinton as his secretary of state, Caroline assumed the seat was hers for the asking -- even as her cousin, Robert Kennedy Jr., a prominent environmental lawyer, withdrew his name from consideration for the seat once held by his father.
"Caroline should have understood that running for senator is not like running for queen. You have to answer journalists' questions," Leamer said. "She couldn't handle it." After weeks of media frenzy, she dropped her ill-conceived bid to be anointed senator.
The children of Eunice Kennedy Shriver have dabbled in politics but also found other ways to serve.
Bobby Shriver is on the Santa Monica City Council and recently considered, then rejected a run for California attorney general. He works on AIDS and other issues in Africa with U2 lead singer Bono.
Mark Shriver served in the Maryland Legislature before being defeated in a 2002 Democratic primary by Chris Van Hollen, now a party leader in the House of Representatives. Shriver now heads the U.S. arm of Save the Children.
His sister Maria Shriver is a former television journalist whose involvement in politics is through her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican whose term as California governor ends in January. She has already ruled out her own run for office.
Anthony Shriver, who founded the group Best Buddies to work with people with intellectual disabilities, is said to be weighing a run for governor of Florida while his older brother Tim Shriver looks after their mother's Special Olympics. Tim in the past year accepted apologies from President Obama and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel for their remarks about the disabled.
"They are all interested in public service, but they define it differently," said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. "They are more public-spirited rather than being public servants."
William Kennedy Smith never sought the spotlight focused on him in 1991 when he was tried and acquitted of rape in Florida. A doctor who was briefly mentioned for Congress, he works with victims of landmines.
Rory Kennedy, born after her father Robert's assassination as a presidential candidate in 1968, chose documentary filmmaking to shine a light on issues such as torture, lax security at nuclear power plants and AIDS.
If there is anyone left in the family to pick up the torch as Patrick Kennedy departs political life, it may be his older brother, Ted Kennedy Jr. Few had heard from him since his he lost his right leg to cancer at age 12. Yet when he stepped to the podium at his father's funeral, he captivated the nation with his eloquence and offered a stark contrast to the brother who had spent his entire adult life in public office.
"He is a natural politician and an extraordinary person," Leamer said. Although Ted Jr. has said he might run for office when his children are grown, the author doubts he will give up his quiet life in Connecticut. "He lived through the same reality as his brother, and his way to deal with it was to totally turn away from it."
Like the rest of his family knows, he said, "They were in this mythic Camelot that never really existed."
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