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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

It's all in the family

The Kennedy family business is public life, but it's not just politics anymore

by Richard Lacayo

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:27 p.m. EDT (2027 GMT)

TIME magazine

Joseph P. Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy clan, wanted badly for his sons to conquer Washington. But he didn't much like the term politics, a word that opened too easily onto whole vistas of abandoned ideals and fishy dealings, something he was sensitive about as a businessman accused of bootlegging and stock manipulations. What Joe preferred was the more sanitary phrase public service. All the same, Joe's main notion of public service was the kind that gets you a seat in Congress and then a desk in the Oval Office. So when it came to choosing their lifework, Kennedy's sons had no options. Long before voters ever heard of Jack, Bobby or Ted, their father aimed them at Washington. To be the elect in the Kennedy family meant simply to be the elected.

After the smoke of the 1960s cleared, after Jack and Bobby were buried and Ted drove his presidential prospects off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, the rest of the nation looked reflexively to the next generation of Kennedys to see which of them would end up on campaign posters. A lot of them had the same Kennedy twinkle, the same robust manner that had helped make their elders the stuff of legend. Many had the family's customary moral earnestness and alertness to any instance of social justice denied. But of 29 cousins, only four have so far gone on to elected office. Ted's son Patrick is a Congressman from Rhode Island. Mark Shriver, the son of Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, is a second-term Maryland state legislator. Bobby's daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is that state's Lieutenant Governor. Her brother Joe II was a six-term Congressman from J.F.K.'s old Boston district before he retired from politics last year after a brief bid for the Massachusetts governorship.

And it's probably not coincidental that those last two are Joseph Kennedy's eldest grandchildren, the ones closest in time to his message about the supreme importance of elected office. At the age of 17, Joe II was already asking, "What other way is there for someone like me to accomplish something of value?" It turns out there were plenty of other ways. Among the Kennedy cousins, public service is still a kind of genetic predisposition. But most of them have done what J.F.K. Jr. did: served public purposes through private means, by way of charitable foundations or lives of activism pursued far from any campaign trail.

Ten years ago, when he was just 23, one of the Shriver cousins, Anthony, started Best Buddies, a nonprofit program dedicated to finding friendships and job opportunities for the mentally disabled by hooking them up with student/mentors and potential employers. Bobby's daughter Kerry Kennedy Cuomo founded the R.F.K. Center for Human Rights, which promotes the work of rights activists around the world by providing them with money and networking opportunities. Her sister Rory, whose wedding the Kennedy-Bessette plane was headed for when it went down, is a documentary-film maker whose work on drug-addicted mothers and hardscrabble farmers gives flesh and substance to those otherwise threadbare words "the poor." Her film American Hollow, about a struggling family in Kentucky, will be featured on HBO in November. After the uproar surrounding his trial and acquittal on rape charges eight years ago, William Kennedy Smith, the doctor son of Jean Kennedy and Stephen Smith, started a foundation called Physicians Against Land Mines, which aims to campaign against them and assist their victims.

And John Jr. quietly boosted the career prospects of hundreds of mental-health-care workers through an imaginative operation he founded called Reaching Up, which helps them get training and higher degrees. John was editor of George, of course, a magazine dedicated to the proposition that politics these days is just one more department of the all-encompassing glamour industry. Regardless of whether that's much of a premise for a magazine about public affairs, it at least has the virtue of understanding that politics is not just a matter of who places where in the Iowa caucuses. Recently Ted Kennedy had been encouraging John Jr. to become head of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, a body to which the family is closely tied. John was interested, but largely because he hoped to get the institute to broaden its definition of politics to go beyond the business of campaigns and legislatures.

Maybe the model noncandidate Kennedy is R.F.K. Jr. As a teenager, he became involved in drugs, a mistake that led to his 1983 arrest for heroin possession. Unlike his younger brother David, who died of an overdose a year later, Robert found his way back from that abyss. At 45, he is a highly effective environmental lawyer and activist. His watchdog group, Riverkeeper, Inc., has been suing polluters along bodies of water throughout the U.S. The most spectacular legal campaign ended in a deal that allows New York City to control development in the upstate watershed that provides its drinking water. In return the city agreed to pay the rural localities that sacrifice development rights around streams and reservoirs.

