Representative Patrick Kennedy
Idealist in the house
By John F. Dickerson
July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:27 p.m. EDT (2027 GMT)
On the night John Kennedy Jr.'s plane went down, his cousin
Patrick was not with the rest of the family for the celebration
of his cousin Rory's wedding. The third-term Congressman from
Rhode Island was performing just about the only other Kennedy
ritual that would exempt him from attendance--politicking. As
chairman of the Democratic congressional campaign committee,
Kennedy was in San Francisco doing what he does almost every
weekend--scooping up campaign cash to help Democrats win back
the House of Representatives.
Patrick, 32 and single, doesn't really look the part of a Kennedy
on the trail. Other Kennedys have the Mount Rushmore jaw and
viscous hair, but Patrick's puffy, soft features aren't primed
for statuemaking. Growing up in Virginia denied him the trademark
Massachusetts accent, and asthma in childhood kept him from the
scrimmage line in those famous tests of the family vigor. He
likes to joke that when he shows up for an event billed with the
family name, he introduces himself and people ask, "Where's the
Kennedy?" But the third youngest member of Congress is starting
to become known for more than his shortcomings. He has surprised
many by his ascent into the House Democratic leadership, leaping
over more senior colleagues to the pivotal position of campaign
chairman and helping raise a record $17 million in just the first
Kennedy is not ashamed to use his famous name to boost his climb.
Until last week's vigil darkened the family's Hyannis Port
compound, he had planned to hold a clambake there in September
for $100,000 donors. On the stump, he often invokes his father
and the memories of his slain uncles and speaks of his crusade as
a thread in the great family tapestry. "Bringing the House back
into Democratic control is the way he talks about contributing to
the family legacy," says a Democratic leadership aide.
The younger of Senator Ted Kennedy's sons has lunch with his
father almost every week, but he has not always been at ease with
his family name. He has wondered aloud if he is "Kennedy enough,"
and he appeared to be following the more wobbly path of some
Kennedys in high school when a substance-abuse problem landed him
in a treatment center. At Providence College, "he wanted to get
away from Washington," says former roommate Jim Vallee, who
remembers that their early years were not "terribly political."
But by his junior year, Patrick had found his focus, in part
because of life-threatening surgery to remove a tumor near his
spine. In 1988 he ran for the Rhode Island state legislature and,
after spending more than $80,000, became at 21 the youngest
Kennedy ever elected to office.
Since starting in Congress as one of the few new Democrats after
the Republican rout of 1994, Kennedy, then 27, worked hard to
shed the "Congressboy" image that led a local radio station to
mock him by playing the tune If I Only Had a Brain. One who has
been impressed is House minority leader Dick Gephardt. The two
men share the same left-of-center ideology, and Kennedy has
proved his determination and drive to his mentor through tireless
campaigning for other House members and fireplug advocacy of such
causes as education and health care.
At times that passion has knocked him off his hinges, as it did
during a gun-control debate when he used his family's tragic
deaths to attack former G.O.P. Representative Gerald Solomon.
"Play with the Devil, die with the Devil!" Kennedy screamed.
During the House vote to impeach Bill Clinton, he nearly came to
blows with Georgia's Bob Barr over the Republican's use of a
quote from President Kennedy. These outbursts have not hurt him
in the eyes of his colleagues. Says Gephardt: "Patrick has the
fire of idealism and the passion that Jack and Bobby had and that
his dad has." For a Kennedy scion on the rise, that's a
procession he's happy to join.
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Cover Date: August 1, 1999