The Magazine

PATRICK KENNEDY -- THE MAN AND THE MYTH

Jun 7, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 36 • By MATT LABASH
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Similarly, during the 1998 impeachment debate, Kennedy became incensed when Rep. Bob Barr quoted Uncle Jack on the floor. In the hallway afterwards, he accosted Barr in front of a gaggle of reporters: "You quoted my uncle," he screamed, "and went to a White Citizens Council meeting," referring to a Council of Conservative Citizens meeting that Barr claimed he had addressed without being fully apprised of their agenda. Not exactly Aeschines and Demosthenes, Barr called Kennedy "son." Kennedy informed Barr that he was a "duly elected member of Congress." Barr said he was "duly impressed." Kennedy called Barr a "white supremacist" and a "liar," later saying, "It appalled me that a racist would invoke my uncle's name." Barr called Kennedy a "punk" and said he wasn't quite certain if Kennedy hadn't gone off the deep end." Kennedy didn't seem bothered that his patron Richard Gephardt had spoken to the same group as Barr some years earlier. Indeed, he accompanied Gephardt to a Harvard speech at the Kennedy School of Government where Gephardt invoked Uncle Jack's name without incident.


Being pals with the House minority leader is heady stuff for the boy once described by his mother Joan, Ted's ex-wife, as "a slow starter." Growing up with a brother and sister six and seven years his senior, respectively, Patrick Kennedy once said, "I'd always be the one everybody got a laugh out of, because they ended up making me cry or run from the room." Then there were his parents, divorced when he was 15. Joan was an acknowledged alcoholic who collected DWIs like rummy hands, and his father was an unacknowledged souser and philanderer. Between the intervention sessions for his mother and the taunts from classmates over his father's dropping off his Chappaquiddick date in a watery grave when Patrick was two, it's a wonder the boy was as likable as old acquaintances recall.


Which is not to say he didn't have a sense of his place in the world; or rather, his family's place. One day, after Aunt Ethel had hired a tennis pro to coach the cousins, the pro encouraged the boys to pick up the balls, promising that whoever collected the most could hit with him for an extra half an hour. As the pro told Laurence Leamer, author of The Kennedy Women, Patrick sullenly declared, "We Kennedys pay people like you to pick up balls for us."


Like his father and uncles, Patrick wasn't much of a student and elected not to go to Harvard like his uncles and father (Ted, that poco diablo, had been expelled after cheating on his Spanish exam). Instead, he headed for Providence College, where he earned solid Bs and Cs as a social science major and developed a taste for the family business (politics, not bootlegging). It would be inaccurate to peg Patrick as caring only about the three Kennedy vices, "getting laid, getting elected, and getting a drink," as one Providence Fournal-Bulletin writer says, "but he doesn't know very much, other than family history." Phil Terzian, also a Bulletin writer, drew a similar conclusion after writing a piece in 1987 about Patrick's father that was light on sympathy and heavy on Mary Jo Kopechne references. Patrick, Terzian says, came to the lobby of the newspaper building, and called him on the security guard's phone. "He was completely out of control, physically, rhetorically, and mentally as far as I could tell -- threatening to assault me," says Terzian.


Still in his sophomore year at Providence, two years out of rehab for a high school drug habit, Patrick set his sights on the job of state representative John Skeffington, a funeral director and nine-year Democratic incumbent who was beloved by party bosses. They tried to dissuade him from running, but the 21-year-old Kennedy didn't take it well. "I come from a well-recognized family," he said later. "I faced a situation where I wanted to run for public office, and I was told to wait my turn. This was totally repugnant to me."