Max’s connection to the district is tenuous at best, however. (His situation might be compared to that of Ted Kennedy Jr. in 1986, when he briefly toyed with running for the congressional seat being vacated by the retiring Tip O’Neill.) And he may be the most vulnerable to the carpetbagger charge in South Boston, which isn’t known for welcoming outsiders and has been home to the last three representatives of the Ninth. Moakley, who’s held the seat since 1972, was born and bred in South Boston. And Louise Day Hicks, whom Moakley defeated by running as an independent during the primary, only to knock her off during the general election, cut her political teeth by whipping up Southie hysteria against busing. Hicks herself had replaced Speaker John McCormack of South Boston.
The Kennedy mystique wears thin in Southie. Some still remember — and are bitter about — Ted Kennedy’s defeat of McCormack’s nephew Edward in the 1962 Democratic primary for the Senate. During the busing riots of the 1970s, many residents viewed Senator Ted Kennedy, who supported busing, as a limousine liberal who’d sold out their kids. And the generation of South Boston Irish who never got caught up in that bitterness, who hung JFK’s photo in their living rooms, is dying off. What’s more, many members of the “Southie diaspora” live in suburbs throughout the district. Even if the Kennedys were viewed more favorably, there’s the issue of Max’s persona — which is more Cape Cod than Canton. Prone to calling people “bro” and “dude” and wearing loafers without socks, he’s got a laid-back surfer style that won’t play well in the area — but then, an army of consultants will work on that. If he runs, he will have to make the most of the winning but low-key personality he displayed at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, when he gently schmoozed poolside at the Beverly Hilton while his children frolicked in the water nearby. There’s a Kennedy precedent for that, too: when Ted Kennedy ran in 1962 and had to battle charges that he had cheated at Harvard, he spun his way out of it by persuading the Globe to run a soft, confessional piece about the incident.
Max’s most powerful challenger, Stephen Lynch, has strong ties in the district generally, and deep roots in South Boston in particular. Not surprisingly, the Southie native is the candidate who has Team Kennedy most worried. A former ironworker who put himself through law school, Lynch is the anti-Kennedy: a self-made man. And what a self Lynch has made. Not only does he host the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, but he has impressive national political connections — in fact, he’s close to Gore. Lynch has also had success in taking on famous names: in 1996, he defeated William Bulger Jr. to win his Senate seat. A worst-case scenario has Max facing off against Lynch, mano a mano, in the Democratic primary.
Another problem could present itself if the Irish votes split among, say, Kennedy, Lynch, and Sullivan, leaving the Portuguese community, which is strong in the south of the district, to Pacheco. In order for Max to succeed, Democratic observers say, he needs a lot of candidates in the race who can do well in their particular bases (Lynch in South Boston, Pacheco in Taunton, Sullivan in Braintree) while he finishes second throughout the district, accumulating the most votes.
MAX FACES the same challenges his relatives did when they first sought office. He is young, inexperienced, and not ready by any definition of the word. But his disadvantages pale before those suffered by Ted Kennedy, the accused cheat. Or by Patrick Kennedy, who had served as a witness at the notorious rape trial of his cousin William Kennedy Smith. And he’s more affable and easygoing than his brother Joe — whose prickly personality sometimes rubbed Democratic activists the wrong way. (During his 1986 campaign, the Washington Post quoted Joe’s frustration at “special interest groups that hold these frigging forums.”)
One fundamental problem for Max’s campaign is raised by Kennedy-family biographer Collier. “The problem that the Kennedy generation has is that they’re postmodern Kennedys,” he says. “It’s one thing to do this 40 to 50 years ago when this was fresh. It’s another thing to do this when it’s a cliché — everybody’s seen this before.”
Maybe so. But Collier forgets another hallmark of the postmodern era: celebrity, like brand-name recognition, is paramount. More than ever, big names make it possible to leapfrog the system. Max Kennedy may be ill prepared to be a congressman, but he’s certainly no less prepared than George W. Bush is to be president.
For more on the Kennedys, read last week's Talking Politics www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/talking_politics/documents/01442167.htm
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.