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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Fortune and misfortune

Through fate, folly or the evil of others, the Kennedys have become the first family of pain

By Richard Lacayo

July 19, 1999
Web posted at: 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT)

TIME magazine

The first time John Kennedy Jr. registered in the national imagination, he was at the side of a coffin. On his third birthday, holding a flag and saluting his murdered father, he was already mastering the Kennedy protocol of premature farewells, the leave-takings that are nearly as much a family tradition as touch football and big weddings. The assassination of J.F.K. seemed to many people the terrible culmination of a Kennedy-family saga that began in the ambitions of father Joe. It turned out instead to be just the most spectacular episode in a family history littered with misfortunes: plane crashes and assassinations, overturned cars and drug overdoses, death by gun and death over water.

Some of these tragedies came unbidden, like the assassinations and the plane crashes. Some were partly self-inflicted, like the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, which happened 30 years almost to the day that J.F.K. Jr.'s plane went down in waters not far from there. Taken together, they make a chain of mishaps that has shadowed the Kennedy name for more than a half-century. But when John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, their death seemed, if nothing else, at least commensurate with the drama and weight of their public life. When their children die prematurely, it can seem almost as if fate were picking them off for sport.

The mystique of the Kennedy curse is such that even one of the clan's own members, Chris Lawford, the son of Peter Lawford and Pat Kennedy, could say once, "The Kennedy story is really about karma, about people who broke the rules and were ultimately broken by them." The story begins with the son of a Boston saloonkeeper, Joseph P. Kennedy, the founding father who became chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and ambassador to Britain. By 1957, he had also assembled a $100 million fortune, some of it in ways that were not entirely wholesome, including bootlegging during Prohibition. But his ambitions went much further than mere wealth. At his 25th Harvard reunion, he described his occupation as "public affairs," and to that end he single-mindedly directed the destiny of his four sons.

Joe's first choice to accomplish the family's ascent to real power was his eldest, Joe Jr. When Jack Kennedy made the papers for his exploits as skipper of PT-109, the father sent the press clippings to Joe Jr., then a 29-year-old naval air lieutenant, to provoke him into getting started on his own heroic legend. It worked all too well. In the summer of 1944, Joe Jr. volunteered to fly a plane loaded with explosives into a Nazi missile site. The plan was for him to bail out before the plane struck its target. Instead he was killed when the plane exploded prematurely over the English Channel. It was later discovered that the missile sites Joe Jr. was supposed to destroy had been abandoned by the Germans some time before his flight.

The senior Joe Kennedy had already in effect lost his eldest daughter Rosemary, who was mentally disabled. Kennedy biographers still argue over how serious her disabilities were. But in 1941, without consulting his wife Rose, Joe decided to subject Rosemary to a prefrontal lobotomy that left her deeply retarded. Rosemary, now 80, has been institutionalized ever since. In 1948 another daughter, Kathleen, died in a plane crash over France after her companion urged their pilot to fly through bad weather.

But it was Joe Jr.'s death that unnerved the elder Kennedy most completely. Not long after the disaster, the family received a letter that their son had posted just before he died. Rose Kennedy later recalled that "Joe simply threw the letter on the table and collapsed in his chair with his head in his hand, saying over and over that nothing would ever be the same again."

It would never be the same either for Jack, who inherited the burden of his father's ambitions and bore them to Congress, then to the White House and finally to Dallas. J.F.K. once said that "just as I went into politics when Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat. And if anything happened to him, my brother Teddy would run for us." After the assassination, however, R.F.K. entered a long and deep depression. "Without Ethel," a friend once said, "Bobby might well have gone off the deep end." He found some solace in Sophocles and Aeschylus, but it was only in March 1965, when he scaled Mount Kennedy, the 13,900-ft. Yukon peak, that he was able to overcome his own darkness.

And when Bobby was shot, it was Ted who seemed to go numb. A Kennedy aide recalled Ted in Bobby's hospital bathroom, "leaning over the washbasin, his hands clutching the sides, his head bowed... I never expect, for the rest of my life, to see more agony on anyone's face." Ted had already grown weary of politics and was emotionally spent. He confided to a friend that what he really wanted was to set sail around the Caribbean with his family and enjoy life, a fantasy Jack used to have. Close friends started to question his emotional state, watching his mood swings and his distracted conversations. More and more people began talking about his drinking habits, predicting that his love of the fast life would end badly.

