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[talking politics]

Family connections
A crop of Kennedys are running for office this year. Plus, Bush’s foreign-policy gaffe and Mayor Menino’s outreach.


CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING: Maryland state representative Mark Shriver (son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and nephew of Robert F. Kennedy) is running for Congress from Montgomery County, Maryland. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (RFK’s eldest daughter), who is Maryland’s lieutenant governor, is preparing to run for governor. Chris Kennedy (RFK’s fifth son) may run for Congress from Illinois. Andrew Cuomo (husband of RFK’s daughter Kerry Kennedy Cuomo) is vying for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York. And here in Massachusetts, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy (RFK’s sixth son) is seriously considering a run to replace US Representative Joe Moakley.

So what’s driving this batch of Kennedys into politics? Other people’s money.

Sure, there’s something to be said for public service. But the fact is that politics is the Kennedys’ family business. And, just as in any other family enterprise, the rising sons and daughters start out in entry-level positions and move around, learning every aspect of the business before moving up. Take Max, for example. Relatively unknown and inexperienced in politics, he got a job working for his uncle: he managed Senator Ted Kennedy’s 2000 re-election campaign. It wasn’t the toughest race in the world, but Max Kennedy still had to travel around the state, meet Democratic activists, and, well, learn the business. That’s why he’ll be in a favored position when the race to replace Moakley begins.

Of course, doing well in this family business takes money. Lots of it. Though everyone thinks of the Kennedys as the beneficiaries of a huge fortune created by Joseph P. Kennedy, they’re not as rich as you may think. Most of the Kennedy money was tied up in the Chicago Merchandise Mart until 1998, when it was sold for $625 million. The bulk of this money is in a trust created by the family patriarch, which dictates that most of it will remain untouched until all but two of Kennedy’s nine children have died, according to Darrell West, a Brown University professor and biographer of Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy. Five are still living: Rosemary Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, Jean Ann Kennedy Smith, and Ted Kennedy. Essentially, according to the Associated Press, the family’s assets are tied up in stocks and bonds. This means that Joe’s various grandchildren — including RFK’s nine surviving children — have to make do with trust proceeds and interest. The financial position of RFK’s children is somewhat improved by the fact that their mother, born Ethel Skakel, comes from a wealthy family. Even so, the situation is not what most people first imagine when they think of the Kennedy wealth.

“They’re asset rich but not necessarily cash rich,” notes West. Yet the Kennedys are experts at trading on the family name. Any grandchild of Joseph P. Kennedy is immediately taken seriously in the political world and given access to a national network of fundraisers, consultants, and whip-smart staffers. And Ted Kennedy’s position as one of the most powerful senators in Washington grounds the dynasty financially: a donation to Max or Patrick or even cousin Mark Shriver can give a donor access not only to the untested third-generation newcomer, but also to Ted himself.

Ironically, though, the Kennedy positioned to benefit the most from the family business is named Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo, son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, could leverage his father’s political connections and those of his wife’s family into the governorship of one of the country’s largest and most powerful states. Who knows where he could go from there? At a time when the public is increasingly less interested in politics, this is how we pick our leaders: we go for the brand name. Which is why we’ve got a guy named Bush running the White House.

And as Bush is proving, picking our presidents based on pedigree isn’t such a good idea. Not that we should be surprised: Andy Hiller of WHDH-TV (Channel 7) showed us what we were in for back in November 1999, when he ambushed Bush by asking the Texan to names the heads of state of Chechnya, Taiwan, India, and Pakistan. Bush answered the question about Taiwan this way: “Yeah, Lee.” And he alluded to, but did not name, “the new Pakistani general — just been elected — he’s not been elected.” The stunt showed that the fortuitously named candidate had, at best, a faulty grasp of global issues.

The incident was a campaign embarrassment that made national headlines. At the time, staffers reassured the public and the press. Don’t worry, they said. It doesn’t matter whether Bush knows the individual names of international leaders. What matters is who Bush selects as his foreign-policy advisers, the people who are paid to know such things. Given that Bush was getting advice during the campaign from the likes of Richard Perle (who served in the Reagan administration), Condoleezza Rice (who served in the previous Bush administration), and Paul Wolfowitz (who served for both Reagan and Bush), most people were persuaded that there was no real need to worry about the foreign-policy competence of a George W. Bush administration.

Nice theory. Too bad it hasn’t worked in practice. Less than 100 days in, Bush blundered into the most serious foreign-policy screw-up with China (the PRC, thank you) that we’ve seen in decades. Perhaps he was feeling pressure from political forces on the right who accused him of caving in to China over the downed EP-3C spy plane. But during an interview with Good Morning America’s Charlie Gibson, Bush impulsively blurted out that if China moves to invade Taiwan, America will defend Taiwan. So much for all those 8 a.m. policy briefings with Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice-President Dick Cheney.

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