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Article: Ted Kennedy Jr. Is (Finally) Ready for the Family Business

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Ted Kennedy Jr. Is (Finally) Ready for the Family Business


New York Times Magazine

Published March 13, 2013


In early December, Washington’s political class was in one of its episodic ventilations over who would fill the latest round of job openings. The intrigue of the moment involved Hillary Clinton’s replacement as secretary of state. Susan Rice, the U. S. ambassador to the United Nations and onetime front-runner, was taking a public battering, and the fallback candidate, Senator John Kerry, was looking more likely to get the job. This would in turn mean that another Massachusetts Senate seat would be up for grabs — the third election since the death of Ted Kennedy in 2009.

In the midst of all that, I was eating lunch at a private club near the White House at the invitation of Ted Kennedy Jr. As the namesake of the late senator, he was of course entitled under Massachusetts law to slide happily into any available political seat without so much as leaving the compound to drop off a ballot petition. There was only one slight problem with this: he lived in Connecticut, not Massachusetts. But Kennedys have a way of surmounting pesky barriers like these, and conjecture about Kerry’s seat, if it were to become open (which it has), was on the table.

Ted Jr., as he is known, has eager blue eyes and windswept Kennedy hair. He is friendly and solicitous, but his efforts at ingratiating himself come off more self-taught than natural, a bit too eager, as when, weeks earlier, he marveled at how really great it was to see me. At one point he asked if I had ever been to the family home on Cape Cod. When I said no, he insisted, “Oh, you have to come down sometime.” We had never met before.

He speaks in the patrician New England accent and nasal-honking intonations that conjure his father. He kept saying things like “I am entering a new phase of my life” and “I come from a family of public servants,” and it was perfectly clear what Ted Jr. had called me here to discuss. After a lifetime of entreaties, many from his father, the oldest son of Edward M. Kennedy was now, at 51, prepared to join the family business. In the musty parlance of his heritage, he was being “called to service.”

For someone so incubated in the heat of public life, Kennedy betrayed a surprising transparency, or maybe naïveté, in explaining to me how he had been preparing for this next phase. “I’ve been cultivating all sorts of friendships and relationships with people who can be helpful,” he said. And then he made clear how I came in. He also kept mentioning to me that “my father and brother had always spoken highly of you,” which carried a whiff of declaring me “reliable” within the family. (Was I, too, being called to service?) What he envisioned, Ted Jr. said, was “a foundational story” being written about him. “What’s this guy like?” he asked. “What’s he thinking?”

This was somewhat unusual. When someone decides to “come out” as a politician, it is typically in connection with a specific job — as in, “I will be running for such-and-such.” They don’t generally say, “I’m being called to service, please write a foundational story about me.” My immediate question involved exactly what service Ted Jr. was being called to. And where? Would it be in Massachusetts, where he purchased the former home of his Uncle Jack, behind the main family compound in Hyannis Port? Or in Connecticut, where he lives in the New Haven suburb of Branford with his wife, Kiki, a Yale psychiatrist, and teenage son and daughter (their oldest daughter is a freshman at Wesleyan)? There was also the possibility of an executive appointment from a president who regarded his father as a crucial Senate mentor and kingmaker. Ted Jr. wanted me to know that he was open to that.

Whatever the case, there was some urgency that the foundational story be done soon, presumably to help get his name “in play” for the imminent job openings. We were joined at the table by Dick Keil, a former White House reporter for Bloomberg News who now works for a media consulting company called Purple Strategies, which was co-founded by Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist/TV pundit/friend of Ted Jr.’s from the old days, when he worked on Ted Sr.’s 1980 presidential campaign. Keil, McMahon and Ben Binswanger, another friend, who attended Wesleyan with Ted Jr. and later worked for Senator Kennedy, were all helping guide the soon-to-be-candidate-for-something through the delicate paces of his “rollout.” Ted Jr.’s brother, Patrick, a former congressman from Rhode Island who now lives in New Jersey, was also part of the small advisory team, as was Kiki.

In addition to the whats, whens and wheres, there was also the matter of who — as in: Who did Ted Jr. think he was? As we talked over lunch about the rollout, wherever it may be rolling, I thought of a famous line inflicted on Ted Sr. during his 1962 Senate campaign by his Democratic primary challenger, Edward J. McCormack Jr. McCormack told his 30-year-old opponent — the brother of the sitting president — that he would have no chance in that race if his name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy. When I started to recall that line, Ted Jr. interjected with the exact quote: “If it was Edward Moore,” he said, “your candidacy would be a joke.”

