Andrew Cohen is a columnist, professor at Carleton University, and The Globe and Mail’s former Washington correspondent. He is author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
It did not take long. Three hours after the polls closed in Massachusetts on Sept. 1, the Associated Press declared that Representative Joseph Kennedy III had lost his bid to enter the United States Senate.
It was the first defeat for a Kennedy – in the Democratic primary, no less – seeking elective office in the state, the cradle of the Kennedys. The first defeat in five generations. And that was enough for the chattering class to immediately write – in delight, denial or disbelief – the obituary of the country’s most celebrated political dynasty.
The headlines heralded the new narrative: A Dynasty Falls; The Unlikely Kennedy Who Ended the Kennedy Dynasty; Dethroning the Kennedys; A Storied Dynasty Fades.
In confidently eulogizing the House of Kennedy, commentators found reasons for the end of its reign, and that of other families, too, in the shifting, roiled landscape of President Donald Trump’s America.
The argument is that things have changed since former senator Edward Kennedy died in 2009. Although he held his seat for nearly 47 years, the family has lost its magic in the Bay State. Now the Kennedys are no longer royalty. Few remember them, and for those who do, their appeal is muted. As Peter Canellos of Politico put it: “Much of what remains in photos and video clips of the once-famous Kennedy style is obnoxious to the public mood: Sleekly dressed men with sometimes leering eyes, captive spouses, cocktails and cigarettes.”
But look beyond the contemporary cant and Joe Kennedy’s defeat in the Democratic primary looks less epochal than personal. This is not the first time a Kennedy, and his family, have been written off. The reports of the dynasty’s death are premature.
Mr. Kennedy was misguided, misadvised or both. It wasn’t inconceivable in the summer of 2019 to think that he could unseat Ed Markey, a sitting Senator of his own party with whom he had no philosophical differences. He was in his thirties, Mr. Markey was in his seventies, and other upstarts, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had upset veteran Democrats in party primaries.
Why not Mr. Kennedy? He was handsome, a lawyer educated at Stanford and Harvard, an assistant district attorney on Cape Cod. He was a father of two with a good marriage, a straight arrow with flaming red hair. And, of course, he was a Kennedy, which surely helped him emerge from a crowded field to win the Fourth Congressional District in 2012.
In 2018, Democrats asked this rising star to give their formal response to Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address. Immediately there was talk of him in 2020. It was too early for the presidency, but not the Senate.
Unfortunately for Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Markey did not retire as some Democrats expected, graciously yielding to a challenger 35 years his junior. Mr. Markey fought back, falling back on his progressive credentials in a progressive state.
Tellingly, he ran against the Kennedy name. Oh, how it must have stung to hear him say: “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” Audaciously, he had turned the imperishable appeal of John F. Kennedy, Joe’s great uncle, on its head.
Young Joe’s campaign to be his party’s nominee in the election in November – which the Democrats are certain to win – looked vain and pointless. Why was he running now? Why not stay in Congress and wait his turn?
He had no credible reply. That killed his chances, as it killed Uncle Ted’s when he challenged president Jimmy Carter in 1980. In an infamous interview with Roger Mudd of CBS, when asked why he was running for president, Ted paused, mumbled and stumbled. He didn’t know. His candidacy never recovered.
But here’s the point: Ted didn’t win his party’s nomination then, and the media concluded that he, and the dynasty, were over. They had said similar things in 1969, after Ted’s car careered off the bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard, killing a young woman and raising grave doubts about his legal responsibility and his personal judgment.
Mr. Carter blamed Ted for his loss to Ronald Reagan, but the voters of Massachusetts didn’t. They kept re-electing Mr. Kennedy. No, he was never president. But he was among the longest-serving, most effective legislators in the history of the Senate.
Dynasty done? Both Ted’s sons entered politics: Patrick Kennedy was in Congress for eight terms and Edward Kennedy, Jr., was in the Senate of Connecticut for two terms. They followed Joseph Kennedy II, Bobby’s eldest son, who served in Congress for six terms, and Bobby’s eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland.
