PATRICK KENNEDY -- THE MAN AND THE MYTH
Jun 7, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 36 • By MATT LABASH
Rhode Island has long had the reputation of being "a state for sale, cheap," as Lincoln Steffens once put it. Considering that Patrick spent $ 87,000 (or $ 78 per vote, a Rhode Island record for a state representative's race) to win a part-time legislator's gig that paid $ 300 a year, it didn't come that cheap. More remarkable were the resources at Patrick's disposal: from the family's deep-pockets donor lists to the Brown University speech coach hired to improve Patrick's dadaist delivery, to Dad himself helicoptering in to the district to accompany his son door to door. Nearly a dozen Kennedys weren't so much recruited as conscripted to win Patrick's 1988 race. Skeffington, still in the funeral business, says that Kennedys flooded the polls in two-hour shifts with Polaroid cameras, offering prospective voters a chance to get their picture taken with a real-life Camelot heir. The only hint of embarrassment came from John Jr. "He was a perfect gentleman," says Skeffington. "He said, 'I hope you realize that I don't want to be here, I don't like this, but you understand it's my cousin and I was asked to do it. I don't think it's fair.'"
Patrick was so green he solicited voters outside his district and was stumped when radio-show callers asked if he knew where his campaign headquarters was located. Still, Skeffington was plowed under, losing the loyalty of voters, campaign workers, even family members. When Patrick moved a few doors down from Skeffington's ex-wife, she invited Patrick and his mother over. ("They had tea!" says a still wounded Skeffington.) When John Jr., then People's "sexiest man alive," showed up at the polls, Skeffington's female campaign staffers lined up to get their pictures taken with him. ("I said, 'Well jeez, at least take my [campaign] buttons off,'" he recalls.) And so it has gone for Patrick in Rhode Island, where Uncle Jack married and summered, where old Irish widows keep Jesus and JFK in companion frames on the walls of their triple-deckers, and where locals tell you that anyone who is "warm and breathing" a "duck-billed platypus" or a "child molester with five arms" -- can win with Patrick's last name.
If Providence voters were infatuated with their new state representative, party chieftains were less so. Not only did Kennedy rub out their candidate, but he also developed a reputation as a headline-hunter by decrying the insular practices of then-speaker of the House Joe DeAngelis. Journalists began receiving documentation of Kennedy's stumblebum performances on the house floor. "Legislators used to send me tapes in a brown paper bag," says a wistful Howie Carr, the nation's premier collector of Kennedy malapropisms. Favorite entries ranged from Patrick's admitting that because of his family wealth, he doesn't have to "make mends meet," to his saying that he was trying to "test my feet." One prominent New England Democrat recalls Patrick's appearance at a 1990 campaign event for Claiborne Pell. The former senator was delayed and a surrogate speaker was needed. "Ted pushed Patrick, just to get his name out there. But Patrick didn't have a suit, so he showed up in one of Ted's. It was right out of the movie Big. It was the funniest thing you ever saw, this guy in a suit five sizes too large, trying to be Dad. That's when we started calling him 'Ted Lite.'"
There was schadenfreude among his political enemies when Patrick was ensnared in cousin William Kennedy Smith's 1991 Palm Beach rape trial. Having flown down to the family's beachfront compound, Teddy decided to celebrate Good Friday by rousting Patrick and Cousin Willie from their beds to imbibe at Au Bar (Patrick testified that he only downed ginger ales). Both cousins made the pleasure of women's company and returned to the estate in the middle of the night. While take-charge Cousin Willie had sex with his date on the compound lawn, Patrick returned to his room with his date Michelle Cassone. In rather un-Kennedyesque fashion, they sat on separate beds until, Patrick said, they finally "kissed a little." According to Cassone, that was when Teddy entered the room in a long dress shirt "with no pants," walking "kinda wobbly," with love's pure light in his eye.
