If Congress passes President Obama’s trillion-dollar overhaul of the nation’s health-care industry, political entrepreneurs are sure to seek a cut of the enormous prize, and few have positioned themselves more skillfully than Ted Kennedy, Jr. “For years, Kennedy, Jr. has been boldly exploiting both his name and his intimate relationship with the most influential member of the U.S. Senate when it comes to health care and organized labor: his father, Senator Ted Kennedy,” Dick Morris and Eileen McGann write in their new book, Catastrophe. “And his father has been all too willing to help out in making the family connection into a lucrative business for his son.” Over the course of this decade, medical giants with business interests before the senator have showered money upon his son’s lobbying businesses: Bristol-Myers Squibb has paid $380,000; the Advanced Medical Technology Association, $220,000; Ascension Health, $280,000. Ask not what you can do for your name; ask what your name can do for you.
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Back when Edward Moore Kennedy—Ted, Sr., that is—first ran in 1962 for the Senate seat that his brother John had vacated to become president two years earlier, he faced a Democratic primary challenge from Edward McCormack. “If his name [were] Edward Moore,” McCormack famously said in a debate with Kennedy, “with his qualifications—with your qualifications, Teddy—if it was Edward Moore, your candidacy would be a joke.” McCormack, himself the nephew of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, juxtaposed his many accomplishments—first in his class at Boston University Law, president of Boston’s city council, Massachusetts attorney general—with his opponent’s single qualification: “brother of the president.” Liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr agreed with the sentiment, dubbing Ted’s bid for office “an affront to political decency.” What 30-year-old not named Kennedy, and known primarily for womanizing, reckless driving, and getting kicked out of Harvard for cheating, could have won a Senate seat without ever having held a regular paying job save a two-year stint in the army? But it was the era of Camelot, and as one Bay State politico put it, “Running against a Kennedy is almost like running against the Church.”
So powerful was the Kennedy name in postwar Massachusetts that a South Boston High School dropout fortuitously named John Francis Kennedy, unrelated to the clan, traded in a job at a Gillette stockroom for three terms as state treasurer. Nepotism made Robert F. Kennedy—a lawyer who had never tried a case before a judge—attorney general of the United States. The Kennedy brand inspired Massachusetts voters to reelect Ted Kennedy seven times after he drunkenly got into the car crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne 40 summers ago at Chappaquiddick. A district in Rhode Island continues to send Patrick Kennedy to Congress, despite his bipolar mental illness, candid 2003 boast that he’d never worked a day in his life, and rehab stints for OxyContin, alcohol, and cocaine abuse.
“I spent a lot of money for that Senate seat,” patriarch Joe Kennedy said prior to Ted’s initial run. “It belongs in the family.” Now, as Ted fights brain cancer, reports have his wife, Vicki, and nephew Joe angling for the job. Will the Kennedys need to hold an internecine primary to keep the seat—held by a Kennedy for 55 of the last 57 years—in the family? Such a display would be a symbolic reversal of the kind of political shenanigans that the Kennedys once unleashed upon opponents. When Jack Kennedy first ran for Congress in 1946, for instance, the family recruited an unknown Joseph Russo to put his name on the ballot and siphon votes from Kennedy rival Joseph Russo. The skullduggery helped Jack win a commanding plurality in the ten-person primary.
So Jack Kennedy knew the power of a name. Lately, though, the magic name’s power seems to be fading. Earlier this year, New Yorkers revolted at the spectacle of Caroline Kennedy—an occasional voter with Valley Girl syntax, a vague resumé, and a famous father—claiming a Senate seat as her birthright. A new generation of voters hasn’t lived through the family’s numerous traumas and feels no emotional connection to them. Ethnic politics proves less of a draw for increasingly deracinated Irishmen, and the onetime association of the Kennedys with the Catholic Church now seems almost too unbelievable to entertain. Most damaging, the glamorous veneer of Camelot class has yielded to the tabloid reality. After Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving killed a woman, Joe Kennedy II’s reckless driving crippled a girl, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s heroin bust, David Kennedy’s overdose, William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial, and Michael Kennedy’s bedding of an underage babysitter, the brand name doesn’t have the power it once did.
But it still works for Ted Kennedy, Jr., who has pocketed millions from his famous name. Politics remains the family business.