May 22 - 29, 1997
[Don't Quote Me]

The Don't Quote Me archive

Family affair

A powerful family; allegations of sordid sexual conduct; the turning of political fates. It's easy to see why the media have loved the latest Kennedy `scandal,' but it's hard to justify the price they've made Joe Kennedy pay.

by Dan Kennedy

Let us now count the ways in which Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, scion of the nation's most celebrated political dynasty, could stumble on his quest to become governor of Massachusetts.

  • Liberal Democrats might pause over Kennedy's rather slim record of accomplishment in Congress -- as well as his support for the death penalty -- and instead back Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, one of their longtime champions.

  • General-election voters might balk at the notion of walking away from eight years of tax cuts and prosperity under Republican governors, and opt to stay the course by electing either Acting Governor Paul Cellucci or State Treasurer Joe Malone.

  • Women might find themselves unable to pull the lever for the ex-husband of Sheila Rauch Kennedy, who describes him in her book, Shattered Faith (Pantheon, 1997), as verbally abusive during their marriage, and as insensitive and bullying in his pursuit of an annulment.

  • Catholics might take umbrage at Kennedy's description of Church doctrine (according to Shattered Faith) as "gobbledygook."

  • Kennedy's volatile temper might erupt in public, damaging his candidacy at a critical moment, much as John Silber's outbursts helped push his nice-guy rival, Bill Weld, over the top in 1990.

  • Michael Kennedy's alleged sordid affair with an underage babysitter might convince an outraged public once and for all that they've had enough of the Kennedys.

  • Wait a minute. Run that last one by again. Joseph Kennedy's gubernatorial hopes might be dashed because of Michael Kennedy's behavior?

    Well, yes. In a recent Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll, 28 percent said the annulment and Michael Kennedy's alleged affair made them less likely to support Joe Kennedy for governor. And a Boston Herald poll revealed that 17 percent of registered voters had decided that the Michael Kennedy scandal alone was enough to make them less likely to vote for Joe Kennedy.

    As unsympathetic a character as the prickly, inarticulate Joe Kennedy can sometimes appear, being Michael Kennedy's brother is not a flaw with which he can legitimately be tarnished. Yet that is precisely why his standing with the public is at an all-time low -- and why, according to at least some whispers, he may ultimately decide not to run.

    And the fault lies almost entirely with the media.

    Consider New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's vicious May 3 take on Joe's attempts to explain what he did or didn't know about Michael's contretemps. "The Kennedys have always embraced hypocrisy as a family value. Now they have embraced stupidity. It is an unfortunate combination," she wrote, adding that Joe occupies "the shallow end of the Kennedy gene pool."

    Or the conservative Weekly Standard's May 19 parody (jokingly attributed to Globe staffer Brian Mooney) of the unknown brother Cecil Kennedy -- shunned by his family because "Cecil's name has never come up in connection with recklessness, sexual misconduct, substance abuse, or any other illicit activity."

    Or CNN's Inside Politics of May 7, in which correspondent Bruce Morton conflated Michael Kennedy's scandalous goings-on, Joe Kennedy's annulment, Ted Kennedy's plunge at Chappaquiddick, and William Kennedy Smith's rape trial into one big Kennedy-scandal package, with Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy birthday, Mr. President" to JFK as the backdrop.

    In other words, Joe Kennedy, the six-term congressman from Brighton, isn't running for governor. The Kennedys, legendary family of triumph and tragedy, of Camelot and debauchery, are. In a May 4 Herald piece by Mark Mueller, smirkingly headlined JOE SR. BEGAN TOMCAT TRADITION, Peter Collier, co-author of The Kennedys: An American Drama (Summit, 1984), put it this way: "It's like the men in this family have some inherited genetic disorder that results in decadent behavior."

    You could argue, of course, that it's payback time for the media, and that Joe Kennedy, who's benefited enormously from his famous lineage, is at long last getting a taste of the downside of being a Kennedy. After all, it's almost impossible to imagine the lightly qualified Kennedy beating such experienced Democrats as George Bachrach, Jim Roosevelt, and Mel King in the 1986 race to succeed Tip O'Neill without his family's celebrity. Then, too, the breathtakingly unaccomplished Patrick Kennedy is not only a Rhode Island congressman, he's poised to be elected to the US Senate in 2000. Michael Kennedy himself reportedly considered running for the seat of retiring US Representative Gerry Studds in 1996, and the heretofore unknown Max Kennedy has been mentioned as a possible successor to brother Joe.

    But after more than a decade in the US House, Kennedy is now clearly a political figure in his own right. He should be judged as an individual, not as just another toothy, big-haired, interchangeable member of his tribe. In Congress, after all, Kennedy has developed a reputation as a tireless advocate for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, and as a nontraditional Democrat who defied the unions by supporting NAFTA and the progressives by supporting a balanced-budget amendment. Both of these departures from liberal orthodoxy are legitimate issues, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that NAFTA is hurting US industrial workers. The media should help the public frame those issues.