In fairness, Ted Jr. is more than two decades older and far more experienced than his father was in 1962. He has been a longtime advocate for the disabled — having lost part of his right leg to bone cancer at age 12 — and his Manhattan-based management-consulting firm, the Marwood Group, employs 130 people. But the Edward Moore line resonates within the family. Patrick Kennedy — who was elected to the Rhode Island Legislature at 21 and the U.S. House of Representatives at 27, and who himself once dismissed the U.S. Senate campaign of Scott Brown in Massachusetts as “a joke” — told me that he entered politics “as a Kennedy” but was “still looking for my identity.” His brother, on the other hand, “knows where his true compass is,” Patrick assured me, deploying another pet family term — “true compass” — that happened to be the title of their father’s memoir.

Entire touch-football rosters could be filled with Kennedys who could never have been elected at their tender ages without their last names. In November, Ted’s 32-year-old cousin, Joseph Kennedy III — the son of a former U.S. representative, Joseph Kennedy II — became the latest pledge when he won the congressional seat left by Barney Frank, who retired. Even Ted Jr.’s son, Edward Kennedy III, has announced his intention to run for U.S. senator from Massachusetts someday. He was, at the time of his announcement, 11.

“There is this question with every member of my family,” Patrick Kennedy said. “How do we fit into this amazing legacy that we have been given by dint of our birth?” That is not a sentence most people utter. But his point was that simply running for an office because it is available is the family default option, and it’s not necessarily the best one.

Patrick did not seek re-election in 2010 and now devotes much of his life to promoting treatment and research for his twin causes, mental illness and brain injuries. He married, moved to New Jersey and has two children. He has sad green eyes, a big pillow of red hair and the gawky bearing of an overgrown boy. But he also has the weary voice of someone who could be 65.

Patrick told me he has no regrets about his career choices, but his own life proves his original point: that the family reflex to run early is not for everyone. He has battled depression and alcohol and drug addictions for years, and he admits that the United States Congress was not the best place to wrestle these goblins. “When you grow up in my family, being somebody meant having power, having status,” Patrick told me back in 2006, when I was reporting an article for The Times not long after police found him disoriented, having crashed his car into a barrier near the Capitol at 2:45 a.m. “The compensations you got were all material and superficial,” he said. “I’ve come to realize, in the last few months, that that life made me feel all alone.” After the article ran, Patrick told me his father was furious at him for unburdening himself publicly. “Save that stuff for your shrink, not a reporter,” Senator Kennedy said to him.

Ted Jr. is less the unburdening type. He has granted few interviews and he seemed nervous when we talked, or perhaps a bit suffocated by Keil, who was always with us. Keil, whom I first met back in his journalism days, is a friendly and earnest operator who, like many in Washington, is always working. (I ran into him once at the supermarket and teased him about the work Purple Strategies was doing to help BP “reposition” its image after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Without missing a beat, Keil unleashed his own gusher, calling BP the “the greatest corporate turnaround story in history” before moving onto the deli counter.) He sat in on all three of my meetings with Ted Jr., monitored a subsequent phone call and also stayed close by during my meeting with Patrick. He made backup recordings of all of our conversations, which is not unusual for public-relations people to do, but typically happens with high-level subjects, not with someone who has never run for office and wasn’t really running for anything now. The aggressive “management” of the story conveyed an impression of both loftiness and hand-holding — or, at worst, of a Not Ready for Prime Time Kennedy being propped up by consultants.

All of that said, there’s something innately likable about Ted Jr. People who have known him over the years generally describe a solid, down-to-earth guy who is quite normal, given his royal lineage. And his instinct to become a fully formed human being before answering the “call to service” was admirable. His priority, by all accounts, has always been to raise a family and nurture them as unassumingly as possible (again, for a Kennedy). As he put it, “I pretty much spent half my life trying to resist other people’s timetables.” Later, when I asked him to elaborate on this, he added: “My father was the single most important person in my life. But in some ways, we all live our lives resisting what our parents want us to become.”

