With era ending, Patrick Kennedy embraces new opportunities

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Representative Patrick Kennedy stepped carefully around a clutter of half-packed cardboard boxes, overstuffed luggage, and several open bags of potato chips at his Capitol Hill apartment. It seemed more like a scene of a college student heading home than the end of a 64-year political legacy.

But Kennedy’s upcoming retirement will break a bond between the nation’s capital and Camelot. When the new House is seated in January, it will mark the first time since 1947 — the year a 29-year-old John F. Kennedy was sworn in as a Massachusetts congressman — that no member of the Kennedy family will be serving in the House, Senate, or White House.

The House is scheduled to end its session today, but late bills may delay the wrapup. Patrick Kennedy, 43, an eight-term Democrat from Rhode Island and the son of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, is bracing for entry into a world he has never known, away from the public spotlight.

“I feel liberated to try to live a life as foreign to me as anything — a life outside of politics,’’ Kennedy said in an interview. “I’m actually for the first time in my life venturing out on my own. This is unfamiliar territory.’’

In retirement, Kennedy will write a memoir on his struggles with mental health and addiction, and he will leverage his famous name and vast contacts to enhance the cause of brain research, which he calls the “new frontier’’ of American scientific study.

Not long ago, Kennedy had seemed on his way to a lengthy political career, but the congressman was deeply affected by his father’s death in 2009. The loss played a role in jolting him into thinking about pursuing a private life outside the bubble of Washington politics. He will remain a Rhode Islander and is renovating his house in Portsmouth.

Some of Kennedy’s earliest memories are of politics, helping in his father’s Senate campaigns. He’s too young to recall his murdered uncles: President Kennedy died before Patrick was born; Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot when Patrick was 11 months old. But Patrick is a lifelong student of American history and his family’s place in it.

He has spent his career in an ongoing and often difficult struggle to carve for himself a place in that legacy.

“Patrick has always had the feeling that he had to do something to earn the right to have the name,’’ said author Laurence Leamer, who has written extensively about the family.

Though as a young man Patrick lacked Ted Kennedy’s speechmaking skills and personal gravitas, he followed his father into the family business, winning election to the Rhode Island General Assembly as a 21-year-old Providence College student in 1988. One of Patrick’s favorite jokes, often recycled in his speeches, is of campaigning among gray-haired voters of the Camelot era, who grew up with images of JFK and his dashing brothers.

“You’d think being a Kennedy is to your advantage,’’ said Patrick, with a grin. “But there I was, not talking like they did. I don’t look like they did. I’m not as articulate as they were. Come on!’’

What he did have, however, was the name, the gold standard in liberal politics, which resonated in a state that leans Democratic. And after three terms in the Rhode Island State House, Kennedy won an open congressional seat that had been in Republican hands, defying a nationwide Republican wave in 1994. The seat stayed in Democratic hands in last month’s election when Providence’s mayor, David Cicilline, won the race to replace Kennedy.

Early in his congressional career, Kennedy acknowledged receiving treatment for mental illness, which he later identified as bipolar disorder. His time in Congress was peppered with public embarrassments, such as a 2006 late-night crash in which the congressman drove his car into a security barrier near the Capitol.

After the crash, Kennedy checked into rehab at the Mayo Clinic for an addiction to prescription drugs. The crash provided fodder for late night comics and would have ended the career of many politicians. In Kennedy’s case, the incident enhanced his standing as an advocate for mental health and addiction issues.

“It’s so paradoxical,’’ said Kennedy, recalling the publicity over his crash. “I thought I was at the lowest point of my life. Instead, I was just getting onto the on-ramp. . . . I wound up embracing what I was most ashamed of.’’

After the crash, he spoke openly about his struggles with addiction and alcoholism, which he said connected with voters who had witnessed similar problems in their own families. He was reelected two years ago with 69 percent of the vote, and he made mental health and addiction issues the cause of his congressional service.

Had he decided to run again this year, Kennedy might have faced his toughest race since he first won the seat. A WPRI-TV poll released in February said nearly one-third of his district intended to vote against him, and nearly another third was open to considering another candidate. He announced shortly afterward that he would not run for reelection this year, but he said he had already decided not to run before the poll was released.

Kennedy hasn’t left the political stage quietly, or without controversy. Ater he withdrew his name as a candidate, he delivered a widely-publicized tirade on the House floor, lashing out at what he called the “despicable’’ failure by the press to adequately cover the war in Afghanistan.

The tirade stemmed in part from his anger about lack of attention to brain injuries suffered by veterans. Kennedy was a key player in the 2008 passage of mental health parity legislation, which required most insurers to cover illnesses of the brain like any other physical ailment.

“Patrick Kennedy has meant everything to the mental health community,’’ said William Emmet, former director of the nonprofit Campaign for Mental Health Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group.

As a private citizen, Kennedy said, he will work to erase stigma associated with mental disease and addiction, what he calls a “civil rights cause of the 21st century.’’

“I had thought for years, ‘How can I follow JFK and Bobby and Ted? They did everything; they conquered the world.’ ’’ said Kennedy. “I have an opportunity to play a part in this legacy by ending the marginalization of people in our country who have neurological disorders. Even though I’m leaving public office, I still have this amazing name that gives me a platform.’’

Kennedy’s short-term plans include writing a book about stigma, based on his own experience. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said it is due out next fall.

But what Kennedy really wants to talk about — and it’s hard to stop him when he’s excited about a subject — is an initiative he’s organizing on brain research. It will begin in May with a conference of scientists, academics, philanthropists, and others in Boston on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s 1961 moon shot speech before Congress, in which he set a goal of landing an American on the moon by the end of the decade.

Investments in brain research have the potential to cure a host of neurological diseases, including posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, common among US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Patrick Kennedy said. “I want to put together something like the American Cancer Society for brain research.’’

Former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, one of Kennedy’s political mentors, said Kennedy seems at peace as he leaves politics for the unfamiliar life as a private advocate for mental health.

“This project is his passion,’’ said Gephardt, in an interview at a recent reception for Kennedy in Washington hosted by mental health organizations. “He has suffered through these sorts of maladies; he understands the disease.’’

The last Kennedy exits Congress just as a resurgent Republican Party reclaims the majority in the House of Representatives. “Gradually the Kennedys have faded away and did so in an era in which American politics moved to the right,’’ said historian Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor who studies Congress.

Yet the Kennedy family, and its legacy, will always remain a part of Washington. JFK and his brothers Robert and Edward are buried in nearby Arlington National Cemetery, and the family’s influence on American politics will long be debated.

And though no members of the Kennedy family are publicly ramping up for a political campaign, several members are well-positioned to run for office, including Senator Kennedy’s widow, Vicki Kennedy; Patrick’s brother, Edward Jr., a Connecticut lawyer; Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer and author; and Joseph Kennedy III, a Cape Cod prosecutor who this year passed on a run for the open seat in the Massachusetts 10th Congressional District.

For Patrick Kennedy, giving up his cluttered Washington apartment was easy — incoming Representative Cicilline is taking it over, he said. Letting go of his seat in Congress is much harder, and it comes with a huge sense of loss that he recognizes as a potential threat to his sobriety.

“It’s going to compound every feeling of loss I already have with my dad missing in my life,’’ he said. “Everything that’s familiar to me will be missing. It will be stressful and for my own well-being, emotionally and spiritually, I’ve got to be doubling down on the support systems I have in place to make sure I make it through this stressful time and on to a new life.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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