The Next Kennedy
Can Joe Kennedy III take over the family business?
Joe Kennedy III honors New England Peace Corps volunteers in Cambridge, Mass., on May 6, 2011.
The redheaded man runs across the street, scans the cars that are slowing for the red light, and runs up to the windows. He is followed by a fast-moving amoeba of blue, white, and khaki. On closer inspection, the amoeba is made up of an assistant, volunteers, and signs that read “Joe Kennedy for Congress.” The drivers quickly realize that their windshields will not be squeegeed. They roll the windows down.
“Good morning, I’m Joe Kennedy,” says the candidate. “I’m running for Congress in this district.” He hands over a leaflet. He jogs to the next car. For quite some time he sprints across the intersection of President and Eastern avenues in Fall River, Mass., shaking hands. The candidate’s grandmother, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, stands on another corner, waving at cars. She’s campaigned, successfully, for her late husband, her two late brothers-in-law, one son, one daughter, and one nephew. So: As a candidate, as a hand-shaker, how’s Joseph Patrick Kennedy III?
“I think he’s got the traffic pattern down,” she quips.
The next Kennedy is pretty good at this. His campaign for Massachusetts’ 4th district, the one currently held by the retiring Barney Frank, launched with the hype and care that you typically see for a Michael Bay movie that’s supposed to anchor a studio’s summer schedule. The Boston Globe’s first long profile of “JKIII”—who turns 32 in October—led with a story about the candidate’s teetotaling. (His old lacrosse teammates at Stanford teased him at bars; they’d order him pints of milk.) Later profiles have told of Kennedy’s work at the Middlesex County DA’s office, about JKIII’s new dog, Banjo, and his plans to get married after the November election, which everybody expects him to win.
We should back up and explain why that matters. Ted Kennedy died in 2009, his Senate seat quickly snatched away from Democrats by Scott Brown. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the first member of JKIII’s generation to serve in Congress, retired in 2010, ostensibly to help others deal with the depression and substance abuse problems that had bedeviled him for years. The 112th Congress was the first since the Sputnik era to include zero members of the Kennedy family. People aren’t supposed to take this so hard, but they do. After Martha Coakley blew the special election for that Senate seat, former Rep. Joe Kennedy II—JKIII’s father—was asked why he didn’t run. “It wasn’t the greatest decision I ever made in my life,” he sighed.
Joe II is here in Fall River, too, stopping to talk to motorists, offering them a right hand with splints on two fingers. At the family’s next stop, a get-out-the-vote seminar for volunteers, Joe II swears that a motorist just dissed him and told him: “If the vote’s for you, forget about it. If it’s for your son, I’m happy to give it.”
The story is credible. JKIII looks remarkably like a ginger RFK. When he laughs—the polite chuckle of the trail, the kind that emerges when a voter’s too enthusiastic or a debate moderator wants to break tension—JKIII bobs his head, squints, and flashes an aw-shucks-no-really grin. I spent 15 minutes covering the candidate before a Fall River voter, Susan Dumais, handed him a book about Rose Kennedy and asked him for a signature. JKIII obliged. Later, when JKIII walked door to door in Foxboro, I heard an elderly voter talk and talk about how “the people need a Kennedy in there.”
I’d seen the young Kennedy tell interviewers that he had to earn the seat himself. How did the family campaign day fit into that plan? Kennedy talks quietly, as if he’s constantly sharing secrets. The secrets sound a whole lot like well-rehearsed answers. “It’s something I’m very proud of. My family’s record of public service, the impact they’ve had on Massachusetts. With that comes the recognition that I am on the ballot. It’s me. I’m running this race. It’s me, not my grandfather, my grandfather’s brothers and sisters.”
This is a nice, self-effacing explanation that can never really be true. It’s in JKIII’s interest for this to be seen as a KENNEDY election. Then again, it’s in the interest of his likely opponent, Sean Bielat, for this to be a KENNEDY election, too. In 2010, when he was 35 years old and had never run for anything, Bielat challenged Barney Frank. It was a dream election—a Marine veteran with idiosyncratic views (no to term limits, Iraq was a mistake) versus a House chairman whom people had started to blame for the financial crisis.
Bielat spent $2.5 million and lost by only 10 points, in a district that had gone for Obama by 28 points. He built a massive email list and an online following. Trading Frank for Kennedy meant trading one high-profile race for another high-profile race. Inside his Foxboro, Mass., office, a supporter has dropped off a dog-eared copy of The Kennedy Men: Three Generations of Sex, Scandal and Secrets. That’s totally unofficial. On the wall, there’s a fundraising letter that tells donors “the only thing worse than Frank is another Kennedy!” That’s more official.
“Barney Frank brought 32 years of experience, chairman of House Financial Services, $4 million—obviously qualified for the job,” says Bielat. “This guy brings a name, and some money. If you ask most people around here what they know about Joe Kennedy, they can’t tell you a damn thing. His résumé is three years as a DA and two years in the Peace Corps and the Dominican Republic? There are direct flights from Logan to the Dominican Republic. It’s a tourist destination; he helped build up a tourism company. I don’t bear ill will towards the family. I bear ill will toward the idea that, in America, by virtue of your name, you can get into political office.”
Eventually, Bielat wants to talk policy. So does Kennedy. A few days after my quick visit to the district, I return to watch two candidate forums—Kennedy versus his Democratic primary foes, Bielat versus two other Republicans. Bielat’s race is a bit of a mismatch. Kennedy’s is just hilarious. One of his challengers is Rachel Brown, a Lyndon LaRouche cultist who won brief YouTube fame after she challenged Frank in a Q&A and he asked “what planet” she was from. The other is Herb Robinson, an engineer and blues musician who responds to nettlesome questions by saying, “Pass.”
Kennedy survives. But he doesn’t take chances. I’d asked him previously whether he’d try and move into the financial-services issues that Frank mastered, and whether he’d seek Frank’s committee assignments. Kennedy had pivoted immediately to a preferred issue, education, explaining that a healthy economic picture “starts with education, from early childhood education, access to that, to secondary education.” At the debate, Kennedy hits on the exact same lines. He skillfully evades a question about Citizens United and outside campaign spending by saying—truthfully—that it would be tough to amend the Constitution and change the disclosure standards. When he’s asked to think of a “funny” moment from the campaign trail, he’s legitimately stumped until he jokes that he “probably can’t talk about” whatever might have been funny.
After that, and a few Rachel Brown monologues about the economic benefits of space exploration, Kennedy’s done. He leaves without talking to reporters. Bielat gamely offers to help fill their notebooks.
“I enjoyed when Kennedy was talking about campaign finance reform,” says Bielat, “and with a straight face he said we needed to reform the system. This is a guy who’s out-raised everyone in Congress except John Boehner and Allen West.” The challenger happily feeds the David-vs.-Hyannisport narrative. “It’s like that famous quote that they said in the first race against Ted Kennedy. Change the name on his résumé, change the name on his signs, and nobody’s talking about him right now.”
Hang on, though—the guy who said that, Edward McCormack, looked like a hate-crazed jerk. Kennedy beat him like a drum.
“I know,” deadpans Bielat. “But that was a while ago.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.