In early 1985 Ted Jr. was 23 and living in Somerville, Mass., outside Boston. Tip O’Neill, the district’s longtime representative, had announced he would retire at the end of his term. This seemed an obvious starter gig, but Ted Jr. was not interested. His 34-year-old cousin, Joe — Robert F. Kennedy’s son — ran and won instead. “I never seriously considered that race,” Ted Jr. told me. “My father was strongly considering me.” Ted Sr. commissioned a poll that came back “a slam dunk for Ted,” said Steve McMahon, who was one of the people then running Senator Kennedy’s political operation. Ted Jr.’s decision not to run, McMahon said, “was against the advice and counsel of pretty much everyone around him.” Senator Kennedy was disappointed, Ted Jr. told me. “He couldn’t understand why someone with all the built-in advantages would not take advantage of the opportunity.”

Instead, Ted Jr. enrolled in Yale’s graduate school of forestry. Beyond setting a course away from politics, Ted Jr. told me that he was also trying to escape a one-dimensional identity as an amputee and advocate. “I did not want to be seen as a professional disabled person,” he said.

He gained weight, grew a beard, drank heavily and invited concern that he was priming himself for another, more darkly familiar Kennedy fate. He indulged in what The Boston Globe described as “a playboy-style high life” and “careless social habits.” At about the same time, his cousin, William Kennedy Smith, was charged with rape and faced a subsequent trial that showcased the family’s history of boozy carousing — with the patriarchal senator in a leadership role.

At 29, Ted Jr. enrolled himself in a drug-and-alcohol-treatment program in Hartford. He was always reticent and closed off, he said, which he attributed to being a Kennedy. “It was never very easy for me to express my feelings,” Kennedy told The Globe in 1993, on the eve of his marriage to Kiki. “I think it’s a consequence of growing up in my family and having people prying and feeling like somebody’s always trying to get something from you,” he said. “Then I realized this is no real way to live a life.” His priority, he said, was to start a family and be present as a father. “I realized if I messed that up, it would be the most serious mistake of my life,” he told me. He has not touched alcohol in more than 20 years, he said, because “it just didn’t take much imagination to see the impact that alcohol had on many different people in my family.” Ted’s mother, Joan Kennedy, has also faced many public struggles with alcoholism over the years.

As other Kennedys passed in and out of office (and rehab), the great mentioners and orchestrators consigned Ted Jr. to the terminal-ambivalence compound. His father encouraged him to open a Boston office of Marwood, his consulting firm, to establish more of a presence in Massachusetts, but Ted Jr. resisted.

Then in August 2009, Senator Kennedy died of brain cancer, and Ted Jr. delivered a powerful and much-discussed eulogy. “My name is Ted Kennedy Jr.,” he told the mourners assembled at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston. “Although it hasn’t been easy at times to live with this name, I’ve never been more proud of it than I am today.”

The speech’s emotional climax was a story of his father’s taking him sledding at age 12. He was trying to adapt to his artificial limb, and the hill was slick and hard to climb. He kept slipping and started to cry. “And he lifted me up in his strong, gentle arms and said something I will never forget,” Ted Jr. said. “He said: ‘I know you can do it. There is nothing that you can’t do. We’re going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.’ ” The eulogy drew a standing ovation and, almost immediately, renewed talk of Ted Jr.’s political future. “A lot of people were asking, ‘Where have you been?’ ” Ted told me.

Over lunch at the University Club in Washington, I asked Ted Jr. if he had spoken to anyone in the Obama administration about a job. “I can’t talk about that,” he said, wincing a little. Then he laughed.

“Have you talked to the president?” I asked.

“I can’t talk about that,” he repeated. His face turned red, which I found refreshing, given how comfortable most politicians are with stonewalling.

Ted Jr. then turned to Keil. “I need to think of a way to respond to this question that is respectful,” he said.

“No, you just did respond,” I interrupted. “It’s O.K.”

“But I don’t want the quote to be ‘I can’t talk about it.’ ” He was slightly plaintive at this point.

“But that’s what you said,” I noted.

Kennedy laughed again. Later, when I returned from the men’s room, he said he regretted that he didn’t answer that question differently. He wished he could change the quote. To what? “What I should have said,” he told me, “was ‘I would be honored to serve.’ ”

Obama’s re-election created a few possibilities for Ted Jr. There were potential jobs in the administration or seats in Congress being vacated by members who would become cabinet officials. The most titillating prospect involved Kerry’s seat. “I haven’t thought seriously about that possibility,” he said. Except he and Keil and Binswanger met on Nov. 13 to discuss the matter at a tavern in Georgetown, then held subsequent sessions with McMahon and Patrick and Kiki. Team Ted told him that changing his official residence from Connecticut to Hyannis Port would be no problem. They all said he could win, and the time was now.