    Certainly there are serious questions, too, about how well Joe's legislative career would translate to the governor's office, especially given his lack of administrative experience. Nor should his personal life be off-limits. His annulment, his temperament, and his attitude toward women are all fair game. But the media are grotesquely unfair to him when they delve not into his personal life, but, rather, that of his brother, and deliver it with an undertone that says if you've seen one Kennedy, you've seen them all.

    Granted, Joe Kennedy's handling of the story involving Michael has been dumb, and perhaps not entirely truthful.

    At first he said he'd only found out about the affair "just in the last few days." It turned out he'd known for two years.

    Then, last week, Joe Kennedy was all over the place as to whether he'd been approached last fall by John Casey, a friend of the Kennedys and of the young woman's father, about trying to put an end to the relationship. Kennedy said he hadn't, then said he had, but didn't realize Casey was acting on behalf of the woman's family. The Globe added to the confusion, reporting on May 12 that Kennedy had acknowledged meeting with "an intermediary" for the woman's father, then running a correction the next day repeating Kennedy's contention that Casey did not present himself as such. The week ended with Casey issuing a statement on May 14 that supported Kennedy's version of events and vowing, "I will have nothing further to say."

    That's what Joe Kennedy should have said on April 25, the day the Globe broke the story of Michael Kennedy's alleged affair. It's too late now. And the media are in full-throated cry.

    On one level, the press's pursuit of Joe Kennedy represents a desperate attempt to develop a political angle, giving reporters a pretext to keep a juicy story alive. Think back to 1991, when William Kennedy Smith was acquitted of rape charges. What kept that story going was the fact that the incident occurred after Uncle Ted had rousted his son Patrick and his nephew Willie for some late-night drinking. Ted Kennedy's embarrassed silence at the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings several months later completed the circle, as it allowed journalists to argue that the senator's personal behavior had directly influenced the way he performed his public duties.

    "There always has to be a public hook of some sort, no matter how tenuous. If there's absolutely no link, then there's no rationale to get into it," says Suzanne Garment, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics (Anchor, 1991).

    Thus the issue becomes not Michael Kennedy's alleged reprehensible behavior, but rather how Joe reacted to it. "No one holds the congressman responsible for his brother's alleged behavior, but he is held to account for his own words," wrote the Globe's Scot Lehigh and Stephen Kurkjian on May 15.

    In its most fully developed form, this line of reasoning holds that Joe Kennedy is accountable for what he knew and when he knew it -- especially if he knew that Michael was having sex with his alleged victim when she was 14, which would constitute statutory rape. "If the congressman knew about it but did nothing, it could be highly damaging for his gubernatorial candidacy," Lehigh and Kate Zernike wrote in the Globe on April 29.

    But Michael Kennedy's now-estranged wife, Victoria, reportedly did not find out about the alleged affair until two years ago, when the woman was 17 and thus of legal age. It's possible that Joe knew before Victoria did, but there is no evidence that that's so. And even if he had known, and even if he intervened, he can't say so now, since that could bolster a criminal case against his brother. What we do know is that Michael Kennedy entered a sex-addiction-treatment clinic not long after Joe Kennedy's encounter with John Casey last November, which certainly suggests some positive action on Joe's part.

    "The guy has a brotherly obligation to be of assistance to his brother, and it seems like he has been," says Father Peter Conley, editor of the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper.

    Perhaps these ameliorating facts would come into play if Joe Kennedy's name were (as Herald columnist Howie Carr put it) "Joe Patrick." But a Kennedy sex story is far bigger than anything involving just Joe Kennedy. This, after all, is a family whose political fortunes have been intertwined with sexual escapades since 1914, when James Michael Curley forced Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, Joe's great-grandfather, out of the race by threatening to expose Fitzgerald's dalliance with a cigarette girl named "Toodles" Ryan.

    Joe's grandfather and namesake was a notorious womanizer, as were his uncles John and Ted. Yet his father, Robert, is thought to have been more restrained, and Joe seems in many ways to be his father's son. Though Joe was involved in a youthful Jeep accident that left a young woman paralyzed, as an adult he has not been known as either a lecher or a boozer. Joe also shares his father's passion. After all, Bobby Kennedy, too, was often accused of hot-headedness, especially in his pursuit of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa.

    Still, the Michael Kennedy scandal has unleashed powerful forces in the media that may be beyond anyone's control. Richard Parker, a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, part of Harvard's Kennedy School, argues that the story "taps into this mythic structure -- the sins of the father are visited upon generation after generation." Parker calls media coverage of the Kennedys "a semiconscious ritual," commenting, "I don't think the press is conscious enough to do this in a deliberate way. I don't think their frontal lobes are as developed as the average citizen's."

