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.
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.
Wait a minute. Run that last one by again. Joseph Kennedy's
gubernatorial hopes might be dashed because of Michael Kennedy's
- 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
- 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
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
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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.