“Political consultants want everyone to run for office,” Ted Jr. said. A former Connecticut senator, Christopher Dodd, a close friend of the family, seconded that notion, saying, “They’re either telling you, ‘You can never win, and you need me,’ or ‘You can’t lose, and you need me.’ ” Dodd cautioned Kennedy against the Massachusetts race. If Kennedy lost, Dodd told me, it could preclude future runs in Connecticut. “It could look like he’s on a shopping spree.”

Once again, to the disappointment of others, Ted Jr. decided not to run. Ted Kennedy Jr. running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 2013 was “as close to a slam dunk as you’re going to get in politics,” McMahon told me. I wasn’t buying this. When I mentioned to Ted Jr. that he would have faced charges of carpetbagging if he ran for Kerry’s seat, he took issue. “Yes, I’ve lived in Connecticut for 25 years,” he said. “But the idea of calling a Kennedy a carpetbagger in Massachusetts is like. . . .” He did not finish the thought.

There were other issues at play, too, among them Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow. Strains between Vicki and her late husband’s sons were no secret. According to a Boston Globe article last July, Ted Jr. and Patrick Kennedy were convinced that their stepmother was mismanaging their father’s legacy, in particular the construction in Boston of the $71 million Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Vicki Kennedy declined to comment for The Globe article (as well as for this one), and when I raised the subject of her with Ted Jr., he looked as if he would rather be cleaning an oven. “I never spoke to her about it,” he said of his decision not to run in Massachusetts. On the subject of Vicki generally, he said in a separate e-mail: “Vicki was a great source of love and support for my father, and she is working hard to ensure that my father’s memory and legacy are properly honored.”

Another argument against the “slam dunk” theory: while Ted Jr. was likable and had a good story to tell, he did not strike me as a candidate who would be ready from Day 1, given the scrutiny he would endure. He could be stumbling and tentative. My mind jumped to Caroline Kennedy and her ill-fated effort to take over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in New York. Other than Ted Sr., no member of the Kennedy family has been on the ballot for statewide office in Massachusetts since John F. Kennedy in 1958. Kennedys are always mentioned as potential 800-pound gorillas in statewide campaigns, but none ever jump. It’s safer that way, not to risk being the one who loses and messes up the mystique of invincibility, such as it is.

“The Kennedy mystique is more of a hologram at this point,” said Jon Keller, a longtime political analyst in Massachusetts. “You can see it sometimes, but it’s not really there in any meaningful way.”

Ted Jr. told me that turning away from the Massachusetts option allowed him to “mentally cross a bridge.” “I think for me to go into politics with the name Ted Kennedy Jr. was going to be difficult enough,” he said. To do it in the state his father represented for nearly 47 years would possibly be too much.

In our last discussion, I asked Ted Jr. if he had ever been in therapy. “I think it’s very healthy,” he said, and then he added an endearing nonanswer that I took to be a yes: “I’ve done a lot of thinking, O.K.?”

It was early March, and we were on the phone. He seemed more animated and relaxed than when we last met. “I’ve had a lot to think about in my life,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot.” No doubt it all had to be a handful. From what I could tell, he had managed it admirably, raised a nice family, avoided scandal and embarrassment and seemed genuinely committed now to “making a contribution.”

I had been pressing Ted on his timing, trying to get an answer to whether this “coming out” was part of some grand plan. He said he had a “general plan, and I kind of stuck to it.” I relayed to him something Steve McMahon told me earlier — that he, McMahon, found it poignant that Ted never responded to his father’s wish that he run for office when he was still alive. “But now that Senator Kennedy’s gone,” McMahon said, “it’s almost like Ted’s responding to his father’s call from above.”

I asked Ted if he agreed with this, the overly poetic construction aside. He did, he said, and took it further. “All children want to please their parents,” Ted said. “I know it would have pleased my father for me to have had political success when he was still alive. But I think in many ways, now that he is no longer alive, that’s really freed me up.”

That, as much as anything, would seem like the foundational story.

Mark Leibovich is the magazine’s chief national correspondent. His book, “This Town,” about contemporary Washington, will be published this summer.

Editor: Joel Lovell

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