The notion of a wider world and the responsibilities that come with it was installed in the Kennedy psyche early on. Ted's kids were encouraged to sit in when he held staff meetings at home. In summer the cousins would gather for weeks at the Hyannis Port compound, where each night they were expected to arrive at the dinner table ready to discuss one current event. Campaign experience came early too. From childhood, the cousins were squirming onstage at rallies. Kathleen got on-the-job training in Uncle Ted's 1980 presidential campaign. Joe II ran the Iowa operation.

At the same time, it's not hard to see why the younger Kennedys would have second thoughts about pursuing public office, and not only because Jack and Bobby were assassinated. For one thing, when Jack, Bobby and Ted were growing up in the 1930s and '40s, the press wasn't watching their every move. But the Kennedy cousins have suffered the attention of the media from the moment they were old enough to cut a high school class or fail a bar exam. It's enough to make any sane person wary of doing anything that would bring the media further into one's life. Like run for office. Last year, when Joe II retired from the House and from politics altogether, he had just gone through two public embarrassments. His ex-wife Sheila Rauch Kennedy had published a book in which she claimed that he had improperly used his influence with the Catholic Church to have their 12-year marriage annulled. And his brother Michael, who was managing Joe's brief campaign for Governor, was in the news for having carried on a long affair with the family baby sitter that allegedly started when she was 14. As the scandal was moving off the front pages, Michael died in a freak ski accident.

There was also the problem that the Kennedys share with everyone descended from a famous forebear--how to escape seeming a pale version of the original, like Frank Sinatra Jr. Joe Kennedy, who came to Congress worried that he could never match the luster of his famous elders, once told friends, "Every time I speak, a lot of people expect to hear President Kennedy's Inaugural Address."

Even Joe began his public-service career in the semiprivate sector, though he did it as a kind of springboard to his political career. Twenty years ago, he started Citizens Energy, a nonprofit corporation that provides low-cost heating fuel to the poor. When he was first elected to Congress in 1986, he complained bitterly and in public about how much it frustrated him to be a powerless freshman after running his socially beneficial fuel operation. After leaving the House, he returned to his job there, having absorbed the lesson that a well-run nonprofit corporation--Citizens Energy is a half-billion-dollar-a-year operation--can sometimes do as much good as a government program, or even more.

He had also absorbed the lesson that it's possible to serve the public and oneself at the same time. In TV spots last winter, households interested in purchasing discount fuel from Citizens Energy were asked to call a toll-free number that just happened to be 877-JOE-4-OIL. Maybe he's not entirely out of politics.

But nobody ever said philanthropy has to be utterly free of personal motives to be effective. Even the family's longtime devotion to the mentally disabled has its first impulse in the shadowed legacy of the Kennedy sister Rosemary, who has lived for decades in a Catholic care facility in Wisconsin. Born mildly retarded in 1918, she was made much more so after her father made the questionable decision to subject her to a prefrontal lobotomy. With that episode as a constant backdrop, even the best-intentioned Kennedy efforts on behalf of the mentally disabled will seem partly an attempt to reconcile with a past the family cannot undo. But what may have started as something like a penance long ago is now one of the family's most useful devotions.

Nobody expects the Kennedy cousins to completely abandon the family business of ordinary politics. Patrick, just 32, is well positioned to move someday from the House to one of Rhode Island's Senate seats. Kathleen's ambitions for higher office are no secret. Joe II once reflected on what drove him and his cousins into an outside world where they often got rough handling and worse. "In this family, when you're called, you go." A lot of the younger Kennedys have managed to go their own way all the same.

--With reporting by Nadia Mustafa, Desa Philadelphia and Flora Tartakovsky/New York


Cover Date: August 1, 1999

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