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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Representative Patrick Kennedy

Idealist in the house

By John F. Dickerson

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

TIME magazine

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 six months.

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.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: August 1, 1999

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