Patrick Kennedy, son of Sen. Ted Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, remembers being a young state legislator in Rhode Island some 30 years ago and hearing encouraging words from the opposition leader at the time.
“I just want you to know that no matter what you do, nothing’s going to take away from everyone’s memory and appreciation of what your family has done for this country,” Republican David Dumas told him.
“He meant that ‘Don’t preoccupy yourself with worrying about whether you’re a good representative of your family or not,’” Patrick Kennedy, now a former congressman, said in a recent Zoom interview.
Kennedy spoke shortly before the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, a seismic national event that predates most American lives but remains an inflection point in the country’s history — as a wellspring of modern conspiracy theories, as a debate over what JFK might have achieved, as an emotional cornerstone of the Kennedy story.
The anniversary arrives at an unusual moment for the Kennedys. It is a moment when the family’s mission to uphold a legacy of public service and high ideals competes for attention with the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose anti-vaccine advocacy and inflammatory comments about everything from the Holocaust to the pandemic have led to a rare public family breach.
Robert’s sister, Kerry Kennedy, has cited her differences with him “on many issues,” while Jack Schlossberg, grandson of President Kennedy, has called Robert’s candidacy “an embarrassment.”
“We haven’t seen this happening before in the Kennedy family,” says historian Thurston Clarke, author of books on President Kennedy and his brother Robert. “In the past,” Clarke says, “they were very reluctant to attack each other.”
A long tradition in the public eye
The current prominence of Robert Kennedy Jr. — what Patrick expects will be a footnote to a larger narrative — doesn’t stand out merely because of what he says and how it departs from family history. It stands out because he is the rare Kennedy these days engaged in national electoral politics.
For generations, the Kennedy dynasty ranked with the Adamses, the Roosevelts and the Bushes. Their time in public office dates to the 1890s, to Rep. (and future Boston Mayor) John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, JFK’s grandfather, and grew throughout the first half of the 20th century.
During JFK’s 1960-63 presidency, governing was decidedly a family affair. Robert Kennedy was attorney general and the president’s closest adviser, brother-in-law Sargent Shriver was heading the newly formed Peace Corps and brother-in-law Stephen Smith was White House chief of staff. Youngest brother Ted Kennedy was elected to John F. Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts.
The death of President Kennedy, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s remembrance of his administration as a lost golden age, “Camelot,” intensified feelings about the family and longings for their presence. Ted Kennedy became a revered liberal voice and legislator, while Shriver was chosen as George McGovern’s running mate in their unsuccessful 1972 presidential campaign.
Patrick Kennedy was an eight-term congressman from Rhode Island; Joseph Kennedy II, Robert’s son, served 6-terms as a congressman from Massachusetts; and Joseph’s sibling Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a two-term Maryland lieutenant governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger, married at the time to JFK’s niece Maria Shriver, was California’s governor for two terms.
But the Kennedys have mostly withdrawn from electoral politics in the 21st century; no Kennedy or Kennedy in-law currently serves in Congress or as a governor. Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter and only surviving child, had been open in 2009 to replacing Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate after Clinton was appointed secretary of state by President Barack Obama. She soon stepped back amid signs New York Gov. David Paterson would not select her. He didn’t.
“Given what happened to their father and uncle, and given the tough road Ted Kennedy had to travel, who can blame them for finding another road?” " says historian Sean Wilentz. He says the assassinations of JFK and Robert Kennedy may have led to there being “too much of a burden on the next generation to carry on and complete what was left unfinished.”
Patrick Kennedy, who left Congress in 2011 amid struggles with substance abuse and bipolar disorder, agrees the current political atmosphere is far removed from the 1960s, when leaders such as JFK had a sense of “common purpose.” But he still believes public office worth pursuing and notes that his wife Amy ran for Congress in 2020 — unsuccessfully.
“When we got out there and campaigned, it was very inspiring,” Patrick Kennedy says. “There were tons of people in the grass roots who were so inspiring — to see how they were so passionate about changing the world.”
An administration remembered in spirit
The Kennedy administration now lives on in more in spirit than in firsthand memory. One of the last prominent White House aides, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, died in 2018. The last of President Kennedy’s surviving siblings, former U.S. ambassador to Ireland Jean Smith, died in 2020. Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, is in her 90s and rarely comments publicly.
Starting in 1968, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Ted Kennedy was the family’s standard bearer and chosen orator. But no one has succeeded him since his death in 2009. The death of Caroline’s brother John F. Kennedy Jr. in a 1999 plane crash ended the life of his generation’s most prominent family member, the one most discussed as a possible presidential candidate. Caroline Kennedy has maintained a low profile as ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration and ambassador to Australia in the Biden administration.
“That’s an awesome responsibility and a huge yoke around your neck to try and have to carry that,” Patrick Kennedy says of his father’s stature. “And Dad really did it — he really kept it together. But it was an incredible personal toll it took on him.”
Asked if he would have liked to take on his father’s role, Kennedy says no: “That chapter is closed.”
In the absence of any old-style family elder, the Kennedy most talked about is RFK Jr., who has attracted a larger following than most independent candidates. Historian Julian E. Zelizer, author of numerous works on contemporary politics, sees JFK and his brother Robert as “unifying figures” while finding Robert Jr. a symbol of “division, distrust, and a kind of skepticism about the public culture.”
Patrick Kennedy, who otherwise declined to discuss his cousin at length, called Zelizer’s comments “a pretty fair statement.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did not immediately respond to requests for comment but issued a statement on the anniversary and on his uncle’s legacy.
“During his term in office, he upheld a vision of America as a nation of peace, a vision that was abandoned after his death,” said Kennedy, who promised to “put us back on the road to peace.”
Other family members remain active in various causes, though in a less publicized way than in JFK’s time. Besides Caroline, several Kennedys hold positions in the Biden administration, including Joseph Kennedy III, grandson of Robert Kennedy, who is special envoy to Northern Ireland; and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow and now ambassador to Austria.
Patrick Kennedy is founder of the mental health advocacy group Alignment for Progress and notes that the last bill signed into law by JFK, the Community Mental Health Act, is “the foundation of a modern day movement to restore a community based approach to our mental health and addiction crisis.”
Timothy Shriver chairs the board of the Special Olympics, which his mother (and President Kennedy’s sister) Eunice Shriver helped establish in the 1960s. Kerry Kennedy, Robert’s daughter, is a human rights lawyer who heads the non-profit RFK Human Rights. Kerry’s sister Rory Kennedy is a prize-winning documentary maker whose subjects have ranged from rural Mississippi and the Iraq War to a film about her mother, Ethel.
“There are many other ways to serve the public than running for elective office,” says political analyst Larry Sabato. “No one could say the Kennedy family hasn’t made many contributions to public life — and sacrifices, too.”
“I can literally go through all of my family and there isn’t one who’s not out there doing something,” says Patrick Kennedy, who finds his name still holds great influence in his current work. “I’ve been out of office since 2011, and I can get anyone to return my call.”
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