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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Just like her father?

By Sally B. Donnelly

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

TIME magazine

When Professor David Townsend and his former student Kathleen Kennedy were married, their friends gave them a potter's wheel. It seemed like a good idea at the time. "Kathleen has all the attributes [for it]: focus, persistence, a spiritual side and immense desire to complete the work," says David. She was destined, he thought, to be a wonderful wife, mother--and potter.

The potter's wheel sits still now, covered by cobwebs, in the basement. And Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, 48, the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, has emerged as the most promising of the next wave of political Kennedys. Although she is the only Kennedy ever to lose an election--she was beaten in a congressional race in 1986--she has since been elected twice statewide. And after five years in the job, where she has focused on fighting crime and boosting economic development, she is preparing to run for Governor in 2002. Her ambitions still reach beyond the state line.

Townsend is the most moderate among the third generation of vote-seeking Kennedys. Her initiatives on the social front are infused with moral reproof. Break the Cycle, for example, is an antidrug effort that requires offenders on parole or probation--those most likely to go back to a life of crime--to take frequent drug tests and face harsh and escalating penalties if they fail. "Her landmark work on crime, community service and character education serves as a national model for New Democrats," says Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

"It wasn't obvious my wife would ever become a public person," David told TIME. "It took a long time." And certainly it was not assumed, even by the election-oriented Kennedys, that the girls in the family were meant for the job. But the young Kathleen, as the first grandchild of Joseph Kennedy, was nonetheless expected to serve in some way. Two days after President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Kathleen's father Robert wrote his 12-year-old daughter a note on White House stationery: "As the oldest of the next generation you have a particular responsibility... Be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."

Like many in the clan, Townsend grew up with football and politics and the Washington social swirl and got the requisite Harvard degree. She courted David during a trip down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft just after Hurricane Agnes in 1972. They were married in 1973, and a law degree and children followed. Her involvement in politics consisted mainly of volunteering for her uncle Ted's campaigns and stumping for local and congressional Democratic candidates. But two years after the family moved to David's home state of Maryland, in 1984, she decided to run for a congressional seat. The district was strongly Republican and the Democrats were in disarray, but Kathleen told her husband, "Someone has to run, and this is where my kids are going to grow up." She ran as a Townsend and lost. "That loss was good for her," says former U.S. Senator Joe Tydings, who has been close to the family for decades. "Kathleen is just like her father. She is a learner. She had a lot to learn."

Speech coaches, contact lenses, makeup and hairstyling were part of that education. When gubernatorial candidate Parris Glendening chose her to be his running mate in 1994, experts doubted she would help the ticket. But her name recognition--this time she used Kennedy Townsend--and her fund-raising skills proved them wrong.

Townsend has taken her father's admonition to heart and added to it the special stoicism that comes from being the tribe's eldest. Her family nicknames include "Clean Kathleen," "the Nun" and "the Un-Kennedy." Says longtime friend Tim Hagen, a former local politician in Ohio whom she met while working for her uncle Ted's 1980 presidential campaign: "At times Kathleen is so resolute she does not accept the irreconcilable." Indeed, her staff says one of her favorite words is "unacceptable."

The weekend John Kennedy Jr.'s plane went down, Townsend was in Hyannis Port helping friends and family deal with the tragedy. "Kathleen has no time for self-pity," says someone close to the family. "She knows she and her family have been blessed in so many ways." She spent last week mostly at home with David and their four daughters.

Townsend has discovered her political talents relatively late in life, but her husband believes it is a natural development for her. Kathleen is still shaping things, but this time it's civic life. "Politics is like pottery, only with a different kind of clay."


Cover Date: August 1, 1999

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