Confounding Patrick's political foes, Kennedy-Smith was acquitted, and Patrick suffered almost no collateral damage. Indeed, he gained essential experience in defending indefensible behavior by shilling for his father and cousin, a skill that would come in useful during President Clinton's impeachment trial some seven years later. Of Cousin Willie, Patrick said he "could not have done anything like that," despite the fact that three additional women said Kennedy-Smith had similarly accosted them (the judge did not allow their testimony to be introduced at trial). As for wobbly, pants-less Dad, Patrick was "proud" of his father, who, he added, was a "fun terrific person." Palm Beach itself, he complained, was a "place of the idle rich who are more worried about how to get into clubs and golf courses than they are about social justice." Never mind that the help testified that Patrick woke up at the crack of noon for his usual half-pound of bacon breakfast, crab thermidor lunch, and family-mandated daiquiris. More laughably, Patrick began "testing his feet" as a partisan bomb-thrower, blaming the media frenzy at his cousin's trial on a Republican establishment "threatened by the kind of mission my father is on Capitol Hill."
By 1993 the undistinguished state legislator who had already declared that he had presidential aspirations, was ready to become the distinguished gentleman from Rhode Island. His candidacy was announced with suitable pomp, a $ 25-a-head chicken dinner at the Rhode Island convention center, where swooning matriarchs could gawk at more imported Kennedys. Dick Gephardt hosted a $ 50,000 coming out party for Kennedy on Capitol Hill and told Rhode Island voters that young Patrick was headed for the Armed Services Committee, where he could wangle pork on behalf of the state's considerable naval interests.
But even after he had forged an alliance with the man who would shepherd his career in Washington, Kennedy proved less than polished. At one campaign event at a Shriver cousin's house, a Democratic fund-raiser attempted to interest moderate Republican donors in the newest Kennedy's candidacy. "We brought these guys in and we're all out on the porch," says the fund-raiser. "Patrick came running around the corner and got down on his knees to peer in the window. He was playing hide and seek with some kid. I almost threw up on the spot, I was so embarrassed. So I grabbed him and I said, 'Patrick, you wanna play games, go in the backyard -- there's a swingset. But don't embarrass me.' He just went, 'Huh?' and ran around the corner." Other skeptics mocked young Kennedy. One local radio host repeatedly tweaked him by playing "If I Only Had A Brain." The Providence Fournal-Bulletin endorsed his opponent, Dr. Kevin Vigilante, who clearly outdebated him. In one contest, after flubbing an answer, Kennedy waited for Vigilante to respond, then added, "Dr. Vigilante said it as I would like to say it. He said it very well. That's what I was trying to get across." With record-setting contributions pouring in (80 percent of which came from the family's out of state network), and with a barrage of negative ads, Kennedy handily beat Vigilante, one of the few such Democratic victories in 1994. His subsequent races in a heavily Democratic district have not been close.
After his election, Gephardt did secure the freshman Kennedy the spot on the coveted Armed Services Committee, even though the committee had lost Democratic seats to the new Republican majority. As a junior minority member, Kennedy didn't manage to wangle much more than a half-pound of bacon for his state, but he did provide entertainment. Here is a verbatim question that Kennedy asked when quizzing the secretary of the Navy on how to eradicate racial intolerance from the military: "So what happens is, things don't get reported because, you know, let's not make much to do about nothing, so to speak. One of the worries I have about, you know, a really zero-defect mentality with respect to defect -- I'm not talking now -- I mean everyone can acknowledge that if there's a little bit of extremism, I'm not saying that isn't just grounds for you know, expulsion from the military. But how do we address the broader issues . . . Can you answer that in terms of communication?"
Though Kennedy has spent most of his time in Congress solidifying his hold on the senior vote with Mediscare politics and shunning the national media spotlight (wouldn't you while "testing your feet"?), the Clinton impeachment raised his profile. When it came to shilling for the president, Kennedy was rivaled only by the Congressional Black Caucus and Judiciary Committee Democrats. He defended Clinton with the awe you'd expect from someone who once gushed after sailing with the president off Martha's Vineyard: "I'm sitting next to him, and he's talking to you, and he's asking for something for lunch, and my family is there, and I realized, oh my God, it's just an incredible feeling to be that close to the president of the United States. The president of the United States!"