    Adds Parker's colleague Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center: "It's an inevitable issue. He [Joseph Kennedy] comes out of a tradition where a number of relatives have been linked directly and indirectly with sexual problems."

    Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute's Ethics Program, argues that it's fair for the press at least to explore what Joe Kennedy's role may have been in his brother's problems. He points out that Michael Kennedy is more than Joe's brother: he was Ted Kennedy's campaign manager during his 1994 US Senate re-election battle, and he had been slated as Joe Kennedy's campaign manager for 1998.

    But though Steele may be accurately articulating conventional media wisdom, it's fair to ask where his line of questioning leads. What does any of this have to do with what kind of a governor Joe Kennedy would make? What, in the end, does it even tell us about his judgment? Surely not so much as it tells us about Michael's judgment -- and Michael's not running for anything.

    "The issue is, Joe Kennedy's judgment about what? He's a morally autonomous adult. If he has a relative who's a disgrace, that makes him pretty much like the rest of us, I guess," says Lee Wilkins, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri who's studied the interrelationship of politics and media ethics.

    Except the rest of us aren't named Kennedy. (Or, if we are, we're not related.) And the media, in addition to their genetically hard-wired susceptibility to Kennedy sex stories, harbor long-standing resentment over the way they've allowed the Kennedys to manipulate them into buying the Camelot myth.

    "I have mixed feelings in terms of what is and what isn't fair play," says Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz, who moonlights as a political consultant. "The Kennedys have always run a dual campaign -- as individuals and as members of the Kennedy family. To me, it's a two-way street. You can't have it both ways."

    Thus we have Margery Eagan's Herald column of May 4, in which she argued that if it's unfair to brand Joe with Michael's sins, well, so what? "So he pays the Kennedy price," she wrote. "It's the least he can do in exchange for the family benefits." But this is a two-wrongs-make-a-right argument, holding that it's okay to bash Joe for being Michael's brother because the media are unable to control their election-time urge to fawn over the Kennedy cult of personality. Surely it's not asking too much, instead, to suggest that the media, in their coverage of Joe Kennedy's campaign, work to minimize both the positives and the negatives of his family's notoriety. We are, after all, electing a governor.

    Not that the Kennedys are unique in being attacked by the media for their family problems.

    Jimmy Carter ran afoul of the Washington establishment, and the media often used Carter's beer-swilling brother, Billy, in order to paint the strait-laced, intellectual president as some sort of Southern Gothic goober. "Carter was often put in the position of saying, `I won't disown my brother,' " says Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley, a historian at the University of New Orleans.

    Closer to home, the media in the 1980s and early '90s often recounted the tale of Bill Bulger, the South Boston boy who grew up to be president of the Massachusetts Senate, and his brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, who grew up to be a gangster. But unlike their treatment of the Kennedys, the media seemed to understand that Bill was not responsible for Whitey. As local historian Jack Beatty observes, "President Bulger couldn't stop Whitey because he didn't know where he was. He was on the lam."

    Perhaps the most humane commentary offered since the Michael Kennedy scandal broke was that of Globe columnist John Ellis, a business consultant and nephew of George Bush. In his May 17 column, Ellis argued that Joe Kennedy should stay out of the gubernatorial race not because he's done anything wrong, but because it's the best way to protect his family. "Withdrawal would recommend Joe Kennedy for future consideration. He would be seen as doing the right thing, not the political thing," Ellis wrote.

    Sound advice, perhaps, but it's not likely to be taken -- especially since Kennedy, though no longer the prohibitive favorite, still has an excellent chance of winning.

    Joe Kennedy is a man of formidable political skills who exudes a sense of presence entirely apart from his family name. Even his detractors acknowledge his awesome ability to work a room or win over a crowd. And if he is not exactly a leading light in Washington, and if questions remain about his intelligence and maturity, he nevertheless has built a reputation as someone who's willing to take an independent stand (critics forget how dangerous his pro-death-penalty position was in 1986 in a congressional district dominated by hyperliberal Cambridge), and who's not above rolling up his sleeves and wading into unsexy issues such as banks' discriminating against minority customers.

    "A year from now, Michael and the Baby Sitter and Joe and the Annulment will have joined Amy and Joe and Donald and Marla in the landfill of tabloid dreck," Margaret Carlson wrote in Time on May 12.

    Carlson may be right. But first the media are going to have to start judging Joe Kennedy on his own merits, on his own positives and negatives. We are all our brother's keeper -- to a point. Ultimately, though, Kennedy is just another congressman running for governor. He deserves to win or lose on that basis.

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