Peter S. Canellos

Compound fracture

Feuds expose Kennedy clan for what it is: A typical family

(Daniel Zalkus for The Boston Globe)
By Peter S. Canellos
July 21, 2011

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COMPARED TO most political dynasties, who share only a last name and fundraising list, the Kennedys were an instantly recognizable brand, easily defined by both admirers and detractors. They fought for the underdog, be it immigrants or gays or Soviet refuseniks. They didn’t worry about ballooning the federal government. Outside the political arena, they made groundbreaking efforts to ease the lives of those with mental retardation and mental illness. But their own lives were sometimes shaped by irresponsible behavior.

Compared to, say, the Rockefellers and Roosevelts, who supplied candidates to both parties, or even the Bushes, whose political values changed significantly from father to son, the Kennedys were a seamless imprint. Their successes reinforced the power of the family name; the goodwill generated by Eunice Shriver through the Special Olympics spread to her kids and nieces and nephews. Their scandals, including William Kennedy Smith’s acquittal on rape charges, reinforced doubts about other relatives.

The sharing of credit and blame was unfair, but it served the larger purpose of making the Kennedys a fully functioning political corporation. For five decades, they advanced liberal causes, highlighted the work of an impressive (and academically lauded) coterie of advisers, and, chiefly through the offices of Senator Edward Kennedy, lavished attention on Massachusetts.

But now the corporation is faltering, largely because this most unusual family is finally behaving like a typical family - that is, with each relative looking out for himself, or his immediate relatives, rather than the entire family image.

When Joseph Kennedy II, the former congressman who might have assumed the leadership role vacated by his late Uncle Ted, spoke of his anger at the Kennedy Library’s failure to sufficiently honor his dad, the late Senator Robert Kennedy, he was behaving like most sons would - but his breach of family faith was shocking for a Kennedy.

The tension stems from the effort to create the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, next door to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Two buildings for three brothers is a tough equation. Nonetheless, Ted, who started hastening the plans for his institute while he was ill, probably believed that his efforts to promote family unity through camping trips, history tours, and Hyannis Port cookouts would hold the clan together after his death.

It seems he was wrong. In both the special election to finish Ted’s Senate term and the upcoming election for a full-term replacement, the family had a chance to field a candidate who could draw on both voters’ attachment to Ted and their self-interest in maintaining the Kennedy franchise as generator of largesse for Massachusetts.

But what followed looked like a series of dropped passes in touch football. Kennedy supporters looked first to Joe, who took a while to make up his mind, and then to Ted’s widow Vicki, who backed out, and finally to Ted Jr., who was already ruled out because he didn’t have enough time to shore up his ties to Massachusetts.

Now, Robert’s widow Ethel and her children are withholding his papers from the Kennedy Library, and objecting to Ted’s intention to transfer his parents’ Hyannis Port home to his institute. Both disputes put at least some of Robert and Ethel’s brood at odds with Caroline Kennedy, who holds the greatest sway at her father’s presidential library; Vicki, who is dedicated to her late husband’s wishes; and Ted’s three kids from his first marriage.

None of this should be surprising to anyone with a large family. But the Kennedys, in responding to the normal pressures of dividing up an estate, are undermining the source of their strength. Joe’s ability to provide heating oil to the poor - to cite just one of the family’s good causes - depends on his ability to gain access to foreign leaders and oil barons; without the Kennedys as a powerful, unified force capable of producing national leaders, those contacts will dry up.

And many in Massachusetts will say “So what?’’ Some are tired of the Kennedys, as evidenced by the people’s-seat backlash in last year’s election. But Massachusetts is losing a lot. Under Ted’s leadership, the National Institutes of Health doubled its budget in the ’90s, creating tens of thousands of high-paying jobs in Boston and Cambridge. This year, the NIH budget was cut by 1 percent, sending shock waves down Longwood Avenue.

Another Kennedy wouldn’t have wielded all of Ted’s clout in the Senate, but if he or she had stepped in to keep Ted’s impressive policy engine fueled up, the outcome might have been different.

As it is, the Kennedys are being exposed as something other than inheritors of great tradition. They’ll be viewed more as the people they are - some talented, some hapless, some in between. Some will be happy to be free of their special destiny; others will work harder to reclaim it. And that’s as it should be.

Peter S. Canellos is editorial page editor of The Globe.