The Magazine

Inherit the What?

The Kennedy legacy isn't what it used to be.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Seventy-six years ago, in 1932, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. gave a timely endorsement to -Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, as a reward, was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (and later ambassador to the Court of St. James), from which perch he launched the political careers of his sons. In 2008, his granddaughter Caroline gave a timely endorsement to Barack Obama, and now that he's elevated his rival -Hillary Clinton from her Senate seat to his cabinet, Caroline is claiming that seat for herself in an effort to revive and extend her family's political presence, which in light of the age and illness of Uncle Ted seems to be fading away.

A prime difference is that Grand-father Kennedy was amply qualified for the SEC post and endorsed Roosevelt on his own behalf, while Caroline's sole qualification for being a senator is her being a Kennedy, and she endorsed Obama less in her own right than in her dead father's name. She seemed to endorse him in fact on behalf of her father, much as her father had once been endorsed by Franklin Roosevelt Jr., who campaigned in effect as his father's stand-in, giving the impression to voters in West Virginia and elsewhere that FDR had endorsed JFK from beyond the grave.

The problem is not only that she has nothing but the family legacy to stand on but that the "legacy" itself has been so diluted and changed. So many Kennedys have done and stood for so many things--with every admirable trait checked by a reprehensible one--that the family brand now means nothing and everything, and the key things that once made it distinctive have long since been thrown away.

From Joe Sr. on down to his sons and their children, the Kennedys have been many things to most men. Morally, they have been profiles in courage and cowardice: They fled Luftwaffe bombs in Blitz-ridden London, and in wartime sought out the most dangerous missions; they have saved shipmates from drowning in dangerous waters, and left a woman to drown in a scandalous accident; they have given the last full measure of devotion in war and its aftermath; and in peace and in new generations, they have sometimes asked for much more than their due. In politics, they have been far right, far left, and dead center; they have been male chauvinists and quivering slaves to the feminist movement; they have been isolationists, interventionists, and democratic crusaders; they have been Churchillian and Chamberlainesque. Joe was an isolationist and a right-winger; Ted an isolationist and a left-winger; Jack and Bobby were centrists and interventionists, though in contrasting ways. The rational Jack was a centrist on just about everything, while the visceral Bobby was a mélange of both left and right instincts; a friend in his time to César Chávez and Senator Joseph McCarthy; a man who attacked Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society from the left, right, and center, and in his last years sounded like Ronald Reagan and a student protester on alternating days.

The ironic fact is that while Joe bought Jack his seat in the House in his first election (with help from Jack's maternal grandfather, a one-time mayor of Boston), the Kennedy brand was built on the talents of Jack and of Bobby, whose centrist convictions the latter-day Kennedys have gone to some pains to repudiate. Jack, it is known now, governed slightly to the right of Richard M. Nixon, while his heirs have been to the left of McGovern, who (along with his running-mate, a Kennedy in-law) lost 49 states to Nixon in 1972.

This has created between the legacy and those who claim to uphold it a disconnect, which voters sense and act on even if the legatees seem to deny its existence. At the start of the Cold War, John Kennedy urged rearm-ament, and ran to the right of his Republican rivals, while Ted Kennedy strenuously fought against all the arms systems with which the Cold War was finally won. Bobby Kennedy was famous for his loathing of Fidel Castro, a left-wing Latin American dictator who used his country as a base for America's enemies, while Bobby's sons suck up to Hugo Chávez, the Castro-lite left-wing Venezuelan dictator, who makes common cause with America's enemies, including Iran.

A number of Bobby's children, in particular, have seemed to go in for left-wing fringe causes, backed by the kind of boutique liberals Bobby once thought of as "sick." This is the reason the attempts of the younger Kennedys to tap into the emotional charge of the legacy have fallen with such a dull thud: the reason that despite lavish send-offs, no Kennedy of the third generation has achieved lift-off beyond local office; the reason that Ted Kennedy, adored in his state and by the base of his party, has always been a hard sell outside them, and was humiliated by the despised Jimmy Carter--and by his own party members--in the 1980 campaign.

The Kennedys, however, seem oblivious to these contradictions, a fact shown in Caroline's choice of her cousin Kerry to serve as spokesman and surrogate, even though Kerry's public service credentials are even weaker than Caroline's, and her main claim to public attention was as a tabloid heroine in a spectacular divorce in 2003 from Andrew Cuomo, Caroline's rival in dynasticism. Caroline meanwhile is trying to run on the legacy of her father and Bobby, while embracing a post-60s Teddy-type platform strikingly out of step with that of her father and late uncle.

Would Jack, who threatened pre-emptive war over missiles in Cuba, have really opposed a war with Iraq after Saddam defied U.N. resolutions? Would Bobby, who made his chops busting corrupt labor unions, have supported the end of the secret ballot in union elections? What would Jack and Bobby have said to the feminist social agenda, up to and including late-term abortion? And what would Bobby have said of gay marriage?

If Caroline wants to run as a legatee, she should explain which Kennedy legacy she supports, and why she supports it (including the tax cuts put in by her father.) She could start by reading her father's inaugural and seeing if there are any parts she believes in. Would she "bear any burden and pay any price" to ensure the survival of liberty? If she wouldn't, she should tell us why.

Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is the author of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives
of Political Families.