The John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Awards ceremony this past Monday represented a triumph of mythmaking. Senator Edward M. Kennedy sat on the stage at the Kennedy Library next to Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and the honorees, former president Gerald Ford and Representative John Lewis of Georgia. Two American flags flanked the stage, and Boston Harbor could be seen from the hall’s glass windows. The event garnered plenty of positive press, including favorable notices in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the National Review Online.
But Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy had already managed to turn what should have been a slam-dunk media score into a foul call with his meltdown at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps breakfast four days before. If Max attended Monday’s festivities, the family’s handlers made sure to keep him under wraps and away from reporters’ questions. When Ted Kennedy’s staff made the senator, Ford, and Lewis available for a 30-minute press conference, aides instructed reporters to limit questions to the award itself. If anyone wanted to ask the senator about other matters, the staff would bring him back for questioning later. So when Kennedy arrived, nobody asked him about the Ninth Congressional District, instead sticking to Ford’s anguished decision to pardon Richard Nixon and Lewis’s determined battle against violent racists. But when the trio exited, Kennedy simply didn’t return.
Too bad for Max that he couldn’t have witnessed that trick before he ventured over to the Children’s Action Corps breakfast on May 17. Maybe then he would have been prepared to handle the likes of WHDH’s Andy Hiller, who questioned him before his speech. The Globe captured the spin of those sympathetic to Max Kennedy on Saturday when it reported that he had been “flummoxed [by] a reporter who began questioning him aggressively.” If I were a high-priced political consultant, my first step would be to teach candidates how to handle Hiller, who — as most of us recall — almost capsized George W. Bush’s presidential effort in November with his foreign-policy pop quiz. But instead of asking Kennedy to name the leaders of India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Chechnya, Hiller merely asked him if he were a candidate for Congress. Max Kennedy answered, “No, I’m not, Andy.” Wrong answer.
That same afternoon, Kennedy made a low-key appearance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, at which 10 percent of the attendees — roughly three people — were members of the press. He gave a mild-mannered talk about his father Bobby’s legacy to a group of government hopefuls, but flubbed the identities of some of his father’s acolytes. His best ally seemed to be his wife, who knew when to pull him out of harm’s way.
Democratic loyalists, such as state party chairman Phil Johnston, say Max Kennedy can only improve. “I think it’s much to-do about nothing,” says Johnston, who as a party official must remain neutral in the primary race. “Like every new candidate, he’s probably well aware that he needs to sharpen his message. That was the silver lining in it for him.”
Yet it’s hard to figure why Kennedy should need a performance like this as a wake-up call. He could always have turned to his brother for advice: Joe Kennedy announced that he was running for Congress on December 5, 1985, at the Congress Street offices of Citizens Energy Corporation, a setting ill suited to a media circus. “Poor planning and poorer sightlines” characterized the event, wrote Scot Lehigh, then of the Phoenix. “What emerged was a glop of gallimaufry that said little and meant less.”
Max Kennedy’s need for media training seems even odder in the context of his family’s history. I recently came across a June 25, 1968, copy of Look magazine with the cover line ethel’s kennedys: how she manages them. The article inside is jam-packed with color photos of Max and his brothers. One photo shows a three-year-old Max, food smeared on his face, looking plaintively to his mother. “Ethel bargains with Max: ‘If you eat your lunch, you won’t have to take a nap,’” reads the caption. The story describes Max as “a brown-eyed pixie.” How many of his would-be congressional rivals appeared in a major national magazine before the age of five? Certainly not Stephen Lynch, who grew up in hardscrabble South Boston, or Marc Pacheco, whose family emigrated from the Azores.
Max Kennedy’s friends say he hasn’t worked out a press-manipulation strategy because he’s in the race for the right reason — public service. That may be true. But political candidates must run in the real world. Any family capable of pulling off such A-plus events as Monday’s Profiles in Courage awards should be able to prevent Andy Hiller disasters. And someone who’s been in the press spotlight as long as Max ought to know when it’s time to ask for help.