KENNEDY MEN TEND to be vile, and never more so than when they are abusing women. It is one of the revolting truths of our age that the most flattered and fawned-over family in American politics breeds men who treat women like dirt. It is even more revolting that women reward them for it.
In her new book, Shattered Faith, Sheila Rauch Kennedy has very little to say about her 12-year marriage to US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts. Most of the book is an unsparing dissection of the American Catholic Church's annulment policy, which each year declares tens of thousands of former marriages to have never existed in the sight of God. But the few words she does devote to her former husband evoke the familiar Kennedy misogyny.
"My former husband was powerful and popular," she writes. "I was, as he so often reminded me, a nobody; and nobody in his town would be on my side." During her marriage, Sheila Kennedy recalls, she "rarely stood up to Joe." She "kept quiet." Not because she had no spine — her ongoing battle to keep the church from annulling her marriage shows spine aplenty — but for a more elemental reason: "I had simply become afraid of him."
Time after time, this is what women have experienced at the hands of Kennedys: fear, and being treated as a nobody.
"We have known for decades," the acclaimed Boston novelist (and Globe columnist) James Carroll wrote a few years ago in the New Republic, "how Kennedy males are encouraged by the family ethos to regard women." Indeed we have. The first Joseph P. Kennedy — the thieving, bigoted one — treated his wife Rose with humiliating disdain, rubbing her nose in his nonstop philandering. The swinishness of the father was perfected by the sons, above all Ted Kennedy, whose womanizing has been crude, notorious, even lethal. And what the sons perfected, grandsons carry on. For example, William Kennedy Smith — as Dominick Dunne reported at some length in Vanity Fair in 1991 — had a well-honed reputation for sexual assault long before he and his Uncle Ted and Cousin Patrick spent that "traditional Easter weekend" prowling the bars in Palm Beach.
Sheila Kennedy's book has made news here, and for good reason: Women hurt by the Kennedys usually say nothing. Kennedy says she, too, would have remained silent had it not been for her ex-husband's attempt to have their marriage, which was entered into after a long courtship and which produced two sons, declared a moral nullity. "When we separated, I moved out of the house and borrowed money from my parents. . . . I stayed in Massachusetts to facilitate his visiting the boys, and perhaps most important for someone such as Joe with political ambitions, I kept quiet."
Just like Rose. Like Jackie. Like Joan. Like the friends of Mary Jo.
They kept quiet, too.
Yet despite their silence, everyone knows. The Kennedy record of abusive sexism is no secret. It is sordid. It is everything progressive women claim to find repellent.
Joseph P. Kennedy II and Sheila Rauch were married in 1979 after a long courtship. It wasn't long before she learned to "become afraid of him."
Nevertheless, each time Ted Kennedy runs for the Senate again, progressive women line up to cheer him. If Joe Kennedy runs for governor, progressive women will be his biggest boosters. The senator is a boor who mauls waitresses and trashed his first marriage? The congressman, ill-bred and ill-tempered, tells his wife she's a nobody and kept her in fear? Never mind: When campaign season rolls around, the women's advocates will be out in force, singing the Kennedys' praises.
In 1993, as Ted was gearing up for reelection, the five women then serving in the Senate flew to Boston to fund-raise for him. Several of these women had been propelled into politics by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings — hearings during which Kennedy, the Senate's foremost sexual predator, had sat mute. He is the last politician these women should have wanted to reelect — yet there they were, hailing him as their knight in armor. "A beacon of light and hope," Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois called him. "One of the Galahads in the US Senate," gushed Maryland's Barbara Mikulski.
It has been the same for Joe. He may treat women as inferiors, but they swoon for him. A brand-new Massachusetts poll confirms it: Among men, Joe Kennedy's favorable rating is 48.8 percent. Among women, 60 percent. Likewise Ted Kennedy: 50 percent approval among men, 61 percent among women.
"I was, as he so often reminded me, a nobody."
That is what women are to the Kennedys, especially women they have damaged. Sheila Kennedy's words bring to mind the fate of Pam Kelly, a young woman paralyzed for life in a jeep wreck caused by Joe Kennedy in 1973. Kennedys are expert at prettying up their messes, and the crippling of Pam Kelly was no exception.
While she was still in "a haze of pain killers," Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote in their 1984 history of the Kennedy clan, Joe's family descended on her hospital room — even Ted, "sun-tanned and salty from having just finished sailing." They came with flowers, cookies, and iced tea, and hired a projectionist to screen a movie.
"Everybody would gather there, even the nurses," Kelly later recalled. "While they were watching, I'd ease into the wheelchair I was trying to get used to, and go out into the hall and smoke a cigarette.... They never missed me."
Of course they didn't. She was just another bump in the Kennedys' road. Just another woman. Just a nobody.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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