Politics & Poker: A Political Dynasty Searches for New Royalty

Posted March 16, 2009 at 6:19pm

It wasn’t all that long ago that Time magazine devoted a cover spread to “The New Kennedys— — the next generation of the storied Democratic family who were going to carry the political legacy of Jack, Bobby and Teddy to new and dizzying heights in the 21st century.

[IMGCAP(1)]Things didn’t turn out quite as the magazine envisioned — or as the family no doubt hoped.

“The dynasty’s not doing so well,— said Darrell West, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). “Ten years ago, there were a number of Kennedys in the political pipeline, and now there’s one — Patrick.—

That may be a bit of an overstatement. Just when you think the reservoir of ambitious young Kennedys is drying up, new ones appear on the scene threatening to run for office — though they don’t seem quite so dazzling and young as they once did (many in fact are now older than JFK and RFK were when they were assassinated).

But here on St. Patrick’s Day, with the family patriarch, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) ailing, it’s fair to say that there are fewer political rising stars among Joe and Rose Kennedy’s grandchildren than there were when Time declared Camelot II in its Aug. 13, 2001, edition.

Does anyone think Kennedys are sure bets at the polls anymore? Consider this:

• In 1997, after a dozen years in Congress, then-Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), the eldest son of Robert Kennedy, was gearing up to run for governor. But he abandoned the race after his ex-wife published a tell-all book and his younger brother Michael became embroiled in a sex scandal.

• In 2001, Max Kennedy (D), RFK’s ninth child, was the presumed frontrunner in the race to replace the late Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) in South Boston. But he never really had that feel for campaigning that was so instinctive for his father and uncles, and he dropped out of the race.

• Also in 2001, William Kennedy Smith, the son of Jean Kennedy Smith, took polls in advance of a possible run for a Chicago-area Congressional seat. But the polls concluded that he was still too politically toxic a full decade after his rape trial in Palm Beach, even though he had been acquitted. Smith remained on the sidelines, and Rahm Emanuel won the open House seat instead.

• In 2002, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), then Maryland’s lieutenant governor, lost the Free State’s gubernatorial election in spectacular fashion. That same fall her cousin, Mark Shriver, then a Maryland state

legislator, was upset in a Democratic Congressional primary by a fellow state lawmaker, Chris Van Hollen.

• In 2005, when Senate Democrats were recruiting to find a challenger to then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Patrick Kennedy appeared to have the right of first refusal, but he demurred. Sheldon Whitehouse (D), then the state attorney general, wound up beating Chafee by 8 points.

• In late 2008, with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) poised to become secretary of state, the name of environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. began to circulate as a possible replacement. He took himself out of contention for the appointment, but recommended his cousin Caroline Kennedy instead.

What followed was one of the most bizarre episodes in recent political history, with Caroline Kennedy stumping the state in an attempt to win the vote of one man, New York Gov. David Paterson (D). Scripted and overly protected by a team of consultants, in much the way Townsend was, she stumbled badly in some interviews and was harshly criticized by many. Still, she picked up a few key endorsements, and her selection seemed inevitable — until suddenly, it didn’t. And to this day no one really knows what happened.

During this period in the wilderness for the Kennedys, wags have noted that it’s Kennedy in-laws — California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), now divorced from Kerry Kennedy — who have enjoyed success at the polls. Certainly for anyone who has closely followed the family’s triumphs and tragedies, there was something simultaneously jarring and poignant about seeing all those toothy Kennedys on the stage celebrating the victory of a Republican — Schwarzenegger — during the 2003 California recall election.

So does this mean that the Kennedys have come to the end of the line, that the next best hope for greatness lies not with Patrick Kennedy’s generation, but with the next generation of Kennedys? The toddlers, teens and 20-somethings whose names we don’t even know yet? Hardly.

Just a few days ago, news began circulating in California that Bobby Shriver (D) is seriously thinking about running for state attorney general in 2010. Shriver, who is 54, came to the family business relatively late in life. He’s been a lawyer, as well as a music and TV producer. And he has done an enormous amount of charitable work. He only got into politics in 2004, when he won a seat on the Santa Monica City Council.

Listening to Shriver’s Los Angeles-based consultant, Harvey Englander, discuss the rationale for his candidacy and the type of campaign he might run, he sounds a lot like the masterminds of junior Kennedy campaigns of the past.

“He has got more energy than any four people I know — more relationships, more ideas,— Englander said in an interview. “The attorney general’s slot really fits his interests and his abilities.—

Englander also said that Shriver possesses “national and international contacts that make him such a viable candidate.—

Not to diminish Shriver, who by all accounts has done plenty of terrific, public-spirited work through the years. But there are a few things about him worth noting:

• He got into local politics in part after a fight with the city of Santa Monica over hedge heights — a far cry from, say, the Cuban missile crisis.

• There are five Democrats already openly exploring running for attorney general on the assumption that the incumbent, Jerry Brown (D), is running for governor. All are minorities — three state legislators, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, and Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. How ironic would it be if Shriver’s ticket to victory is as the only white candidate in the primary?

• He looks a lot more like his dad, Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, than any Kennedy. Englander said the challenge for Shriver is “more than just being a Kennedy, it’s about being Arnold’s brother-in-law.—

Beyond Bobby Shriver, plenty of other Kennedys of his generation could still run for public office. Most are engaged in public service to some degree, and “there’s always the potential for more Kennedys to be in elective office because there’s a short hop from nonprofit service to political office,— West said.

Even after being dragged through the New York media mosh pit, Caroline Kennedy appears to have gotten the political bug. RFK Jr. is seen as a possible future candidate for attorney general in the Empire State.

In Maryland, when Van Hollen was considering running for Senate in 2006, Mark Shriver took steps to run for the 8th district House seat again. Van Hollen will no doubt run for statewide office some day, so Shriver could run for his House seat — though the chances of that happening diminish the longer he is out of office and uninvolved in local politics.

Patrick Kennedy “seems very happy staying in the House,— West observed. But the next time there is a Senate vacancy in Rhode Island, he’ll again be at the front of the line of potential candidates.

And in Massachusetts, there could be enormous pressure on Joe Kennedy to run for Senate when Ted Kennedy is no longer able to serve.

In fact, Sen. Kennedy’s illness must be considered a wild card in all discussions about the Kennedys’ collective political future. What will happen — in the public’s mind and within the family when he’s gone?

He is both a legislative giant and a living link to the venerated past. Will reverence for his and his brothers’ work spark a Kennedy renaissance that the younger generations can ride to political victory? It’s a delicate, almost morbid question, but it can’t be avoided.