Today’s New York Times has an elegiac piece on the last days of Patrick J. Kennedy in Congress. It is a remarkable fact that when the new Congress convenes in January, it will be the first time since 1947 that a member of that family will not hold a federal office. The Times quotes the Brookings Institution’s Darrell M. West, who sees this moment as “a pretty dramatic fall and it’s a symbol of the decline of liberalism.” But that, I think, puts a little too much weight on the meaning of this clan’s long struggle to first acquire and then to retain political power.
The fate of liberalism has little to do with the Kennedys. After all, they pushed their way onto the public square not as liberals but as stridently anti-Communist Democrats. Although in the aftermath of President John Kennedy’s assassination, first Robert and then Ted Kennedy became standard bearers for the liberal myth of Camelot, the idea that this family’s political fortunes are somehow the cause of a political movement’s rise and fall is utterly fallacious.
While America has had other dominant political dynasties (the Adamses, the Roosevelts, and the Bushes being the most important), the Kennedys represented a new twist on the theme. They may have touted themselves as merely following a legacy of public service into politics, but their enduring popularity was more the result of modern celebrity culture and media infatuation than anything else. How else can we explain the way they seemed to rise above scandals involving vehicular homicide, rape, and addiction that would have sunk the fortunes of others who thought to keep their hold on the reins of power?
Even as he leaves Congress for good, Patrick Kennedy is still attempting to burnish the fairy tale that the Kennedys stood for more than just a lust for power. Yet his undistinguished career is a rebuke to the idea that they were about “giving back” to their country. Indeed, from the first moment that his paternal grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, stepped onto the public stage in the 1930s as the chairman of the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission and then ambassador to Britain until his own ignominious career in Congress, Patrick Kennedy’s family has been an exemplar of entitlement and living above and beyond the rules that apply to lesser mortals.
This last Kennedy must also be seen as the poster child for famous scions who have no business in politics. Patrick Kennedy, who entered the Rhode Island legislature at 21 (after being treated for cocaine addiction in his teens) and has been in Congress for 16 years, won and retained office solely on the basis of his famous name. As the Times reports, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder soon after arriving in Congress and behaved accordingly for much of his time there. He will be best remembered for crashing his car into a Capitol barricade in the middle of the night while under the influence, as well as for a bizarre rant during a congressional session during which he berated the press for not covering his speech.
As for liberalism, it will survive, for good or for ill, without the likes of Patrick Kennedy or any of the other equally unfortunate members of his generation that bear the same name. And for all the funereal-like prose of the Times piece, this probably won’t be the last Kennedy in office. There are a great many other members of the family still armed with what’s left of the first Joe Kennedy’s ill-gotten loot and the allure and the insatiable ambition that seems to come with the Kennedy moniker. But, if anything, Patrick Kennedy’s embarrassing and largely pointless public career should stand as a warning to other Kennedys, as well as the descendants of any other famous politician, that there is more to public life than the shallow celebrity that propelled this young man into a position of responsibility he never deserved.