THE GOOD NEWS is that a Kennedy is giving up his seat in Congress. The bad news is, the rest of them aren't.
Ted Kennedy, who has been a senator from Massachusetts longer than most Massachusetts residents have been alive, and who has done so much to improve the image of American politicians, isn't going anywhere. His son Patrick, the Rhode Island congressman whose chief accomplishments before entering politics were finishing high school and undergoing drug rehab, isn't going anywhere either.
Joseph P. Kennedy II
No, the only Kennedy giving up a political job he parachuted into on the strength of his last name is Joseph P. II, who in 1985 dismissed Congress as something "crummy," a "bog" he had no interest in, only to lay claim a few months later to the 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by Tip O'Neill. In keeping with the Massachusetts version of droit du seigneur, he became the front-runner the moment he entered the race: Kennedy men get first crack at any political office that captures their fancy.
Joe Kennedy has spent a good deal of his 11 years in Congress griping about the aggravations of being a US representative. "I mean, I know I love the job but . . . the lows are the personal side, and that is just horrible," he complained in 1987. He made no secret of his ire when he couldn't get on the Appropriations Committee. Campaign cycle after campaign cycle, he signaled an interest — never consummated — in leaving the House to run for governor.
So why did he want to be a congressman in the first place? It didn't make him happy. It wasn't good for his marriage. It didn't make much difference to the 8th District or to Massachusetts. The media excitedly covered his entry into politics in 1985, and now it plays up his decision to quit, but for all the hoopla that has attended him over the years, has Kennedy left much of a footprint? You'd never guess it from the Boston headlines, but his absence from Washington will go unremarked. He came, he served a few terms, he left. Nothing special. Not the worst guy who ever went to Congress, and far from the best.
The truth is, there never has been any reason for Joe Kennedy to be in politics, apart from the constant clamor in his ears telling him it is his destiny because he is a Kennedy. Maybe that clamor began with his mother's weird excitement when he had the poise to shake hands with the passengers on his father's funeral train in 1968. ("He's got it! He's got it!" she exclaimed, referring to the political instincts that are supposed to be part of the Kennedy genome.) Maybe it began five years earlier, when his father wrote to him from Washington on the day President Kennedy was buried.
"You are the oldest of all the male grandchildren," Bobby's letter read. "You have a special and particular responsibility now which I know you will fulfill."
Kennedy ran for Congress because he let himself be persuaded that it was the only way to fulfill that "particular responsibility." But he hasn't fulfilled it yet, and that clamor — Run! You're a Kennedy! Run for something! — hasn't died down.
Few of the politicos who watched him announce his departure from Congress believe he is out of politics for good. Immediately the speculation began: He wants to be drafted for governor at the state Democratic convention. He wants to be tapped for Al Gore's Cabinet. He wants to succeed his uncle in the Senate. Is any of it true? Who knows? Probably not even Kennedy himself.
He is coming off a lousy year, capped by his brother's fatal skiing accident. But it is worth remembering how this annus horribilis began: His first wife decided to go public in a desperate effort to keep him from getting their 12-year marriage annulled. "My former husband was powerful and popular," she wrote in a book that called fresh attention to the way Kennedys treat those who get in their way. "I was, as he so often reminded me, a nobody."
A nobody. This is the other side of the Kennedy coin, the side obscured by the magazine cover stories, the Camelot mythologists, the fawning coat-holders: Kennedys habitually treat others as — nobodies.
Which is why Joe Kennedy could reputedly bark, "Do you know who I am?!" to an airline agent who didn't give him the deferential service he thought he was entitled to. Why he would think nothing of saying to a congressional staffer — a PhD in her 50s to whom he had just been introduced — "Hey, sweetie, would you be a good girl and get me a cup of coffee?" Why the words he blurted when he was asked about his brother's affair with a teenage babysitter were: "It's a big family. There's always going to be a few little problems."
They aren't particularly nice, the Kennedys, all their talk about looking out for the downtrodden notwithstanding. In their pursuit of power, in their belief that history makes them special, they have so often been rotten. So often acted like louts. So often stepped on the mere mortals who entrusted them with power in the first place.
Joe was the first Kennedy of his generation to seek political office. Now he becomes the first to walk away from it. Can he teach himself, at last, to tune out the clamor in his ears? To find meaning in life beyond the quest for power? Bobby Kennedy enjoined his son to fulfill a "special and particular responsibility." He never said it had to be in politics.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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