As for John F. Kennedy’s children, Caroline Kennedy served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Japan. She declined to run for the Senate, an office more suited to her brother, John Kennedy, Jr., who was killed in an airplane crash in 1999. (Interestingly, Caroline’s son, Jack Schlossberg, spoke at the Democratic National Convention last month, stirring speculation.)
None of the children of John, Bobby or Ted made it to the U.S. Senate, let alone the presidency. But their legacy of public service, spirited leadership and muscular liberalism endures in other ways, in lesser offices. In the age of Trump, John fosters a new nostalgia, and elevated stature, captured in the new acclaimed biography by historian Fredrik Logevall.
This is the reason the Kennedys remain the country’s most enduring dynasty, which began in Boston in the 19th century with Patrick Kennedy, a state legislator and ward-heeler. His son, Joseph P. Kennedy, was U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. He hoped to run for president in 1940 before he made disastrous remarks to journalists predicting Britain’s defeat in the Second World War. His political career was stillborn, but it launched his three sons in politics.
If some see the end of the Kennedys in Joe Kennedy’s defeat, is this it for all dynastic politics? Unlikely.
The Bushes, with two presidents in two generations, failed to produce a third in 2016, when Jeb Bush’s campaign faltered. That dynasty began with George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush. Jeb’s son, George P. Bush, holds public office in Texas, and may have greater ambitions.
Mitt Romney didn’t make it to the White House. Nor did his father, George Romney, the lantern-jawed governor of Michigan in the 1960s. Now Mitt is in the Senate, where he was the sole Republican to vote to remove the impeached Mr. Trump from office. His courage and independence have made him more relevant than ever.
Because Hillary Clinton failed to follow her husband, Bill Clinton, to the presidency doesn’t mean that Chelsea, an author and advocate who made 200 appearances on behalf of her mother’s campaign, won’t enter the family business.
And the Trumps? It’s a reflection of the descent of politics that the President, who had never held a public office before this one, sees his children as his successors. Then again, for King Donald, conjuring political heirs is a monarch’s obligation.
If we think that Mr. Kennedy presents a “garish, undisguised display of political entitlement,” as columnist Matt Bai sniffs, consider the swaggering Trumps who have never run for anything. Yet there were the seven of them, children and spouses, speaking to the Republican National Convention. It was a family portrait of presumption.
If you believe that Mr. Kennedy was undone by his pedigree, he is a cautionary tale for the Trumps. Name may not be enough for them, even in today’s vulgar celebrity culture.
In Canada, we are unfazed by dynastic politics. Justin Trudeau is more like his mother than his father, Pierre, but his ascent from third party to power in one election is unprecedented. Peter MacKay followed his father, Elmer, into cabinet but, alas, neither made it to 24 Sussex Dr. Caroline Mulroney wants to be premier of Ontario, and she may get there with the help of her father, Brian Mulroney. Erin O’Toole, the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, followed his father, John O’Toole, into Parliament.
Dynasties, we might say, are flourishing in Canada. It gives modern meaning to the 19th century “family compact.”
In the United States, though, it is risky to predict their demise. Whatever the Cassandras say today, the Kennedys still fascinate. In popular culture, their style, glamour, language, courage, romance and idealism resound. If Joe Biden is elected with a Democratic Congress, the U.S. will enter a new liberal hour. Its focus will be racial reconciliation, evoking Bobby Kennedy, who made social justice of the underclass the mantra of his presidential campaign.
Joe Kennedy is too young and idealistic to remain on the margins of an awakening America. As other politicians have returned from the dead – Richard Nixon in 1962, Pierre Trudeau in 1979 – he may do the same.
Mr. Kennedy could run for the Senate again when Elizabeth Warren gives up her seat. Or he could join Mr. Biden’s administration. If so, he’ll be a prospective running mate for Kamala Harris in 2024 or 2028, and there will soon be talk – wait for it – of a restoration.
The House of Kennedy has lasted five generations for a reason. However flawed, its patriarchs and their progeny have found a way to address the zeitgeist, with liberal voices of varying tone, pitch and range, in different stations, in successive generations. They are not done yet.
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