The Magazine


Jun 7, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 36 • By MATT LABASH
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Watch Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the 31-year-old son of Senator Ted, mount the stump at any event, and you can't help but be overcome by pathos. Take February's National Treasury Employees Union conference, when Joe and Rose's grandson appeared at the Capitol Hill Holiday Inn. Our civil servants, in their short-sleeved dress shirts and referee-style wingtips, graze their ties across heavily-oiled iceberg lettuce, rising to pay deference to the nephew of JFK and RFK. Newly appointed head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and cousin of Maria Shriver and John Jr., now in his third term from Rhode Island's 1st congressional district, Patrick has come to preach the gospel of Richard Gephardt. He awkwardly assures union members, "I'm on your sheet of music," and, "I'm on a working, uhhh, person's agenda." But they seem to love him, as he decries "malicious, negative politics" while blaming Republicans for a racist truck-dragging death in Jasper, Texas, and the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard. So pleased is his audience that one union leader rewards young Patrick with a chocolate lollipop.

Still, watching them watch him, it's difficult not to sense the slight disappointment. Cosmetic snap judgements may be unfair, but this is a Kennedy after all, American royalty. And what was the Camelot franchise built on if not wisely invested cosmetic capital? There were the Life magazine spreads of toothy wide receivers playing touch football on Hickory Hill, of Chanel suits and pillbox hats, of Jack and Bobby's perfectly coiffed thatches, so un-mussed by world crises. Then there's Patrick, whose voice pitches too high, and whose freckled hands flail like wounded finches. Still trim and only a moderate drinker, he has yet to inherit his father's Chivaswollen mien. But neither does he possess cousin Joe's charm, or cousin John's chin, or his uncles' laconic wit.

It may be unfair -- brutal even -- to make such comparisons with Patrick's more famous, more talented, more comely kin. But nobody has invited those comparisons as much as the man himself. Rare is the speech or interview where he does not utter the words "my father," "my family," or (his favorite) "my uncles." And the name still works its spell. Gephardt has made him the DCCC chairman, entrusted with winning the House back for Democrats. Indeed, his swift rise to fifth-ranking Democrat in the House can only be explained by his mastery of the time-honored, threepronged family strategy: (1) Invoke the Kennedy name as often as possible, (2) Learn how to buy friends and influence people, (3) Invoke the Kennedy name to raise money to help you buy more friends.

Though Boston Herald columnist and Kennedy tormentor Howie Carr has labeled Cousin Joe the "Wizard of Uh's," Patrick is probably the Kennedy one would be least likely to cheat off of when taking the SAT. But that is not to deny his skill at milking his bloodline for political contributions. Even before being handpicked to head the DCCC, Kennedy had his own leadership PAC as well as a joint fund-raising committee with Gephardt, and had raised over $ 1.5 million for Democrats as a tireless celebrity campaigner. Since his appointment last November, the DCCC has set a new quarterly record for the most funds raised in a non-election year. And Kennedy hopes to narrow the traditional Republican money lead even further with his recently announced fund-raising stroke of genius -- rewarding $ 100,000 donors with a clambake at Hyannisport, where starstruck contributors can presumably play touch football with Patrick and Dick and maybe even Teddy, assuming he can still run.

But it's not just for fund-raising that Kennedy uses his family connections. His relatives are also rhetorical crutches, and he never misses an opportunity to employ them when shrilly denouncing Republicans in a manner so artless one can almost hear Uncle Jack rolling over under his eternal flame. In 1996, for instance, during a debate on the repeal of the assault weapons ban, Kennedy took to the well, trembling with emotion, as he leveled a shot at former representative Gerald Solomon: "Shame on you. . . . Play with the devil, die with the devil. . . . There are families out there . . . [you'll] never know what it's like, because [you don't] have someone in your family who was killed." Solomon, a Marine veteran of Korea and recovering from prostate surgery, became so agitated that he offered to take Kennedy outside.