By the time he had to bury Bobby, in June 1968, the 79-year-old Joe Sr. was so distraught that he did not go to the funeral. If he was able to transfer his hopes to Ted, it was not for long. The next summer brought Chappaquiddick, which seemed to doom Ted's chance for the White House. When Ted told his father about it, the ailing old man, already made speechless by a stroke, simply dropped his head to his chest. By November of that year, he was dead.

But if there really is a Kennedy curse, by now it may be nothing more complicated than the burden of growing up under the weight of the family legend. The third generation of Kennedys once included 29 cousins. Like his sister Caroline, John Jr. managed to carry his celebrity lightly, acknowledging the claims of his ancestry without being burdened by them. He even went to Brown University to avoid the mythic baggage of being a Kennedy at Harvard. And many of the Kennedy cousins inherited the public-spiritedness of their parents' generation. Bobby's daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is Maryland's Lieutenant Governor. Ted's son Patrick is a Congressman from Rhode Island.

But quite a few of them also inherited a sense of entitlement that edged into recklessness and worse. They played daredevil games with one another and other people that led to tragedies like the 1973 accident in which Joe Kennedy III, Bobby's eldest son, overturned a Jeep, leaving one of his passengers, a young woman, paralyzed for life. They sauntered into episodes like William Kennedy Smith's night on the town with his Uncle Ted, which ended with the encounter that left Smith accused (and ultimately acquitted) of rape.

Bobby's children grew up fatherless, and some of them grew up fast and hard. His second son, Robert Jr., ran into drug problems early and was arrested for heroin possession in 1983, just a few weeks after he finally passed the bar exam. He was given two years of probation and ordered to spend time in community service. Bobby Jr., now a much respected environmental lawyer and activist, put the problem behind him. His younger brother David was not so lucky. For days after his father was murdered, David, who was 12 at the time, did not speak a word. Later he complained that no one in his family would talk to him about his father's death.

By his teens, David was struggling with a drug problem. His brother Robert Jr. gave him his first tab of mescaline at 13, and 10 years later he was mugged in a sleazy Harlem hotel that was known as a drug supermarket and shooting gallery. It was David's girlfriend Pam who was paralyzed in his brother's Jeep accident. Although the family repeatedly sent David to rehab, in 1984 he died of an overdose of cocaine, Demerol and Mellaril in a hotel room near the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach, Fla.

Michael, Bobby's fourth son, was 10 when his father died. For most of his life, if he turned up in the news at all, it was for work such as heading a nonprofit company that provided heating oil to homeless shelters in Boston or for his marriage to Victoria Gifford, the daughter of the sportscaster and football hero Frank Gifford. Michael didn't make real headlines until 1997, when he was accused of having conducted a five-year affair with a girl who baby-sat for his three children. The girl was 14 when the affair began.

Soon after Kennedy and his wife separated, in 1997, the Boston Globe reported that Victoria had found Michael in bed with the girl two years earlier. He had claimed then that heavy drinking was at the root of it all and entered rehab, but sobriety didn't improve his judgment much. The relationship continued until the girl left for college. When the story broke, Michael resigned as campaign chairman for the gubernatorial bid that his brother Joe had planned; a few months later, Joe announced that he was leaving the race. But something worse than humiliation was in store. On New Year's Eve 1997, while playing football on skis with his cousins on the slopes of Aspen, Colo., Michael was killed when he struck a fir tree head on. He was 39.

It was Michael's sister Rory who cradled his head as he lay dying that night, crying, "Stay with us, Michael!" and trying vainly to save him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while his children cried and prayed by his side. And it was Rory, 30, a documentary filmmaker, whose wedding John Jr. and his wife were headed for when their plane went down. Big weddings are part of the Kennedy-family tradition. And as she would know, so are untimely goodbyes.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: July 26, 1999

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