Over the course of the Lewinsky affair, Kennedy found fault with quite a few politicians, but never with Clinton. He attacked Sen. John Chafee for "masquerading" as a moderate -- high slander for the collegial, middle-of-the-Rhode Island delegation. And after a trip to Puerto Rico with Hillary Clinton (who had proclaimed in an earlier Rhode Island stop, "I love Patrick Kennedy; I love being around him; I love listening to him"), Kennedy went after his fellow Rhode Island Democrat, Rep. Robert Weygand, for voting to move forward with an impeachment inquiry. Kennedy accused Weygand of "covering his backside," while Rhode Island polls showed it was in fact Kennedy who was playing it safe with voters. But mostly he screamed about Uncle Jack from the floor of the House: "These Republicans are not profiles in courage . . . They are the farthest thing from it that I can imagine." And mangled his cliches: "Impeachment proceedings are just like pulling a fire alarm in a crowded room." And discoursed on the Constitution: "I myself have educated myself about the severity of the Articles of Impeachment, and I want to share with my colleagues and the American people some of the thoughts that I have learned."
Since Dick Gephardt has withdrawn from the presidential race and cast his lot with Kennedy, whose fund-raising efforts he hopes will secure him the Speaker's title, their relationship has grown more symbiotic. In fact, even some Democratic insiders have trouble discerning where Gephardt's fingers end and Kennedy's pullstring begins. At the DCCC, Kennedy is surrounded by a knot of formidable Gephardt deputies, from executive director David Plouffe (Gephardt's former deputy chief of staff) to communications director Erik Smith (Gephardt's former deputy press secretary).
"Kennedy was picked for his ability to attract liberal money, especially from the northeast, like it's never poured in before," says one prominent Democratic consultant. "He was also picked because he won't be as independent as [his predecessor] Martin Frost. He'll be the nominal leader, and he'll let Dick make most of the decisions. They've got good staff over there, and I think they are trying to put Kennedy in a position where he can't cause himself or the committee any damage."
Actually Kennedy doesn't need that much protection. He seems to have taken to the job. At a recent National Press Club press conference, he recited electoral minutiae with the fixed stare of an autistic savant reciting 1930s box scores. With his hands in check, his voice pitched lower, he gave a near flawless performance, except for his ad lib about gun control, in which he claimed that "the number of Littletons every week that go on in this country . . . are astounding." Sensing trouble, he floated a statistic on how many children are killed by guns. Confused, I buttonhole him afterwards, trying to get clarification. He tells me that 14 kids are killed every week. No math whiz myself, I scribble quick calculations. If 14 kids are killed a day, that would be 98 kids killed per week, 70 excluding weekends. "Whether it's every day or weekdays," Patrick says, "it's too many."
In the brief time before I get back to my office, a DCCC spokesman (and former Gephardt aide) manages to track me down and leave a message, straightening out Patrick's numbers. With staff work like that, it is no wonder that Kennedy has forgone a run at retiring Senator Chafee's seat, which he was an odds-on favorite to win. As he once astutely noted, "I don't need a Senate seat to get national stature. With my family name, I'm still able to get that anyway." Besides, he says, he's better suited to the "hurly-burly" of the House.
He might, however, want to re-read Profiles in Courage. In it, Uncle Jack excerpts the diary of a cabinet member, describing the Senate as being primarily populated by "small lights, mentally weak, and wholly unfit to be Senators. Some are vulgar demagogues . . . some are men of wealth who have purchased their position . . . [some are] men of narrow intellect, limited comprehension, and low partisan prejudice."
If that's still the case, Dad may want to save Patrick a seat.
Matt Labash is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.